Posted on Fri, Feb. 14, 2003
Women's pro tennis tour in midst of change
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - With Serena and Venus Williams leading the way, women's professional tennis is enjoying some of its greatest attention and popularity. Off court, the WTA Tour is going through major change.
The tour is looking for a new leader for the second time in less than two years, and it's coming off a sparsely attended and poorly marketed season-ending WTA Championships in Los Angeles last year.
Attracting sponsors in a soft economy has proven challenging at a time when TV ratings for women's tennis are high, prize money has increased every year, and 13 tournaments set attendance records last year.
"We've never had superior execution," tour chief executive officer Kevin Wulff said in an interview Thursday. "It's almost irresponsible when you think of the popularity of women's tennis."
The ups and downs dismay Billie Jean King, who founded the tour in 1970 as a way for women to earn equal prize money. Today, the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based tour has grown to more than 1,000 players from 76 countries competing for $52 million at 60 tournaments.
"We have the best product in women's sports, with Venus and Serena and Lindsay (Davenport) and Monica (Seles)," King said. "It really is distressful and disturbing not to have that going in a really great way."
Wulff is leaving in March after only a year on the job. Josh Ripple's contract as tour president ended in December, although he's staying on for six months as a consultant.
During Wulff's tenure, marketing and commercial staffs were created to sell the nonprofit tour, which has existed in the past solely to govern and serve its players.
"The tour has never sold sponsorships alone. We first need to build our brand," he said. "We've sold over $20 million in sponsorships for the next four years. We're way ahead of schedule with where we've been before."
The tour lost Sanex as worldwide sponsor at the end of last year, something that's happened every three years since Virginia Slims departed more than a decade ago. Wulff said the tour doesn't plan to seek a new one.
Instead, the focus is on signing regional sponsors, such as Porsche in North America, where 16 tournaments are played, and category sponsors, such as Sanex in Europe.
Next month, Wulff said the tour will announce the creation of WTA Commercial, a sales arm that will work with Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group to sign sponsors.
AEG and management company Octagon own the rights to the WTA Championships, which failed to attract big-time sponsors and decent crowds to the 20,000-seat Staples Center in November.
"There's a lot of things that need to be fixed and we'll get there," Wulff said.
King believes the best way for the tour to generate income is to go with the men's ATP Tour and ask for more money from the four Grand Slam tournaments.
She acknowledged it's "a very difficult proposition" in teaming with the men to seek equal opportunity, remembering how the men's tour refused her offer of support when they boycotted Wimbledon in 1973.
"We should work with the men where it makes sense," said Ilana Kloss, a former WTA board member, top doubles player and CEO of the coed World TeamTennis. "There's no question all the money is with the four Grand Slam tournaments. The men should contribute to a marketing fund for the sport."
Last month, the two tours and the International Tennis Federation met for the first time with a committee representing the Australian, French and U.S. championships and Wimbledon to discuss creating a marketing fund that would support tennis worldwide.
"We hope to be able to move forward as a unified group in terms of building marketing and television, which would eventually increase sponsorship and revenue," Wulff said. "Our resources are much more limited than Grand Slam resources."
The two tours announced Thursday they plan to work together to share ranking and scoring systems, combine awards ceremonies, and produce and buy advertising while still maintaining separate identities. Personnel from each tour may work together at jointly held tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla.
"That's never happened before, and it's very important," Wulff said.
King believes the tour's biggest problem is finding a way for the players, tournament directors and management companies IMG and Octagon, which own a majority of the tournaments, to work together.
Agents and tournament directors are frequently in conflict about which players will appear in what events.
"I can't go to a company and promise them the top 10 players are going to do X, Y or Z because then I have to go to 10 agents," said King, who previously owned tour events. "You know how long that will take to get something done? It won't work. Maybe you could persuade the tournament directors to give something up."
Wulff noted the players are proponents of rapid change because most have relatively short careers, while tournament directors think longterm.
"The similarity is they all care about tennis and are all very passionate," he said. "Neither one is right, neither one is wrong. We do need to change to get better. We're going to have to work with both groups."
Besides owning events, IMG and Octagon also represent most of the players. Davenport, Serena Williams and Seles are IMG clients.
"I would love to find someone outside of tennis that won't be swayed by the opinions, whether it's IMG or Octagon," Davenport said of the new CEO. "You need someone in there who has no ties to anybody and can make really clear business decisions on what's honestly right for the players and the tournaments."
The sport's varied constituencies and the pull between its North American and European bases make it difficult to force change.
"We have to ensure the best ideas win, not the management companies. I think they agree that change is needed," Wulff said. "You're always walking a tightrope and you're always going to make certain groups unhappy. It requires a lot of strategic planning, courage and compromise, hopefully not at the expense of making the right decision."
King, 59, denied she has applied for the CEO job, although she wouldn't necessarily turn down the chance.
"I think they should try to use me in some capacity," she said. "I would love to help in any way I can because I love tennis so much."
Wulff said if King is interested, the search committee would talk to her.
"She's always had great ideas," he said. "She started it and she could definitely continue to grow it."
WTA Tour spokesman Darrell Fry said the board wants to hire someone with tennis experience or at least a sports background. Board member Lisa Gratten said they'd like the new CEO to be in place by March 31, when Wulff leaves.
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