Death Sentence for U.S. Tournaments? / WTA Thinks Global.
Death Sentence for U.S. Tournaments?
WTA Thinks Global. Kill Local?
By Matthew Cronin
The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is making a headstrong charge to alter its makeup and its schedule by 2009 and it's possible that some U.S. tournaments - California events in particular - might be left out in the cold.
The USTA, which is heavily invested in American tournaments, is more than upset.
"We've told the WTA that if they persist with these plans that we will be forced to consider all alternatives," USTA president Franklin Johnson told IT.
With its Roadmap 2010 (which may actually come into play by '09), the tour is looking to streamline its tournaments and reduce its schedule. With mounting player injuries and a confusing calendar, there has been a consistent outcry for change, but some are worried that the tour is going too far in attempting to divide the tournaments from four tiers into two - "A's" and "B's" - and by changing the rules so that the stars will have a hard time playing anything but an occasional non-A level tournament.
The tour is pushing a reduced minimum required tournament schedule for top players (likely from 18 to 14), but will also mandate that they show up at the four Slams, four combined events (likely Indian Wells and Miami, potentially Rome or Madrid in the spring, and Shanghai or Beijing in the fall) and possibly another four to six "A" level tournaments.
Nothing is ground in stone yet, but the intention is to go with more star-studded, mega events and separate the tournaments that really want to put up the huge bucks to get the "A" designation from those on the borderline, or the small ones who don't have big enough sponsors.
In the U.S, the USTA is hoping to promote clay-court tennis and the WTA's potential move could diminish the successful clay-court events in Amelia Island and Charleston. The USTA is also worried that its U.S. Open Series is at risk, because tournaments like Stanford, Carson and New Haven are unlikely to put up a reported $4-5 million more for an "A" designation and may not be able to maintain their fans bases if they can't attract the stars. "B" level tournaments will be forced to reduce their prize money and points awarded to players.
The USTA has put an enormous amount of resources into developing the three-year-old U.S. Open Series, which is seen as a marked success. A group of U.S. tournament directors sent a letter to WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott earlier this year objecting to the plan and some have discussed legal action.
But Scott said nothing has been decided yet as to whether the "Bs" will be able to recruit a few top 10 players and the possibility exists that the "Bs" will be split into "Bs" and "B-plus." As IT went to press, Scott and a number of WTA tournament directors were about to sit down in Madrid and discuss the roadmap.
"It's premature to say we are headed in one direction with the 'As' and 'Bs.' Series 'B' is critical to the success of the tour," Scott told IT. "We all recognize that smaller events do need some marquee players to be successful. It's all about finding a balance. We all recognize the injury/withdrawal/fatigue issue, and we need to do whatever it takes to create a healthier calendar and to ensure that fans and tournaments are seeing top players play each other on our biggest stages on a consistent basis."
In '09, the only summer women's tournament that looks like a solid bet to become a mega-tournament is the Canadian Open, as it also stages a men's Tennis Masters tournament. Cincinnati may also try to stage a combined event, but with the price tag so high, they might decline.
By '09, the long popular San Diego tournament (which sold its Tier I designation back to the tour in September) will have folded, despite consistently selling out and being in one of the strongest tennis markets in the country.
Stanford, Carson and New Haven may be left with the impossible task of trying to sell seats on the backs of lesser, obscure players
"This could kill off the U.S. Open Series and wipe our spring clay-court tournaments, too," USTA president Franklin Johnson told IT. "The Grand Slams are united against the plan."
The tour is also considering mandating a three-week break after Wimbledon, which could might eliminate Stanford altogether (the Bank of the West Classic is in the last year of its title sponsorship). Interestingly, Stanford is owned by IMG, which also has Sony Ericsson as a client.
The tour is in a pickle because, over the past five years, some of its biggest tournaments (including San Diego and the Canadian Open) have been struck by massive pullouts, infuriating 'A'-level tournament directors who have put up millions. This year alone, top-10 player withdrawals from Tier I tournaments more than doubled (from 13 to 31 withdrawals). In the past five years, top-10 player withdrawals from the top tournaments increased by 72 percent.
"Fans and tournaments deserve to see the top players and to be able to count on them to show up, but injuries and withdrawals from a season that overtaxes our players is hurting the fan experience," said Scott. "
One thing has become increasingly clear since the Europe-based Sony Ericsson took over as the tours title sponsor - it wants to go global and going global doesn't mean staying hunkered down in the U.S., where the tour was founded some 34 years ago.
The WTA is committed to opening up new opportunities in Asia and also has huge deals in North Africa in Doha and Dubai. Sony has an interest in all those markets. "Tennis must look to Asia if it wants to continue to grow," WTA Tour president Stacey Allaster said recently. "The world is moving east."
However, while Sony Ericsson did buy and move the WTA Championships to Spain, they also just took over the sponsorship of the combined tournament in Miami, so they must have some interest in maintaining a substantial presence in the U.S. market.
While Asia and North Africa are attractive, potentially abandoning successful, upscale markets like Stanford, San Diego and L.A. (Carson) for unknown regions carry substantial risks.
If they lose their tournaments, the 130,000-some-odd fans who turned out in California during the summer to attend events may not bother to set VCRs to record a "star-studded' event some three time zones away. The tour's leadership might end up throwing its U.S.-born ("you've come a long way") baby out and innovative U.S. Open Series with the bathwater.