WTA looks east as it celebrates four decades of ‘breaking barriers’
In an era in which female sport still faces challenges in matching high-profile men’s leagues and competitions in terms of media coverage and revenues, the Women’s Tennis Association has been reflecting on the progress made in its 40 years in existence and taking steps to ensure that it continues to deliver an appealing product around the world.
This year has been one of celebration for the WTA as special events and campaigns have been organised to mark its four decades as a governing body, overseeing what is, by all accounts, the most successful professional women’s sports tour.
However, the WTA has not been resting on its laurels and, as well as implementing an innovative media rights distribution strategy and signing up major sponsors, the association has made significant changes to its calendar going forward, with Asia seen as the market that offers the best potential growth opportunities.
Women’s tennis has come a long way since the formation of the WTA at a meeting of 63 players at the Gloucester Hotel in London in June 1973, at a time when the sport was firmly in the shadow of the men’s game. The tour has grown from a series of tournaments in 10 countries offering less than $2 million in prize money in its inaugural year to one that comprises events in 33 countries offering $118 million in 2013.
The WTA has been the platform for global sports icons such as Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Justine Henin and Serena and Venus Williams. It has also enacted the ‘Roadmap’ circuit reforms to streamline the calendar and fought a successful campaign for women to receive equal prize money to men at all four of the grand slam tournaments.
The achievements of the organisation have been acclaimed in a marketing campaign entitled ’40 Love’, which has carried the strapline ‘Forty Years of Breaking Barriers. Thank you for inspiring us’. There have also been commemorative events including the ’40 Love’ party during this year’s Wimbledon championships at which players that have been ranked number one in the world paid tribute to WTA founder and multiple grand slam winner Billie Jean King.
Stacey Allaster, the WTA chairman and chief executive, said: “The WTA’s 40th anniversary has given us time to reflect on the impact and inspiration women’s professional tennis has had on generations of women.”
This was echoed by Micky Lawler, a tournament class director of the WTA, who said: “It’s a remarkable story and it’s really reflective of society - of the role of women in the workplace and the role of women in entertainment - and also of different cultures and countries that have come to the forefront with players of the world.”
The WTA continues to face hurdles, including the perception that women’s tennis is less dynamic than the men’s game and features a large number of not always highly distinguishable players from eastern Europe.
The governing body recognises these charges but believes it still has a highly marketable product and decisions taken in the past couple of years show its determination to maximise the potential in terms of the international distribution of events, broadcast coverage and sponsorship revenues.
THE LURE OF ASIA
Although it is a global organisation with important events on every continent, the WTA has taken a distinct shift to the east in recent times as Asian countries have produced more top players and shown a desire to put money into tournaments.
This is reflected in the establishment of an Asia-3acific headquarters in Beijing in 2008 and the decision this year to grant hosting rights to the season-ending WTA Championships from 2014 to 2018 to Singapore, which was chosen ahead of Monterrey in Mexico and Tianjin in China.
The prestigious event, which currently involves the top eight singles players and the top four doubles teams of the season, will offer record prize money of $6.5 million next year, up from $6 million for the final event in Istanbul in 2013, and the doubles will become an eight-team competition.
The award is a further boost to the sporting profile of Singapore, which already hosts a Formula 1 motor racing grand prix and is building the Singapore Sports Hub to stage tennis and other major sports events.
The relocating WTA Championships will be preceded by a new Premier level event in Wuhan in China, the home city of world number six Li Na, which replaces the longrunning Pan Pacific 2pen in the Japanese capital Tokyo. The move shows the increasing importance of China, which will host five prominent women’s tennis events next year as it consolidates its reputation as a leading sporting destination.
Lawler, who combines her WTA role with that of head of the tennis division at Octagon, the international sports marketing agency, said: “Internally in China there’s a lot of competition now. Where the major players were Beijing and Shanghai, now there are other major cities such as Wuhan, Shenzhen and Guangzhou that are rising and playing an international role.
“Wuhan, being the birthplace of Li Na and having two Olympic [sports] centres, is a very impressive city. We recently had the opportunity to begin working with the Wuhan Sports Bureau on a major event and are extremely excited to see its first edition in 2014.”
With the addition of Singapore to the calendar, 23 WTA events will be staged in the Asia-Pacific market next year, representing the first time in the history of the tour that there will be more tournaments in that part of the world than anywhere else.
This has contributed to a move by the WTA to search for a chief executive for AsiaPacific, a new role that will involve developing a strategic plan for the region and leading the association’s commercial activities to capitalise on business growth opportunities and develop the WTA’s Asian fan base.
NEW RIGHTS DISTRIBUTION MODEL
Aided by the interest in high-profile stars such as Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, women’s tennis already receives significantly more mainstream exposure than any other female sport, but the WTA has seen fit to change the way its premium broadcast rights are handled to ensure greater synchronicity between the television and digital coverage in a changing media landscape.
In 2011, the WTA signed a deal with Perform, the international digital rights group involved in sport, to be its media rights partner for the 22 Premier Events, including the WTA Championships, in all territories except North America from 2013 to 2016. Perform subsequently brought in IEC in Sports, the Sweden-based international sports marketing agency, to help with the distribution process.
The tie-up represented a departure given that the WTA had traditionally partnered directly with agencies, and Perform had not previously handled cross-platform rights for a major sports property. However, the two had an existing relationship as Perform was the operator of TennisTV.com, the internet service which offers live streaming of WTA and men’s ATP World Tour events, and had been the manager and advertising sales agency of the WTA website since 2009.
Lawler claimed that the deal showed how the WTA was moving with the times, saying: “The new way that media rights are being treated proves the fact that there is important momentum around the digital platform. Perform as a company did a superb job in building this digital platform in sports. When the media rights came up, and in this cycle the digital rights became a key part of the package, Perform stepped up because they wanted to continue to develop the value provided by women’s tennis.”
The WTA has sacrificed the wide television coverage it previously enjoyed on Eurosport, the pan-European sports broadcaster that could not agree a long-term deal for 2013 onwards, to go down the territory-by-territory route, but the partnership with Perform has facilitated coverage of more live matches from WTA events online and for networks that have acquired rights. Broadcast partners now include BT Sport in the UK, Ma Chaîne Sport in France and selected other European and sub-Saharan countries and Ten Sports in the Indian subcontinent.
Lawler stressed that the WTA would have to wait until the end of 2013 and analyse the numbers before it could make comparisons on television reach now compared to under the old model. However, she said it had been a positive step to put a focus on digital, claiming it has similar potential to that once associated with cable television, a valuable partner of tennis since the turn of the century.
Lawler added: “The way sport is consumed by younger generations is ondemand; it has to be relevant, interesting and exciting. The production of sport content must also be top class and Perform, together with IEC, have done a great job of making much more great tennis available to the fans, capturing both the digital and television audiences.”
There is also a significant online aspect to the WTA’s broadcasting deals in USA with ESPN, the dedicated sports network, and the specialist Tennis Channel, which include Premier events and run until the end of 2016.
SPONSORSHIP AND PERCEPTION OF WOMEN’S TENNIS
The year 2013 has been a productive one for the WTA in terms of attracting sponsors with two new ‘global premier partners’ in Xerox, the international document management company, and, SAP, the German software company, signed up in multi-year deals.
They have joined other top-tier sponsors in Dubai Duty Free, the UAE-based airport retailer, Oriflame, the Swedish beauty brand, and USANA Health Sciences, the US health supplements provider. The WTA’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region is further highlighted by the fact that there are also two ‘regional premier partners’ in the shape of Jetstar, the Australian low-cost airline, and Peak, the Chinese sportswear brand.
The WTA said at the time of the SAP deal in August that such contracts had helped it generate more than $200 million since 2011, with six sponsors having come on board in that time. This turnover has been achieved despite the absence in 2013 of a single principal sponsor after Sony Ericsson, the former jointventure consumer electronics giant, pulled out at the end of last year.
The company had been the main sponsor of the WTA since 2005, when it signed a six-year, $88-million deal heralded at the time as the largest ever in professional tennis and in women’s sport. This was renewed, albeit at a lower annual cost, for the 2011 and 2012 seasons, with Sony Ericsson giving up the title sponsorship rights to the tour and the WTA Championships.
Lawler insisted that the tour had not needed a title sponsor in recent years as it was necessary for the WTA to present its brand on its own although she can envisage a lead global partner in the future.
While admitting that any such sponsor would have to be a “universal brand” and that the Sony brand is still strongly associated with women’s tennis, she believes there is a highly-attractive opportunity for the right partner.
Lawler said: “I definitely think it [a lead sponsorship] will happen again because the platform that women’s tennis offers is very unique. It’s incredibly positive, diverse and interesting. It’s reality TV at its best on the television side and the live product is truly compelling so I do think it’s an exceptional buy for someone.
“One has to be creative on the activation of a global sponsorship and execute such creativity flawlessly. If done well with a firstclass product range, a lead partner of the WTA has limitless potential.”
At a time when the men’s game has been blessed by the presence of all-time greats like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, some observers have questioned whether the women players should receive as much prize money given that they play shorter matches at grand slams (best of three sets as opposed to best of five sets) and their tour is widely considered to be less demanding than the men’s ATP tour. However, Lawler believes that women’s tennis should be regarded as a separate entity with its own qualities, saying: “I don’t think it’s fair or necessary to compare one against the other. Are men better than women? That question is thankfully no longer relevant.
“Men’s tennis is great for so many reasons and women’s tennis is as well for so many reasons. Is there overlap? Yes, both showcase exceptional physical and mental performance. It is competition at its best and there is nothing like watching an elite athlete do what he or she does best.”
She also played down the preponderance of eastern European players, often referred to disparagingly outside tennis as the ‘-ovas’, at the top of the women’s rankings, claiming this merely reflected where the game has been strong in recent years and was a cyclical state of affairs.
She said: “Champions breed other champions so that’s a very good result. Tennis has historically been a global sport, it’s never been consistently the Americans or the Russians or the Chinese or the South Americans [who dominated]. We do have some fantastic last names that are difficult for speakers to pronounce but among the younger girls coming up you will see a lot of different nationalities. This diversity is one of the great things about tennis as a sport.”
Singapore will host the WTA Championships from 2014 to 2018