Commentary

Scott: It was time to hand over the reins

Originally Published: March 26, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

WTA chairman and chief executive Larry Scott will step down in June to become commissioner of the Pac-10 conference after leading the women's tour since 2003. Scott, 44, has spent his entire career in tennis, starting as a player, and also served as chief operating officer for the ATP. The native New Yorker will relocate from the WTA's headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla., to the Bay Area with his wife and three children to tackle the business of a sports empire he has observed only from afar up to now. "Being in Florida, it's been impossible not to get caught up in the passion of college sports,'' he told ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford by phone Wednesday. "It permeates everything. But I haven't had one favorite team. Having gone to Harvard, I haven't had a horse in the race.''

ESPN.com: People may be surprised that you would be hired for a major collegiate sports job. Are there more similarities than differences now in these top executives' jobs?

Larry Scott
Michael Heiman/Getty ImagesLarry Scott spearheaded unprecedented growth in the WTA, but it wasn't enough.

Larry Scott: As I learn more about the job, I'm learning how many similarities there are. There's governance, upholding the integrity and rules of the sport. There's supporting the members, whether they're players or member institutions. You have to work well with others. In tennis, it's the ITF and ATP -- with the Pac-10, it'll be the bowl partners, the other conference commissioners and the NCAA on national issues. One of my great skills is building a consensus, and if anyone's had to herd cats around a common vision, it's tennis. In the last few years, the WTA has marketed, repositioned and branded itself to unlock commercial value, and the Pac-10 wants to do the same thing -- reposition itself strategically in a very dynamic and challenging economic environment. I was blown away by the connections and parallels. Having said that, I have a lot to learn about the member institutions. It'll take a lot of listening, and I consider that one of my strengths.

Q: There's a perception that you're leaving while the going is good, that women's tennis may not have anywhere to go but down financially, especially with the volatile world economy.

Scott: I have great confidence in the future. There are no major agreements coming up anytime soon. [Sony Ericsson's title sponsorship runs through 2010.] We have equal prize money with the men's tour. I feel great about where the game is at. There's never a perfect time, but this is as good a time as any. When it became clear in the last several months of 2008 that there wasn't the possibility of a merger between the ATP and WTA -- and I was very public and open that that was the next step tennis needed to take -- it's fair to say I was disappointed. It was a bit of a turning point. I had done most of what could be done in terms of my skills to reposition and rebuild the WTA in its own right. When it became clear a merger wasn't going to happen, it was a chance for me to reflect on which direction I should go. Secondly, I was home a lot in December and January and after some soul-searching with my wife, I decided that I only had 10 more years before my children (ages 8, 7 and 5) were going to begin leaving home. If I could combine my professional interests with a job that involved less travel, and I could be the kind of family man I wanted to be.

Q: Just to clarify, were you ever officially a candidate for the top job at the ATP (now filled by former Nike executive Adam Helfant)?

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonThe emergence and prominence of the Williams sisters undoubtedly helped augment the WTA's stature.

Scott: They approached me at the U.S. Open [last year] and asked if I would be willing to leave the WTA, and I said no. However, I told them I thought it would be the perfect time for the tours to come together and merge. I proposed that, I lobbied and actively campaigned for it. Tennis was not ready for it. Let me correct that -- the WTA board was willing. I met with the ATP board in November, and they rejected it. I don't think it's going to happen in the near term, but I am confident it will happen in the long term. It makes sense.

Q: With your departure, three of the top jobs in tennis -- the ATP, the WTA and the USTA -- will have turned over in the past few months. Is this a pattern, how will it affect the sport, and do you feel as if you have any unfinished business?

Scott: I think it's just a coincidence. I don't see any connection. I hope it's an opportunity for the sport to have new leadership and fresh perspective. The thing that is common to all three -- and the ATP I'm intimately familiar with -- is fantastic management and bench strength. There's deep talent and I think all these transitions are going to be very smooth. My only regret is that I was not successful in persuading tennis that now was the time for a merger, to go forward and do it. I think it's as close to a perfect time as I could imagine to hand over the reins. The work on the Roadmap (new, streamlined tournament schedule) is done. We were able to finish Billie Jean King's campaign for equality and get equal prize money, finally. Our championship has been fully turned around from the tough days at the Staples Center [in Los Angeles] and is now a money-spinner for the Tour. Obviously the caveat is the world economy. It's going to create challenges for everyone. But with the things we can control, I feel like this is the perfect time.

Q: Finally, a U.S.-centric question, if you'll indulge me: How important is it for the overall health of the game to have another great American woman player emerge after the generation led by the Williams sisters retires?

Scott: It's extremely important. In an individual sport, people cheer for and follow national heroes. The U.S. is a critical market for tennis on a lot of different levels. Having said that, there's one other factor. Some of our global stars are big stars in New York, L.A. and in between. Certainly Maria Sharapova, who was born in Russia, has been fully embraced by Madison Avenue. Times have changed for sure, and I don't think there's any going back. It used to be just the Grand Slam nations that produced tennis players. The genie is out of the bottle in terms of globalization, and I don't think we'll ever go back to the time when three or four countries dominated.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.