These are schizophrenic times for women's tennis. Television ratings and attendance at events are at an alltime high; prize money has more than doubled since 1989; and the game's stable of young, marketable personalities has never been bigger. Yet disarray threatens the stability of the sport's governing body, the WTA.
In December the WTA named Ric Clarson, the PGA Tour's vice president of business affairs, as its new CEO. That concluded a yearlong search that was fraught with political infighting, during which several WTA board members were rejected as candidates. But after accepting the $250,000-a-year position, Clarson changed his mind the week he was set to take over, staying instead at the PGA Tour. Left at the altar, the WTA board scrambled to hire Bart McGuire, its longtime legal counsel, who teaches law at Lewis and Clark College in Portland.
One of McGuire's most urgent assignments is to find a sponsor to replace Corel, a Canadian software firm that lost nearly $250 million last year and recently announced plans not to renew its four-year, $12 million contract after 1998. "The tour has set a negotiating floor of $8 million a year with the next corporate partner," says a WTA insider. "That pays for all our administrative costs. We're in big trouble without it."
The quest for a new sponsor is hampered by fallout from a failed coup attempt in the WTA Tour Players Association. Last fall a number of rank-and-file players led by association president Patricia Hy-Boulais and treasurer Linda Wild (ranked 67th and 250th, respectively) convened a meeting and voted out much of the association's board. Upset by rules that favor top players and a dearth of tournament opportunities follower-ranked players, the cabal installed a slate of board members—including Hy-Boulais's husband and Wild's stepfather—more sympathetic to their interests.
Enraged by a maneuver that flouted the organization's bylaws, a group of top-ranked players, including Martina Hingis, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, filed suit against the coup's architects. In December a state supreme court justice in New York City granted the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction, restoring the supplanted board members and ordering a 60-day mediation period for the two sides to resolve their differences. Nevertheless, at last week's Australian Open, the dissidents were unable to reach an accord with the plaintiffs. The dispute will go before a judge later this month.
In Melbourne there were rumors that the top players might form a tour of their own that would feature smaller draws and, consequently, bigger payouts. "I don't necessarily think it will come to that, but it's definitely doable," says Bob Kain, a senior executive vice president at IMG, which represents most of the game's elite players and runs some WTA tournaments. "Historically, the top players have been very sensitive to players lower down, but this coup woke up the sleeping giants."