- Sandra Harwitt
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The buzz around the tennis world is that the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour won't be welcoming an outside face to their ranks when the soon-to-be departing Larry Scott is replaced as chairman and chief executive officer. Word on the street is that WTA Tour President Stacey Allaster, positioned directly behind Scott on the executive staff roster, is his likely successor.
Two days of initial WTA board of directors meetings last week ended with no decision as to who would fill the vacancy when Scott moves on to become the commissioner of the Pac-10 on July 1. The Tour did release a statement that included the following: "The Board is committed to conducting a comprehensive, thorough and deliberate process in order to find the very best person to lead the continued growth of the Tour and sport. The Board will continue further work on this matter over the coming weeks and we expect to have further news coming out of our next Board meeting in Madrid in May."
Shortly after the board meetings, ESPN.com caught up with Octagon agent and WTA board member Micky Lawler at the MPS Group Championships in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Lawler was more forthcoming than the formal WTA statement in suggesting she'd be amazed if the next WTA chairman and CEO didn't come from within the organization.
"Yes," said Lawler, emphatically, when asked if she believed Scott's replacement is already comfortably ensconced at the WTA.
She added that she's aware of the tour chatter that Allaster is considered the front-runner for the position.
"I think Stacey would be a great choice," Lawler said. "She's run one of the most successful tournaments on the tour. She's got a great relationship with the players. She'd be very, very good, but I do think it is too soon to tell you. I know there are a lot of interested candidates, even from outside of the organization. It just depends on the pieces of the puzzle, because they have to all fit perfectly.
"This isn't all about Stacey. And this isn't just about replacing the CEO. When somebody like Larry leaves this position you have to shuffle the strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, there are some very, very talented people there. Larry did a lot to strengthen the sport and bring investment into the sport, and that strengthening process needs to continue, because momentum cannot be lost."
Inside the WTA, there's the prevailing opinion that Allaster's appointment should be a foregone conclusion. As one WTA staffer said, "I think it would be a kick in the teeth if they didn't offer it to her first. I don't see why they would want to spend a lot of money on a search committee when they have someone available to move right into the position."
Clearly, Allaster's credentials cannot be undermined.
Before joining the WTA Tour in January 2006, Allaster was a vice president of Tennis Canada and the tournament director of both the Rogers Cup men's and women's tournaments. During her tenure in that position, she increased Rogers Cup tournament revenue by 300 percent and brought in $200 million in sponsorship funding, including Rogers as a title sponsor. In May 2003, one of Canada's national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, named Allaster one of the top 25 leaders in Canadian sport.
Allaster's presence at the WTA, throughout the formulation of the tour's new road map, suggests a smooth transition if she takes over. Many see it as a bonus that she currently resides in St. Petersburg, Fla., considering the small community has been a stumbling block in hiring WTA Tour personnel in the past. However, some worry that the travel required by the CEO could prove burdensome since Allaster has young children at home.
"I think she deserves a chance to take that position, she was a part of the roadmap," said Butch Buchholz, the chairman and founder of the Sony Ericsson Open. "I think Larry brought her in because of her knowledge of the tournament side, and I think she knows the players' issues. I would be very surprised if the board decides to go out and hire a headhunter and do a search. She's very level-headed, she's experienced, she understands the television side and I don't think that there's anything she doesn't know."
One bonus to promoting Allaster is that the women's tour would have a female leader. But as Scott proved, that certainly isn't a requirement to doing right by the tour.
"I'd like to see it be a woman, but I don't think you put a woman in there just because you want to make some kind of strong statement," said ESPN commentator Mary Carillo. "I would just like it to be someone thoughtful, well-considered, and somebody who not only respects the players, but [that] corporations can respect, because everybody is going to have to know that they're in good hands."
Buchholz believes Scott's immediate interest in hiring Allaster was because she met the criteria to be his eventual replacement. "I'm assuming he brought her in with the idea that when he left he would feel good passing the baton to her," Buchholz said.
According to Aldo Liguori, the corporate vice president and head of global communications and public relations for Sony Ericsson, the worldwide sponsor of the WTA Tour, his bosses are not worried about their WTA involvement sans Scott. Sony Ericsson is contracted as the overall WTA Tour sponsor through 2010, and the company has until the end of 2009 to determine if they want to extend their contract.
"Representing the company, I can say that we're not concerned," Liguori said. "Larry leaves in place a very strong team, and the road map. I can imagine that whoever takes over Larry's role might want to put their own mark onto the WTA going forward, which is only natural, but I believe that in principle there shouldn't be any effect on us."
Always practical, Carillo is looking beyond Scott's replacement to important big-picture concerns the WTA is bound to face in these uncertain economic times.
"I know whoever inherits that role has some big issues," Carillo said. "There's some contracts that have big money attached to them, and in a couple of years, with the way the world economy is going, it's going to be very hard to keep that going. It's going to be that way across the board, and it's a funny time with women's tennis. There's the whole thing with Venus and Serena getting older, Maria [Sharapova] still not back, Justine [Henin] doesn't look like she's going to come back. It's just an important time for us to have a very strong leader in that position, and I'm not sure who that's going to be."
Around the tour, Scott's sudden announcement last month that he was leaving came as a huge surprise.
At least for now, tennis insiders are not anticipating being caught off guard in regard to Scott's successor. It seems a widespread conclusion that when the WTA board announces its decision, Allaster is likely to ascend from heiress apparent to sovereign of the WTA Tour.
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
Don't expect the WTA Tour's search for its chairman and CEO to mirror the frantic search the ATP conducted earlier this year. All fingers are pointing to current president Stacey Allaster.