A MEETING held in a central London hotel 40 years ago had a momentous impact on the business of women’s tennis which is still being felt to this day.
When Billie Jean King brought together the top female players of the day back in 1973 and founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), she was setting in motion a process which has led to the lucrative endorsements and prize money enjoyed by the stars of today.
“If Billie Jean King had not been in tennis but another sport then women’s tennis would not be where it is today,” the WTA’s chief executive Stacey Allaster told the BBC.
“She had the vision and the courage to form the WTA, and the belief that we could create a successful women’s tennis tour.”
In her four years at the helm, Allaster has built on those solid foundations — securing a record number of new sponsors and developing new revenue streams, as well as overseeing a global expansion of women’s tennis.
She has headed a business plan that has brought in more than US$210 million (£137m) in revenues from 2011 until now, and has also overseen a digital programme for the game which has sought to increase fan participation.
The WTA now has more than 2 500 players, representing 92 nations, competing at the WTA’s 54 events and four Grand Slams in 33 countries, with total prize money this year being some US$100m.
In fact there has been a 70% increase in women’s prize money since 2009, all tied to the growth in tournament revenues.
“That growth in prize money shows the strength of the women’s game. It is defying this global economic downturn that we have been seeing,” says Allaster.
More than 5,4 million people attended women’s tennis events in 2012, with millions more watching on television and digital channels.
It means that some of the biggest global brands are eager to be associated with the WTA, and sponsorship money — along with tournament revenues and TV deals — is a major foundation in the business model of the women’s game.
Big name backers include Dubai Duty Free, Oriflame, Jetstar, and Western Union. And in February, a “multiyear and multi-million dollar” global sponsorship deal was signed with office equipment maker Xerox.
“Why are our sponsors aligned with the WTA and our athletes?” asks Allaster. “I think it is because we have the best athletes in the world, who are truly global citizens, and who are also major figures in the entertainment world. They transcend sport.”
Allaster says the growth in sponsorship revenue has come about because of the needs of global brands to be more diverse.
“Xerox decided to invest in us because it had goals around diversity and emerging markets — we can deliver on both of those,” she said. “Also, the growing power of the female consumer means we are seeing more investment in women’s sport.”
Recently, the WTA celebrated having players from 10 different countries in the global top 10 for the first time ever, and the organisation now has more events in Asia than it does in Europe or the US.
“So there is this true global expansion of women’s tennis,” adds the Canadian.
“China and the entire Asia Pacific area is a huge opportunity for us. It is a strategic priority for us, and we have increased our event footprint in the area.”
Women’s tennis in the Asian region was given a significant boost when Li Na, from China, won the French Open title in 2011. Allaster recently called the player “the most important of the decade” in terms of the boost to tennis in Asia that she provides.
“She will be an inspiration and create more Li Nas. But she transcends China, she is the first Asia Pacific champion,” says Allaster.
The WTA is also looking to expand in Latin America and hopes to build on, and beyond, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
In today’s digital world, part of Allaster’s wider mission is to further encourage input from tennis fans.
“For me, the most amazing change in sport that we are seeing is fans’ consumption of sport — there is such an appetite for content,” she said.
The WTA is fortunate in having a huge amount of match footage as well as a wealth of off-court, “back-stage” footage.
“The notion of fan engagement is no longer an optional one. We have 60 million fans and they are using two screens to consume more data, and we — as sports properties — need to share more data with them.
“We want to go deeper for our fans who want more analytics from us.” However, challenges do remain. Tennis, like all other sports has to remain vigilant in the face of drug abuse and doping.
There is also the issue of player “grunting” in tennis, with calls from spectators and commentators for something to be done to curb the worse excesses.
“We are going to be working with the governing bodies to drive excessive grunting out of the game,” says Allaster. “The plan is about focusing on educating the next generation. My team has been out to international academies and events, and shown the players a video on what the fans think of grunting.”
On a parallel path, technicians are looking to a possible alternative that might monitor the volume of grunting, with an acoustic threshold being set.
The WTA has also been absorbing the loss of its title sponsor, Sony Ericsson, at the end of 2012, after a six-year partnership.
“Previously we had a title sponsor, and when they went away our organisation was turned upside down overnight,” she said. “We don’t have Sony, but we do have diversified revenue sources, and we are moving through it incredibly well.
“We had built up reserves for a rainy day and… we have been aggressive over the past three years in creating new assets.”
These include the new event series, the Tournament of Champions, which is being held in Bulgaria this year.