Across the court: building WTA Media to serve women’s tennis

Sarah Milburn on her first year of overseeing WTA Media.

Across the court: building WTA Media to serve women’s tennis

Garbine Muguruza was one of the stars of WTA Media's first year

In 2015 the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) signed a live media rights and production deal with Perform Group, creating WTA Media. The deal was worth US$525 million over ten years – the largest in the history of women’s sport – and committed WTA Media to delivering over 2,000 matches to fans, starting on 1st January 2017.

Last year saw the absence of the best female tennis player in the world for an entire season. Losing the leading performer would be a blow to any sport but Perform Group’s unprecedented investment enabled WTA Media to thrive in 2017, showing audience up 12 per cent on the previous year with a total linear audience of 490 million, making it the biggest TV audience in the history of the WTA.

Just over 12 months ago I thought to myself, what on earth am I doing? I had been given the job of hiring a production team to work on WTA Media, a JV with Perform and the WTA to produce and distribute all WTA tour events from 2017 to 2027. This meant covering over 2,300 matches every year, all with commentary and GFX, with the team travelling to 47 tournaments around the globe: new partners, new technologies and new people. I simply started by hiring anyone who was ‘up for the challenge’. I was honest with them: with only a few months to go before we launched, it was all or nothing, sink or swim, dive right in.

It goes without saying that we had to achieve the production quality that is desired by a competitive sports market but in the digital world, where accessibility and volume now mean everything, we had to make everything available at the touch of a button with new technologies. A fibre network across the globe, 24-hour streaming on the WTATV service and the production of a WTA Media portal to make everything we produced available to fans and broadcasters alike were just some of the projects throughout the year.

When it comes to the tennis coverage itself I am somewhat of a traditionalist and so I wanted to continue to work with the very best tennis freelancers in the world to create something that the WTA and team could be proud of. The new partnerships with NEP, SMART and RCS saw WTA Media set up and host broadcast 23 tournaments for the first time in 2017 alone.

We enlisted the skills of over 80 freelance tennis professionals, in 19 different countries. We attracted men and women who have worked in tennis production for years – some even decades – who found the idea of working with familiar faces in new places appealing, and they loved it. We also enlisted the services of world renowned tennis commentators and trained up budding enthusiasts to provide commentary on over 2,000 matches.

With the traditional tennis OB we also brought in new technologies like Net Camera, used on the women and men’s professional tennis tour for the first time at the WTA Finals in Singapore. I had often heard feedback from tennis fans stating they’d like to be in the thick of the action more and this aided that. We designed a new GFX style on screen, presenting viewers with hundreds of new statistics as well as producing more creative content than ever before. Thanks to our wonderful partners – NEP, RCS, SMART, SMT and Telstra – we are delivering vast amounts of tennis coverage to international broadcasters like never before.

I often refer to our team as a travelling circus, with everyone living in each other’s pockets, moving on from tournament to tournament week after week, and still getting the job done brilliantly. The tennis production world may sound glamourous but sitting in a car park for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, outside the stadium is anything but. There are, however, the rewards, and nothing has been more rewarding so far than working with a fantastic team of tennis professionals who do a fantastic job and are equally good company. The team are very serious when it comes to doing the job but what we don’t do is take ourselves too seriously – and, in my opinion, that is vital in this day and age.

So as we move into 2018 with seven tournaments under our belt already and the first Grand Slam champion of the year crowned, the travelling circus will undoubtedly be turning up in a town near you soon as we face exciting new challenges at more and more tournaments who want a bit of the WTA Media treatment. 

Sarah Milburn is the head of production for WTA Media.