Time was right for Scott to move on
On Tuesday, Larry Scott announced he was leaving his position as CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour to become commissioner of the Pac-10 Conference, effective July 1.
The surprise move -- some in the tennis community expressed shock -- underlined a dramatic turnover at the very pinnacle of the sport.
In less than three months now, arguably the top three jobs in tennis have been vacated. At the end of December, Arlen Kantarian left his post as the United States Tennis Association's head of pro tennis after nine years. In January, the ATP World Tour replaced outgoing executive chairman Etienne de Villiers with former Nike executive and NHL lawyer Adam Helfant.
"Now is the right time for me to embrace a new challenge consistent with my family and personal goals," Scott said in a statement.
This might be closer to the mark than many of those sterile, carefully vetted quotes that are typically made available for press consumption.
Now probably is the optimum time for Scott to leave the women's game, which, after struggling over the years, is enjoying unprecedented financial health in uncertain economic times. Scott negotiated a six-year, $88 million contract with Sony Ericsson, and the WTA's television contracts are the best in its history.
Scott, a graduate of Harvard University, is an American and this country is where his locus of power and best contacts reside. With Venus and Serena Williams turning 29 and 28 this year, they will not be major players for much longer. The game is turning increasingly global and, going forward, that would likely mean longer days and more trips abroad for a father of three young children.
By contrast, the Pac-10 job is a relatively cushy gig in which Scott's world will shrink to the West Coast. And if you're thinking he's taking a pay cut, think again. According to the SportsBusiness Journal, Scott earned $1.6 million in 2007 -- more than all but seven of his tennis players. The imminent retirement of Tom Hansen leaves a position that could well pay him more -- for less work and fewer headaches. The highest-paid conference commissioner reportedly is the Big Ten's Jim Delany, who made $2.6 million in 2008. The SEC pays its commissioner $1.8 million.
It's quite possible the daily grind of functioning in consensus-building mode in a sport that has no centralized government was a major factor, too.
"The top three jobs, or the three toughest jobs?" Kantarian said Tuesday night, laughing when the subject was broached. "Regardless of the differences the three of us had, we had one common agenda: to shake up the sport a bit and leave it better for the future.
"Some people were surprised by this. In my case, I'm not surprised. You've got to plow through these initiatives with tremendous patience. The ability to build a consensus, to be thick-skinned and take shots from the purists ... that's not the reason I left, but it certainly wears on you."
As Kantarian pointed out, it can take two or three years to achieve change like instant replay, equal prize money or more combined women's and men's events when there is no buck-stops-here commissioner. Tennis is a complicated matrix composed of the two tours and their players, four Grand Slams that wield enormous power and a galaxy of smaller tournaments with vastly different agendas spread across the four corners of the world.
Remember, before Scott's run as WTA chief, he spent a dozen years in various management capacities at the ATP, including chief operating officer. When Israel's Shahar Peer was refused entry into the United Arab Emirates before February's Dubai Tennis Championships, it was just another reminder how difficult it can be to lead a global sport.
"Certain folks have the self-confidence to move along at the top," Kantarian said. "That's the case with Larry. He moved the needle in one of the most difficult, politically charged sports in the business. Looking at the picture today, you could ask what more is there that one could accomplish."
There was a time not so long ago when it looked like the ATP and WTA tours might merge. People who know him say that Scott thought he was a person uniquely qualified to lead that mega-entity into the future. The window on the merger appears to have closed and, after apparently falling out of consideration for the vacant ATP job, Scott has made the decision to cast his lot with major college football and basketball.
As my colleague Bonnie Ford pointed out, there are probably fewer visa problems in the Pac-10.
In the final analysis, de Villiers ran afoul of the players and, after a series of awkward missteps, was essentially asked to leave. Though it has never been fully explained, there is anecdotal evidence that Kantarian's growing power base unnerved some in the USTA ranks. Scott's case feels different.
"I'm sure the tour would never have wanted this," said ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver. "It's a real loss for tennis. He'll go down as one of the best leaders they've ever had."
Shriver, apprised of the news late Tuesday, said she was stunned.
"I was at Indian Wells for two days of meetings, and I saw Larry a week ago Saturday at WTA Alumni Night," Shriver said. "It was a very well-kept secret."
Scott, who was not made available to ESPN.com for this story, is expected to explain his reasoning on Wednesday afternoon in Miami.
Said Serena Williams from the tournament in Miami, "I'm sad to see Larry move on in his professional career. He has been a strong visionary leader for the tour and done so much for players. I wish him and his family all the best in the next chapter in their lives."
The same doubtless goes for Kantarian, who was recently introduced as a consultant for the Miami Dolphins.
"Maybe they can use this to lobby for a commissioner of the sport," Kantarian said. "I'm just not sure that will happen in this lifetime."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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