WTA looks east as it cel­e­brates four decades of ‘break­ing bar­ri­ers’

Sportcal - - FED­ER­A­TIONS FEA­TURE - By Si­mon Ward

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

Micky Lawler

Ser­ena Wil­liams

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