Ten questions with WTA Tour chief executive Stacey Allaster
Stacey Allaster's brief tenure as CEO of the WTA Tour has been a busy one
Allaster comments on the Wickmayer controversy and the return of the Belgians
U.S. women's tennis is positioned for success after the Williamses retire, she says
The week after Wimbledon, Stacey Allaster was officially named the new CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. Since then, a former No. 1 player returned and won the U.S. Open. The Tour's most marketable star blew a gasket in the U.S. Open semifinals, a meltdown that became an international cause célèbre. One Belgian was suspended for an anti-violating simply because she failed to keeps administrator advised of her whereabouts. Another Belgian, a seven-time Grand Slam champ, is returning. And the WTA's title sponsor is, by most accounts, a longshot to renew. Otherwise, it's been an uneventful 150 days.
Allaster kindly agreed to take some questions for Tennis Nation. Here are her answers:
1. Would you please ask Ms. Allaster if a) the WTA plans to overrule WADA and allow Yanina Wickmayer to play (or at least reduce the suspension time) or, b) pull out of WADA for its too stringent location rules? The Olympics are not worth this madness, in my opinion. After playing and watching tennis for 60 years, this is by far the worst I have ever heard.
Thanks for supporting the sport, Linda, and for your question. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is a founding member (together with the ATP and ITF) of the WADA Code, which serves to ensure the competitive fairness of our sport and is globally recognized as a world-class program in protecting the integrity of professional tennis. We support and will enforce the ruling of this independent national tribunal under the Tennis Anti-Doping Program.
2. Do you think Yanina Wickmayer is being treated fairly?
Sabine, there is nothing more important than ensuring the integrity and competitive fairness of our sport along with the health and well-being of our athletes, and it is for these reasons that the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour fully supports the Tennis Anti-Doping Program. There is no doubt that this program is not only comprehensive but also rigorous, and it is for this reason that it's considered one of the very best in sports. The program asks a lot of athletes, but we believe that no matter how onerous the requirements may be, the end goal of integrity warrants associated inconveniences.
At the same time, we do believe that there are certain procedural elements of the "Whereabouts" program that should be modified to account for the peculiarities of professional tennis and its players (e.g., 10 months in competition season which makes out-of-competition testing difficult to conduct, along with daily changes to schedule based on matches and on single-elimination format), and we are striving to have such changes adopted. At the end of the day, the Tour fully supports the Program and recognizes the decisions made by independent national tribunals under the WADA Code.
3. What is your position on the comebacks of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters (and maybe others). In your view, is it good or bad for women's tennis that so many players play, retire and then return?
Thank you for your question, Hugo. I think it's fantastic that Kim and Justine decided to come back to the Tour. Kim is one of the most popular players with fans and sponsors, and clearly her results this summer spoke for themselves. Kim is an incredible athlete, one of all-time greats in our sport, and while she took some time off to have a family, she is still in the prime of her career. I am thrilled about Justine making a comeback as well as she is enormously respected, has a huge following all over the world and did leave the sport ranked World No. 1. I have no doubt that Justine will return to the Tour in January in top form and I am sure she'll be successful.
4. The road map was indeed a success especially after Wimbledon. However, I have heard that players and fans complained that the Premier 5 and Mandatory events were too close together. Will the WTA consider separating them by putting a Premier tournament or have an off week between them?
Thanks for your question, Master Ace. The 2009 calendar was the result of a collaborative effort between the Tour and our players. We worked closely with the Players' Council and our players and reviewed more than five years of Top 10 player playing patterns. Together with the players we determined that the athletes want to play two to three weeks prior to a Grand Slam and because of that, we scheduled our commitment tournaments (such as Mandatory and Premier 5 events) with context to the athletes' competitive needs. During our discussions with the Players' Council, we brought the back-to-back scheduling of Indian Wells and Miami tournaments up for discussion. Our players decided that they wanted to play those two tournaments back-to-back without a break in between.
The Tour also examined two back-to-back scenarios at Rome/Madrid and Tokyo/Beijing. In order to provide sufficient rest and travel time for those players that go deep at Rome or Tokyo, the Tour introduced "performance byes", meaning that the semifinalists of the first tournament (Rome and Tokyo) receive a first round "bye" for the second week (Madrid and Beijing). This gives our players additional time for travel and rest.
Finally, as we move forward, we will continue to closely track the data to ensure that we stage the right events during the right dates. The Tour is committed to maximizing our players' health and well-being in order to ensure that we consistently deliver our top player fields to our top tournament. I can also tell you that in 2011, we will flip the schedules of Rome and Madrid, so that Madrid comes first. This will make a difference as Madrid's draw is larger, at 64 players, vs. Rome's 56. Having a bigger tournament such as Madrid precede Rome will give our athletes additional days to rest and recover in between these events, particularly as they prepare for Roland Garros.
5. While tennis is a global sport, the U.S. is obviously an important market. How concerned are you about the state of American women's tennis and the state of affairs after the eventual retirement of the Williams sisters?
Hello Tom. Without question, the U.S. market is critical for our sport. Overall, I think that U.S. tennis is vibrant and growing from a participation and tournament perspective. We've seen attendance at two of the U.S.'s biggest non-Grand Slam tournaments (Indian Wells and Miami) consistently raise the bar for our sport. As we look forward, Venus and Serena Williams are focused on their careers and retirement appears to be a long way off. And if I look to the next generation of U.S. stars, Melanie Oudin has proven to be a huge force, both on and off the court, and I know that the USTA is very involved in the development of a number of promising young female players.
U.S. tennis has always gone through player cycles and continued to propel the sport forward despite the changing faces of its stars. And if we look at the success of our tournaments, we can credit American fans with enjoying the global stars of our sport. So to directly answer your question, I believe that U.S. tennis is in great shape and I am very confident that this market will continue to grow and produce American stars.
6. What other sports executives do you admire most?
I greatly admire the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern, because he was one of the first people in sports to understand the value of entertainment. The NBA has taken on a role of a leader in being a fan-centric brand worldwide. David is a great visionary and a trailblazer who has changed how we view sports in general.
7. What is the state of the sponsorship deal with Sony Ericsson and a possible replacement?
We are currently in discussions with Sony Ericsson. Our sponsorship has provided excellent return on investment for Sony Ericsson and we remain cautiously optimistic of a renewal and expect a decision in the near future. If Sony Ericsson were to not continue as a global sponsor of the Tour after 2010, given the strength and quality of the women's tennis product, I am confident that we would find a replacement. That said, I am of course hopeful that Sony Ericsson will want to continue and working with Sony Ericsson remains our priority.
8. What are your main objectives for 2010?
As CEO, I'm determined to deliver to our fans and business partners and continue the effective work with our tournaments in order to manage our business through the challenging global economy. The financial stability of our sport is my main priority. As I look ahead, our main objectives for 2010 and thereafter include continuing with the success of the roadmap, building our brand and the sport in China, expanding and enhancing the Tour's digital platforms, and most importantly, focusing on the fan experience, delivering to our investors, and ensuring the overall health of our players.
9. When the average WTA events make so much less money than corresponding ATP events and the prize money paid to the players is so much less, why should women get equal prize money at the Grand Slams? Hasn't the market spoken and indicated that women's tennis is worth less?
Thanks for the question, Jeff. Where there is equal male and female product delivered to a tournament, there should be equal compensation. The market has spoken and confirmed this as the four Grand Slams, the two Tours' year-end Championships and the top four Tour level events (Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Mutua Madrilena Open in Madrid and China Open in Beijing) all offer equal prize money. Sport is entertainment and women's tennis delivers equal entertainment value to men's tennis.
10. When is on-court coaching going to be deemed to failure that it is and removed from the women's game? It has been universally panned by journalists, fans and even the players themselves.
The Tour is committed to ensuring that we do everything we can to make women's tennis as entertaining and enjoyable to watch as possible. On-court coaching was recommended to us by our television partners and Sony Ericsson in order to enhance the overall fan experience for viewers at home. The feedback that we have received directly from TV broadcasters has been universally positive, and overall very positive from TV viewers. The players themselves are using on-court coaching in 78 percent of their matches.
In order to further engage today's sports and entertainment consumer, the Tour has taken on the challenge of balancing the concept of introducing innovation elements into a very traditional sport. We will continue to listen to our fans and business partners to ensure that we deliver and remain competitive in the sports and entertainment marketplace. It is important to balance the consumer needs with the traditional elements of our sport, but one thing is for certain -- every product needs to evolve in order to remain relevant and competitive. When our customers encourage us to change, we need to be responsive. The sport of tennis is no different, particularly when we look at what the other professional sport leagues are doing in order to enhance their fan experiences through broadcast, digital and in-venue offerings.