Back during the first week of the U.S. Open, I had a chance to do a phone interview with Stacey Allaster for Bleacher Report. The point of my call was to talk about the American women for a feature I was writing about American tennis, but she was promoting the WTA Finals in Singapore, so our conversation spanned over a few different topics.
Since it’s almost Singapore time (excited!), I decided it was as good of a time as any to share the whole interview. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s always great to get some insight into what she’s thinking.
(Keep in mind that this was during the CiCi Bellis craze, so that’s where the conversation starts.)
On CiCi Bellis:
I think it is a fantastic accomplishment for CiCi to beat Dominika Cibulkova, who is one of our toughest and most accomplished players. That’s got to bring to her an enormous amount of confidence, that she can play with players in the top 10, 20 in the world. There’s nothing like a big win to propel an athlete’s confidence. At the end of the day they can all hit the forehands and backhands, but can they hit the big balls, big serves at the important points? That win will be big for her.
On the dangers of too much, too soon:
I do think we all need to be mindful that these are young teenage girls who are in the media spotlight. There is nowhere to hide, she is exposed. That certainly can be a new experience that needs to be learned. You deal with the pressures of the competition and then you’re immediately imported into the limelight of the media.
I always say to everyone, ‘Let’s not put too much pressure on our young athletes. Let’s enjoy the moment. It’s a long marathon, not a sprint.’ Support CiCi, let her learn from this and become the tennis player she wants to be.
On being a young woman in the spotlight:
I can’t speak for each athlete the way the athlete can speak, but I’ll speak for myself as a woman. Thinking back to those days, maybe you’re a little more self conscious, you don’t have the confidence that you’re going to have when you’re 25. I just look at how we have our athletes who are now in their 30s, I see the transformation of them becoming young women with the maturity to deal with the pressures of life in general and the pressures of being a pro athlete. It takes time, they’re just kids.
We’re very mindful of our responsibilities. We initiated the age eligibility rule 20 years ago so that we could gradually bring these young teenagers into the world of pro tennis. We have a Director of Athlete Assistance who travels the word who is there to help the athletes, parents, and coaches. We take great responsibility with these young women.
On Serena and Venus:
It’s a gift to have Serena and Venus in our sport. It’s a double bonus that they’re still playing at 34 and almost 33. The young Venus said, ‘I’m not going to do this in my 30s.’ She says now that ‘My young self didn’t have it right.’ We’re so lucky. They love the sport, they want to win, they’re among the best of all time. It’s just fantastic for our fans to have them still playing.
On how the sisters have impacted the WTA:
The contributions to our business have been immeasurable. Venus has been a longstanding council member and a leader on the players’ council and Serena has been there too. So while they’re winning Grand Slams they’re having meetings with the players’ council as we look at how we can build on the legacy that Billie Jean King and others like Chrissie and Martina have provided us, and how we’re going to leave this WTA in a better place. Obviously Venus’ contributions to equal prize money have been historic, she deserves all the credit. We’re just lucky to have them as two of the best athletes in the game.
On the expansion of the WTA and the need for national heroes:
In 1973, the goal when Billie Jean King and the other 63 women formed the WTA was to be global. So we went from 14 events primarily in the United States to 54 events in 33 countries with the athletes competing for almost $120 million between four Grand Slams and the WTA events. As Billie said, these athletes are living the dream. They wanted women’s tennis to be commercially successful, and the driver in that has been our global growth with national heroes from major markets. So without question, markets like the United States– where we still have a massive amount of fans–it is critical that we have national heroes here, as it’s equally important to have national heroes from other major economies and those growing economies like Asia. So that’s why our WTA Finals are going to Singapore in 2014 for the first time—there’s massive opportunity for us to grow the business in Asia, China and Southeast Asia.
On the WTA Finals:
The Finals are the WTA’s primary net revenue source—they make up about 35% of our net operating revenue. It fuels this organization. We have a fantastic new partnership with the World Support Group, Singapore Tourism Group, and Singapore Sport.
Our vision for the Championships is to transform it from what has been a six-day season finale featuring the top eight players and the top eight (sic) doubles teams to a true sports-entertainment spectacle driven by tourism, with a lot of modeling that other sports have done. We just have to look at the Super Bowl—there’s the whole fan-fest element, there are the parties that go with it, there’s the concert that surrounds the game. We’ll be doing all of that.
Plus, we’ve aded new events for a variety of reasons. The WTA Legends, it’s going to be fantastic to bring great champions like Martina Navratilova and Tracey Austin…back to their championships. Then the WTA Rising Stars, the under-23 invitational featuring those rising stars who haven’t made the Finals but we look on the horizon that they will make the Finals.
And then something I’m really excited about—WTA Future Stars, the first time we’ve entered the world of junior tennis, with an under-14 and under-16 event. Right now in 11 markets in Asia there are young girls who are playing their own junior Road to Singapore. The winner from each of those markets will come to Singapore and play their own WTA Future Stars Championships, and the finals of those events will be played on the big stage. I think that will be an incredible inspirational opportunity, as we really look at building our brand and contributing to sport development in Asia. Who knows, we might find a diamond in the rough.
To add to tourism and driving economic impact, we’re looking at additional industry conferences that we can host around the Finals. We’ll launch our first ever WTA coaching summit and the International Herald Tribune is holding their annual sports marketing conference in Singapore. It really brings together a season finale with multiple stakeholders of the industry to really help drive $160 million of economic impact and media value for Singapore, and to help us drive the value of this primary asset.
On the promise of this generation of WTA players:
Each generation takes it to the next level. This generation is in fact showing us what the next level of WTA tennis is going to be. It is a magical time, having an opportunity to have Serena, Venus, Maria—our established stars, still at the top of the game–but you’re seeing the rising stars, they’ve arrived. They’re pushing the all-time greats, and that just makes fantastic drama. Great, competitive tennis. It’s fantastic for our fans and our sponsors.
On Madison Keys:
How lucky are we to have athletes like Madison Keys performing at such a high level? I look at her as just a bright, young star of the WTA. She has the talent on the court, and she’s a smart, young business woman at the early age of 19. What I’m most impressed about is that she understands that we’re in the business because of our fans, and she knows that for the WTA to be competitive, for us to attract more sponsors, increase our television rights, and to drive our prize money, we have to give more to the fans. She comes into our player meetings quite refreshing because she gets it, that we have to give more to get more. Eugenie Bouchard is of the same mindset. So as we’re looking at our new strategic plans, I’m saying to the athletes, ‘How do we become the most fan-friendly sports-entertainment experience on the earth?’ They’re all contributing to ideas on what they can do and how we can engage our fans and deliver more to our fans. I’m incredibly excited to have Madison within the WTA rising stars roster.
On Sloane Stephens:
So much talent, also engaging. Understands we are in the sports-entertainment business and that is part of it. I think you asked earlier about the impact of Serena and Venus, you just have to look at this generation of athletes. We have 12 Americans in the top 100 right now. You look at Sloane, Madison, Taylor Townsend, Shelby—they all grew up watching Serena and Venus. Here they are now playing on the same stage as them. Very cool. Lots of talent in the pipeline. Lots of fan and business-savvy sports entertainers in the WTA. I’m really excited with the athletes and the opportunity that we have to build on the enormous success of the WTA today.