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My Point: Marketing a new 'golden era' of women's tennis
by Peter Bodo

From the March 2002 issue of TENNIS Magazine
The Sanex WTA Tour is big, but it could be much, much bigger. Here's a blueprint for making that happen.

What do you think?

Kevin Wulff, the former Nike marketing executive and new CEO of the Sanex WTA Tour, represents the missing link in women's tennis.

Over the past few years, former CEO Bart McGuire did some great behind-the-scenes trenchwork such as restructuring the board to prevent deadlocks in the decision-making process. But for the first time, an executive with a strong marketing background is at the helm to really promote the sport. This is a great thing for the women because they have an awful lot of product to sell. The WTA is chockablock with engaging, contrasting, and -- can you hear me, Venus? Martina? Anna? -- sometimes saucily combative personalities.

But while there's a buzz around the women's game, it's not yet the roar that was heard in the heyday of Billie Jean, Chris, and Martina (the first). In his effort to pump up the volume, Wulff would do well to consider the cautionary words of Phil de Picciotto, president of Athlete Representation at Octagon (and the manager of Anna Kournikova), who says, 'The business of tennis is unique. Your assets are people, not sneakers or buildings or other objects. And those assets are young, sometimes rebellious, and not highly educated. They often come with senior advisors and they depreciate quickly.'

In other words, you need to strike while the iron is hot. Here are some things Wulff should do to enhance the popularity and credibility of the women's game:

Restructure the payday. The money in the women's bonus pool (the year-end dough distributed based on ranking) is paltry by pro-athlete standards. Last season, for example, Venus Williams finished No. 3 and got just $140,000 in extra cash. Currently, tournaments contribute from 2 to 13 percent of their prize money to this till. Let's increase that quota to at least 40 percent and add the condition that players won't receive their bonus if they fail to play the minimum number of tournaments. This would motivate the highest-ranked players to enter more events and give the fans what they want to see, namely, the top players going up against each other as often as possible.

Secure a sensible, comprehensive television package at the tour level. Women's tennis may be hot, but tournament promoters still have to buy their way onto the TV screen. It's a grass-roots approach that has resulted in a scattered TV schedule. What channel are the women on today? What time? Who knows? It may be unrealistic to expect the major networks to come on bended knee, like they do for the NFL or NBA, but even a solid cable package -- one offering a weekly dose of the WTA, preferably on a single channel -- would be an improvement.

Create stronger ties to the ATP by organizing more dual-gender events. Fans love it when the men and women play at the same tournament, as the popularity of the Grand Slams, Indian Wells, and the Ericsson Open demonstrates. In the past, some insiders have argued that the gals tend to be overshadowed by the big-name male stars when they compete at the same venues. But now, with both tours brimming with personalities, the notion that the women will suffer from a co-ed approach no longer holds water.

Motivate Sanex to bring its body-care products to the American market, or search for a new title sponsor. When the tour sponsor has no goods or services to sell in the U.S. -- the country which, let's not forget, has the largest fan base, strongest economy, and most far-reaching media -- its motivation to get tennis in front of the public evaporates like so many bath oil beads.

In order to put this blueprint into practice, Wulff will need more than a good business plan. He'll need to forge an alliance between the top events, the leading administrators, and the elite players. It may sound like wishful thinking, but that's just what happened in the 1970s when the Virginia Slims tour helped create the golden era of women's tennis. Wouldn't it be great to see that again?
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