The WTA in Singapore; how women’s tennis measures parity in dollars

Currently being played out in Singapore, the WTA Finals are both the season-ending finale and the forward-driving financial engine of the women's tennis tour. The revamped event accounts for 35 per cent of the WTA's revenues. It is the consistent growth of those revenues, explains WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster, that puts women's tennis and the forefront of the fight for equality in sport.

The WTA in Singapore; how women’s tennis measures parity in dollars

Currently being played out in Singapore, the WTA Finals are both the season-ending finale and the forward-driving financial engine of the women's tennis tour. The revamped event accounts for 35 per cent of the WTA's revenues. It is the consistent growth of those revenues, explains WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster, that puts women's tennis and the forefront of the fight for equality in sport.

Speaking during a few moments’ repose at the Women's Tennis Association’s (WTA) rented house around the corner from the All England Lawn Tennis Club during Wimbledon, Stacey Allaster is clear that her number one priority for the year lies some 6,700 miles east in Singapore. “We’re focused on making them the best finals in our history,” she says. “We’ve created a year-long promotional campaign and we’re really focused on driving US$150 million of media value associated with the finals and economic impact,” says the chief executive and chairman of the WTA.

In tandem with WSG, the WTA has signed up a host of blue-chip sponsors for the duration of the five-year deal. French financial institution BNP Paribas, perhaps the biggest backer of tennis worldwide, will act as the title sponsor of the tournament, a position it has held in previous iterations of the season-ender. Local luxury property developer SC Global Developments has signed a five-year presenting partnership. Singapore-headquartered Chinese finance house OCBC Bank will be the official credit card partner of the tournament for the next five years; likewise Singaporean isotonic drink brand 100Plus will take the official hydration designation under a deal to rename the main walkway surrounding the venue. BMW will also back the event, alongside season-long WTA partners in Usana Health Sciences, Oriflame, SAP and Rolex.

"We're focused on driving US$150 million of media value and economic impact."

The event, Allaster is happy to admit, is the “financial engine” that drives the WTA business, currently accounting for 35 per cent of the organisation’s net operating revenues, as well as the “crown jewel of the organisation that provides the halo for the brand”.
The focus on delivering media value and economic impact is indicative of the way Allaster likes to do business: with the next big deal in mind. “What we’re really thinking about is the next sales cycle,” she says of an event that is still four months away from its inaugural edition. “We’re thinking about 2019 now, on not only how we sustain that product, but how we dramatically increase it.”
Allaster’s excitement at the opportunity the new Singapore event represents is palpable.

The five-year deal represents the longest commitment to a single venue that the WTA has made with its finale since it moved it away from its traditional home at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2000. The event itself has been swelled from, in Allaster’s words, a “six-day tennis tournament to a ten-day sport and entertainment spectacle”. Alongside the showpiece finals, the hosts have committed to staging a number of events such as WTA Future Stars and WTA Legends exhibition matches, a Women in Business Leadership Conference, daily fan festivals, trade symposiums and sponsor-led events.

Canada's Eugenie Bouchard is the most prominent of the WTA's 'Rising Stars'

Betting big on Asia-Pacific

“This is a game-changer opportunity for us,” Allaster continues. “We made a big bet on Asia-Pacific,” she says of a development policy that has focused, since 2008, on seeding and building up tournaments predominantly in China. There are now ten WTA tournaments in China each year, six of them in what Allaster terms a “solid Asian swing post-US Open”.

Making up that swing are tournaments in Hong Kong, South Korea, and two in Japan. “Now the opportunity was Singapore; they provided us with the gateway to south-east Asia,” Allaster adds. “It’s a premium, innovative city: you just have to look at what they’ve done with the Formula One. We established a new vision in 2013 to be the most inspirational and exciting sport entertainment experience on earth. When Singapore came in and bid for the finals they absolutely shared with us an alignment of our vision: the best of the best, packaged up with more content in the entertainment space.”

Allaster acknowledges the role of Chinese superstar Li Na, winner of the 2011 French Open as well as this year’s Australian Open, in the WTA’s strengthening foothold in China, a holy grail market for almost every sports organisation with global pretensions. But the WTA’s success there was not built on the back of the success of Li, who is now retired, but on a set of deliberately laid, solid foundations that stretch back to 2008. The WTA’s growth strategy, Allaster explains, is predicated on identifying markets that have “the greatest propensity for GDP growth”, and putting the tennis business infrastructure in place within those markets “so that when a champion arrives, we are ready and in a position to build her brand and the brand of the WTA.”

The WTA opened an office in China in 2008, upgraded the China Open to a mandatory event in 2009, then watched as the popularity of tennis exploded in China when Li Na won in Paris in 2011. “We were on the ground, we were there, and then when Li Na wins we’ve been able to build the business with a very solid foundation,” Allaster says. “The challenge, of course, is to take a European player and make her engaged and relevant with fans in Asia, or North America, and that’s something we’re constantly working on.”

China is a country that means a lot to Allaster. She cites the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) erstwhile commissioner and international president, David Stern and Heidi Ueberroth, as inspirations precisely because of the pioneering work they put in for their organisation in Asia. “Heidi’s a real trailblazer for women in sports leadership positions,” says Allaster. “She was out in those Asian markets, building it long before we came along… David is such a visionary. He was in China 30 years ago knocking on CCTV’s door to take NBA product. That was 30 years ago.”

It’s also a territory with a significantly different working culture from the west, and therefore one in which Allaster can discern a very tangible impact created by the WTA’s presence. “When I go to China I feel very inspired,” she says. “A case in point: I handed my business card to a young woman; she looked at it, she looked at me, she looked at the business card, she looked back at me and she said to me, ‘I have never received a business card from a woman with a CEO title.’

“I feel very welcome there, I feel respected there, and I do believe that when I go to China as a woman in this leadership position I’m being looked at, and I take a lot of pride in that and responsibility to be successful and to inspire the youth and to set a good example and to share my experiences with them.”

Equality through earnings

The 2014-era WTA is about much more than tennis. The balance between on-court professionalism and off-court glamour that WTA players have historically struck has often been seen as a delicate one. Allaster insists that, although the players are independent contractors and are free to do what they will with their own brands, if a tone is set from the top, “it is that we have the world’s best athletes – athleticism first. It’s the results on the court that are driving the business but there’s no doubt we have this duality of on-court performance and off-court personality.

“The lens there is personality, lifestyle, glamour, charity. I love our pre-Wimbledon party, seeing the athletes in Alexander McQueen designer dresses. At the end of the day we’re sport-entertainment and there’s a lifestyle aspect to this, and our athletes enjoy the red carpet, and there are casual fans and non-fans that enjoy following Maria [Sharapova], for example, because of her fashion stuff. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a musical entertainer, or you’re an actress, fashion is part of this entertainment mix that we offer.”

"At the end of the day we’re sport-entertainment and there’s a lifestyle aspect to this."

The lifestyle elements, a moderate sprinkling of the trappings that come along with celebrity, are key not only to expanded media coverage and media value – moving the WTA’s impact from the sports pages to the style sections – but also to the WTA’s own ambitions as a media producer. In the modern era of sports business, content is king. Players now build and maintain their own brands via social media, and the WTA itself has long set the pace in this area.

Under the badging of former tour title sponsor Sony Ericsson, the WTA was one of the first sporting entities to collate and promote all the social media streams of its participants in one branded digital platform in 2010. In late 2011, the WTA signed an innovative four-year broadcast media distribution deal with digital content specialists Perform. The unprecedented agreement would, unsurprisingly, focus on the expansion and fine-tuning of the WTA’s digital assets, but would also see a leap in media rights revenues for the 2013-2016 cycle, as well as a 100 per cent increase in ‘overall exposure’.

Following the setting of a new strategic vision last year, the WTA made a trio of key marketing and communications appointments towards those redefined goals in April this year. The new strategy, which runs from this year to the close of 2016, has seen the creation of an integrated marketing team that has three areas of focus: ‘content strategy and publishing; communications and brand marketing; and marketing solutions’.

WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster, pictured in London on Wednesday 25th June

Emily Wright, an internal appointment, became vice president of marketing solutions and will be responsible for creating programmes to be leveraged by the WTA’s partners; Richard Libero, a former journalist and commentator, was brought in from NBC to run the new department’s content strategy and publishing arm, responsible specifically for overseeing the WTA’s growing digital, mobile and social assets; while Heather Bowler, formerly Eurosport’s global communications director, heads up the WTA’s strategic communications, media and public relations, and advertising. All three are now working to implement a strategy that aims to transform the WTA into ‘a digital and mobile centric editorial and publishing organisation’, with a focus stretching beyond the court to behind-the-scenes access, a structured ‘internal content news calendar’ and ‘shoulder programming’.

The strategy indicates that Allaster and the WTA have a handle on the changing nature of the media landscape, and the migration to digital, bite-size, in-house content production. “Hopefully we’ll crack some code on this one,” says Allaster. “The great opportunity we all have relates to digital. It’s cost-efficient; the channels are better distributed and there’s the storytelling through social and the engagement with younger fans that will create an opportunity in these next five years that we perhaps haven’t had before because we’ve been stuck with bandwidth problems and there’s only so much time allotted on the linear channels. You look at how Millennials are consuming their entertainment: it’s not long-form.”

Allaster’s understanding is, of course, an accurate one. It’s also a savvy sports marketing view that sits at odds, or at least ironically, with the WTA’s stated position on five-set games for women. “That’s been the same for 41 years,” she explains. “We’re ready, willing and able to play five sets if that is what the Grand Slams would like us to do. We do believe though, for our fans, best two out of three is the right format.”

In fact, from its very inception, the WTA has been about much more than the game. Few, if any, sports organisations are founded on the type of globally resonant principles that underpin the WTA.

King remains queen

In 1970, Billie Jean King and eight of her peers – the aptly named ‘Original Nine’ – rebelled against the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) to sign symbolic US$1 contracts with World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman and establish the eight-event Virginia Slims Circuit. Nothing like the made-for-TV, private equity, packaged sports entities springing up today. With female tennis players routinely earning a fraction of their male counterparts’ winnings, King and her colleagues shared a single, simple vision: to form a united front that would champion the acceptance of women as athletes. And it was out of that vision, at a meeting in London’s Gloucester Hotel, a week before Wimbledon in 1973, that the WTA was born.

If equality is the endgame, the pieces are made from cold, hard cash.

41 years on and Allaster’s work – and indeed the continued work of King, who is acting as an official ambassador of the Finals in Singapore – keeps that vision front and centre. “Sport is a microcosm of society,” explains Allaster, “and the WTA was founded on nine women standing up to the establishment and saying it wasn’t right that the guys were making 12,000 and the women were making 2,000. The foundation of this organisation is about the empowerment of women, equality and driving social change. Yes, we’re in 33 different countries with the world’s greatest female athletes hitting forehands and backhands, but they are also role models for young women and for young men; they’re strong and confident and it’s acceptable for women to be strong and confident, and to be contributing to the growth of society.

“And when I’m able to say that our athletes are making US$120 million this year between the WTA and the four Grand Slams and I’m able to share the types of brands that are investing in women’s tennis, that all sends a positive message about the strength of women.”

That US$120 million prize fund figure is crucially important to Allaster. For if equality has been the endgame for the WTA from the beginning, the pieces have always been made from cold, hard cash. For the WTA, the world’s top female tennis players deliver a sports and entertainment product the equal of any delivered by men, and that parity is measured in dollars.

Billie Jean King, one of the 'Original Nine' who founded the WTA, remains a leading ambassador for women's tennis

From baseline to bottom line, money is validation, earnings are equality. The women of the WTA are held up as role models both on the court and in the boardroom, for what are the Williams sisters, with their fashion labels, Caroline Wozniacki, with her underwear range, and Maria Sharapova, with her confectionary brand, if not athletes-cum-businesswomen?

And, of course, it is in business that Allaster herself has always excelled. By the time the economics graduate joined the WTA as president in 2006, she was already a sales and marketing heavyweight, having worked her way through the ranks at Tennis Canada, negotiating some CAN$200 million in sponsorship deals in the process, not least the landmark deal that saw the Canadian Open renamed the Rogers Cup.

Under Allaster’s leadership, tournament revenues of the Rogers Cup increased by more than 300 per cent from 2001 to 2005 and attendance in Toronto grew in excess of 50 per cent, setting world records for a single-week tournament. The fiscal growth at the WTA during her tenure has been similarly impressive. According to the most recent tax returns filed by the organisation, highlighted by a story in late 2013 in SportsBusiness Journal, the WTA made central revenues of US$61.4 million across 2012 (compared with US$91 million for the men’s ATP), including US$22 million in sponsorship, a dip from US$26 million the previous year, but with a rise in TV rights fees to US$15 million still enough for a US$3.6 million surplus. That sponsorship dip is likely to be down to the downscaling of Sony Ericsson’s sponsorship. The company signed a record-breaking six-year, US$88 million title sponsorship with the WTA in 2005, extended but downsized for a year when that deal ended, before withdrawing entirely at the end of 2012. For her part, Allaster is hopeful that a replacement, either as “lead global partner, or lead regional partners”, can be found “by the end of the year”.

But the tour’s central revenues are only half the story. Both the men’s and the women’s tennis tours are lattice works of independent stakeholders, of players, their agents, of tournament owners and operators with their own set of commercial frameworks. Female tennis players stand to share a record prize pot of US$120 million this year, and that is a result of a rising tide having floated all boats.

“It is important to me for our tournament members that we’re seeing nice multiples on the value of their assets, that they have good annual operating profit on that so that they can make investment into the product to enhance the experience for our fans,” says Allaster. “When I took office in 2009 I said to the athletes, ‘You will be the US$100 million generation in 2014,’ and I had the picture of the original nine with the US$1 cheque. We were able to get to US$100 million in 2012. So what took us 39 years to get to the first US$100 million, I believe we’re on the trajectory to the next US$100 million – the US$200 million generation – by 2020.

“Since 2009 prize money has gone up 75 per cent; revenues centrally to the organisation are up 55 per cent. We achieved the largest TV deal in our history, which was a 75 per cent increase; the largest WTA finals deals in our history with a five-year commitment from a premium and innovative city like Singapore. We’ve established new revenue streams with a partnership with the ATP for data licensing. We’ve been able to attract some of the world’s most premium brands as our partners – SAP, Xerox, BNP Paribas and Rolex.”

It is those continued and growing investments – in challenging economic times – that provide the proof point for Allaster. Women’s tennis is a supremely viable commercial proposition; professional tennis is a career path that provides ever more lucrative opportunities for talented female athletes, and a platform that elevates women to a level that few other sports can. It is a model worth emulating.

This is an edited version of a story that appeared in the September 2014 edition of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe today.