Stacey Allaster, the new chairwoman and chief executive of the WTA Tour, is well aware that she has a tough act to follow.
Larry Scott, her predecessor and former boss, is the tennis administrator who helped persuade Wimbledon to offer equal prize money to men and women.
Scott also shored up the once-vulnerable WTA’s finances, signing a surprisingly lucrative $88 million deal with Sony Ericsson to sponsor the circuit for six years, securing $84 million more from Doha and Istanbul over six years to stage the year-end championships and, most important to the players, generating a significant increase in prize money.
In exchange, Scott received the players’ permission to make real change in the tour structure this season: shuffling the calendar and the tour’s top events, decreasing playing requirements and increasing the penalties for those who do not respect the new minimums.
The reassuring news for Allaster is that she was part of the act, serving under Scott as tour president since 2006. After Scott left in July to become commissioner of the Pacific-10 Conference, Allaster — a 46-year-old Canadian — was named his successor. Like Kim Clijsters, she is a working mother. Like Scott, Allaster has spent a lifetime in the game, first as an amateur player and later as the vice president of Tennis Canada and the tournament director of the Canadian Open in Toronto.
But in the midst of a world economic slump, Allaster must find a way to keep the revenue and the player support flowing. She is negotiating an extension with Sony Ericsson and still doing a poor job of containing her delight that she now has Justine Henin on the comeback trail along with Clijsters.
Excerpts from an interview last week:
Q.How do you view the first year of your restructured calendar, the so-called Road Map?
A.I really couldn’t be more pleased. I think over all what we tried to achieve was for our players to deliver to fans and sponsors, and they did that. We made player commitment at 80 percent of our events. If we dial it back to 2007, we didn’t make player commitment at one of our commitment events. That was a big part of what we were trying to reform was bringing credibility to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and our players have stepped up and delivered. I think some of the other metrics relate to the business aspect of the road map.
Obviously in this economy, there was a 34 percent increase in prize money, which was incredible. For the first time in many years, all top-10 players who were part of the bonus pool in 2009 will all receive a bonus pool payout. That hasn’t happened since 2004, and that’s all tied to their delivery of commitment. And Jelena Jankovic will receive a million-dollar bonus-pool payout.
Q.Do you have injury numbers for the season?
A.Withdrawals as a whole are down 30 percent. To give you context, the number of first-round retirements in 2009 is 17, compared with 36 in 2008. And total retirements and walkovers are at 58 in 2009, compared to 71 in 2008.
Q.Tennis Magazine in France recently conducted a poll, asking women’s players to rank the most important tournaments in the world. The year-end championships came in a distant 10th, after the four Grand Slams, Miami, Indian Wells, Fed Cup, Rome and Dubai. It’s interesting that the Doha event is ranked that low despite the prize money and number of points at stake. Is there work to be done?
A.We are only 10 months into the most comprehensive set of reforms in the history of the tour, so it is an ongoing process to educate the players about what are the important events on our tour and why are they the important events? Because they really are the financial drivers of the business.
I liken where we are right now on the Sony Ericsson Tour to where we were back in 2001 on the men’s tour when we brought the Masters Series in. It was about making those nine events important in the minds of the athletes after the Grand Slams. And when we look now to the generation of male players competing, you often hear them refer to winning Slams and winning Masters Series, and in many respects, that’s now where we need to get to with our athletes.
Q.Where do you stand with the Sony Ericsson sponsorship renewal?
A.We have Sony Ericsson committed through 2010, and our discussions are ongoing. We’re having good discussions, and hopefully we’ll know by year’s end if they will extend for 2011.
Q.Are your players aware of doing more for the business in a tough economy?
A.Many of them talk to me in those terms, even the younger ones. They understand it. Obviously, they live in a world where they’re not affected by the economy, but they’re in touch enough to know what is happening around them. Players like Venus Williams, you could not ask for a better player leader. She’s been incredibly supportive inside the Player Council, and I can tell you she’s been actively engaged with helping with the Sony Ericsson renewal. She recently participated in a meeting in New York with me with Sony Ericsson along with Billie Jean King and Melanie Oudin. I think we know the story there: the past, present and future all understand the importance of our sponsorship partners.
Q.I realize Serena’s situation with the incident at the United States Open is continuing. It’s still being investigated by the International Tennis Federation, but do you believe a potential one-Slam suspension is draconian?
A.I don’t want to comment on what decision they might make. But what I will say is, look, Serena Williams is a great champion, and she’s been a terrific ambassador and role model for the sport of women’s tennis for her entire career. And the U.S. Open situation is an isolated incident for which Serena has acknowledged that it was a mistake and she has apologized for it.