WTA Roadmap: Do the "A"s have it?
Tour says new schedule is flexible with "B-level" tournaments, USTA not buying it
The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour has voted to give future B-level tournaments some flexibility in attracting Top-10 players, but it may not be enough to satisfy the Roadmap 2010 detractors.
In addressing the most controversial part of WTA's Roadmap 2010, WTA CEO Larry Scott told ********************
that as long as the top players meet their commitments (11 A-level tour tournaments plus the four Grand Slams), the tour will not restrict them from playing downgraded B-level tournaments in 2009, when the new structure is supposed to take effect.
Scott said this was a "change of plans," but it does not mean that the top players will be mandated to play non-A-level tournaments. Currently, the tour guarantees a certain number of Top-10 players to Tier II tournaments. (There are currently 15 Tier II tournaments.)
Some owners of current Tier IIs don't believe that if they choose to go to a B-level (where they will have to chop prize money), that they will still be able to garner enough stars to sustain their events.
The USTA, which is a part owner of US Open Series summer tournaments in Los Angeles and New Haven, still isn't pleased with the direction of the roadmap, even though Scott said that America's leading tennis body is one of the tour's most important partners and that he wants to help ensure that the US Open Series continues to be a viable concept.
"This still doesn't work for us," one USTA official said on Tuesday. "The US Open Series needs a consistent TV schedule, with back-to-back, consecutive-weeks coverage of top tournaments and the roadmap takes away from that."
In a late August letter to Scott obtained by TR
, the top USTA officials said that if the roadmap wasn't amended, it would consider all alternatives.
"Your plans put the TV package and the race for the US Open bonus prize money in jeopardy, intended or not, stand to damage this successful and highly praised initiative," the letter said. "How can the U.S. stand by and allow this to take place?"
TOP-10 PLAYERS DON'T PLAY VERY OFTEN
Only two members of the Top-5 (Amelie Mauresmo and Svetlana Kuznetsova) played more than 15 tournaments in 2006, and it's unlikely that marquee names like Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne will choose to play many more than the 15 and 13 tournaments they played in 2006, respectively.
However, every woman ranked between No. 6 and 20 played more than 15 tournaments in 2006, with many of them playing more than 20. So the possibility exists that some stars could play the Bs, if the tournaments come up with enough extra incentives (marketing fees/guarantees).
Scott said that the tour will not restrict players from competing in tournaments the week prior to the Slams, which appears to be good news for Sydney, Istanbul, Strasbourg, Eastbourne and New Haven, but that doesn't mean that the players will choose to compete if they don't have to.
According to the roadmap, in 2009, there will be only 11 A-level tournaments on the calendar, which in 2006 featured 60 events outside of the Slams. The top players will only be mandated to play the 11 A-level tournaments and the four Slams, leaving 75 percent of the tournaments up in the air as to their future.
The tour has vowed to slim down the calendar in order to give the players more breaks and enhance the viability of its products, where potentially healthier stars will meet each other more frequently. Over the past decade, the tour has been wracked by player injuries and withdrawals, which has led by widespread complaints by the tournaments that the tour isn't delivering enough on its player commitments.
The tour has opened up a new application process for tournaments that will be completed in March, 2007, in which tournaments can decide to stay at an A-level, bid up to an A-level, or be downgraded to a B-level. Going to an "A" status may be too pricey for events that are held in small- to medium-sized stadiums.
The tour is hoping that 11 tournaments step up and maintain their status or bid to become "A"s, but, as of now, there only appears to be seven reasonably sure bets: Tokyo, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Rome, Canada and Moscow. The tour will almost assuredly sell an "A" designation to China for a fall tournament combined with the ATP, but current Tier I tourneys in Charleston, Berlin and Zurich seem to be on the bubble about maintaining an "A" status, which will cost them more in prize money.
Ion Tiriac and his TMS Madrid group might make a bid for a women's tournament and try for a combo event in the spring. There is also talk that a major sports agency is trying to buy both the men's and women's Cincinnati tournaments and hold a combined event there. Washington has also expressed interest in a combined event.
US TOURNAMENTS AT RISK
The USTA and its partner AEG are undecided as to whether to try to upgrade their Tier II LA summer tournament, but the USTA has clearly been unhappy that the longtime successful Tier II American tournaments at Stanford and Amelia Island, as well as New Haven, could be at risk.
"As the owner of two Tier II tournaments, we believe that the Roadmap plan is not economically feasible (for Tier II tournaments in particular)," the USTA wrote. "As you know, the plan proposes to upgrade or downgrade each of the North American summer Tier II tournaments. According to the Roadmap plan, an upgrade requires a second Tier II sanction, which would mean investing an additional $4-5 million on top of our existing sanctions, not to mention the investments made in permanent facilities, etc. In addition, we would be required to more than double the current prize money. Unfortunately, despite requiring a significant mandatory investment, the Roadmap plan does not provide for any guaranteed return (i.e., the delivery of player commitment or additional sponsor/international television revenue). As currently structured, given the exorbitant expense, the option to upgrade is simply not practical for our Tier II's or any others in the United States that we are aware of.
"Equally unattractive is the notion of downgrading from a Tier II to a level that would not provide any meaningful player commitment, and would therefore render these tournaments irrelevant to our fans, broadcasters and sponsors. Please take this as formal notice that for the tournaments owned or partially owned by the USTA, we have no intention of participating in this plan as currently structured."
SCOTT SAYS WTA HAS LISTENED
Scott reiterated that the tour has listened to all parties and will continue to work with tournaments through March. Although Scott is confident that the roadmap will be accepted in some form, the tour won't know who is willing to do what until all the applications are received and may be forced to make some further amendments if, for example, a dozen or so tournaments decide to fold, or not enough events decide to become "A"s.
If passed, the effect of the plan won't be fully felt until 2010, because in 2009 all players will start with a clean slate and will be able to enter as many tournaments as they want.
It won't be until 2010 that they could be prevented from playing the "B"s if they don't fulfill their commitments to the "A"s.
The USTA said in its letter that it doesn't want the tour to maintain the status quo, but is seeking a compromise.
"We understand the WTA's desire to reduce top player commitments," the letter said. "A reduction can be achieved, however, without such drastic action directed towards these events. The reduced player commitment could be spread among more events, thus maintaining their viability as well as offering more opportunities for lower ranked players.
"The USTA's proposed solution for the US Open Series event preserves the Roadmap's total number of top 10 player commitments during the North American summer (22) and simply redistributes them as follows: Stanford (3); San Diego (or other) (6); Los Angeles (5); Canada (6); New Haven (2). This would allow the success of the US Open Series to continue with five weeks on the women's side and five or six weeks on the men's side."
There are a number of unknowns if the plan does go into effect, but the Grand Slam nations are not pleased, as the British grass court tournament in Birmingham will be at risk, as will the Australian tournaments at Gold Coast and Hobart. France's Tier II winter tournament in Paris is also in a pickle.
But it appears that the US, where the tour was founded and where the tour's headquarters is still located, stands to lose the most among the Slam nations, which is why it's leading the charge against a radical change.
"Over the years, the USTA has demonstrated its unwavering support for women's tennis and has always been a strong partner," the organization said in the letter. "Our hope is to continue to have a productive and cooperative relationship. That will not be possible, however, if the WTA proceeds with these plans that will critically damage clay court tennis for American women and damage the highly important US Open Series. We are at a crossroads. We urge you to consider our thoughts and recommendations with the utmost care and seriousness. If the WTA is unwilling to re-evaluate the current Roadmap plan based on the concerns expressed in this letter, the USTA will have no option but to re-evaluate its exiting relationship with the WTA and explore other alternatives."