Challenges aplenty for new CEO Allaster

7/14/2009 - Tennis

In the end, it was the great no-surprise hire.

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour was in the market for a new chairman and CEO after Larry Scott announced he was resigning back in March.

A high-powered search firm was consulted to round up star-studded candidates. A number of interesting names were bandied around the tour rumor mill; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the most unique person mentioned.

The prime candidate from the outset, though, was WTA Tour insider Stacey Allaster, who was hired for a newly created WTA president position in 2006.

Allaster, who arrived at the WTA Tour directly from serving as Tennis Canada vice president and tournament director, always hoped that if Scott chose to move on, she'd slip into the CEO spot.

Although she didn't receive an automatic thumbs-up for the promotion from the WTA board of directors, the 46-year-old Canadian was never discouraged.

"It was an extensive and long process, but I was thrilled with the outcome, and in the end it was great to go through the process," Allaster said. "It was the right thing for the organization, and I think it was the right thing for me. I believe I grew during the process both personally and professionally, and it's given me an understanding what it means to be the leader of an organization. I'm in good stead now, and I'm at the starting gate ready to work with our team and our board."

WTA board members always acknowledged Allaster's talents for the job. But they felt an inherent obligation to explore a larger candidate pool before making a decision.

"The board had a huge responsibility to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour to deliver the best candidate for the job, and we felt it was important for the tour, and for Stacey, that we leave no stone unturned," said Micky Lawler, a board member and an agent at Octagon. "Stacey's style is one of building consensus, and she works in a culture of optimism and positivism. She always approaches any opportunity, or any issue, from the eyes of a very passionate fan, and if that wasn't obvious before we started the process, it became very obvious throughout the process."

When Scott's pending departure presented Allaster with the opportunity to pursue the CEO position, she sought out counsel from former WTA Tour CEO Anne Person Worcester, who now serves as tournament director for the Pilot Pen tennis tournament.

"[Allaster] and I had a lunch and talked about this in Miami the day after Larry resigned, and I told her that being No. 1 is always different than being No. 2," Worcester said. "The buck stops with No.1. I also told her it was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that may never come her way again and that I supported her.

"She's a strategic thinker, but at the same time, she understands the day-to-day running of the tour. She's very fair and very reasonable, and the players can relate to her, especially since she's a woman. And she has integrity beyond reproach."

Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation and an alternate on the WTA Tour Board of Directors, also praised Allaster's appointment: "Stacey is highly qualified for this position with years of experience both with the Tour and also as a former vice president of Tennis Canada. She has earned the respect of the players, tournaments and other key stakeholders in tennis and is a very worthy successor to Larry Scott."

Allaster's advancement comes at a time when many businesses are facing the challenge of growing during tough global financial times.

There are concerns about the future, especially considering the Sony Ericsson contract as the overall WTA Tour sponsor ends after the 2010 season.

ESPN analyst Mary Carillo, who referred to Allaster as "always being the clear choice," voiced concern for what could lie ahead.

"Obviously, the biggest challenge is what's going to happen when the contracts are up," Carillo said. "I think more than anything the challenge is going to be the health of the tour and the commitment of the players, and the effort to secure good sponsorship in a challenged economy."

Allaster, who is encouraged by the fact that Sony Ericsson recently extended their sponsorship deal of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, is convinced the tour can continue to successfully market itself to prime investors.

"We're going to work through our business opportunities in the coming months and then we'll be in position to stabilize and take it to the next level of growth," Allaster said. "We're in the strongest financial position we've ever been in. We've got diversified revenue with long-term contracts. I think our circuit structure is right and is all about delivering top players to top events, which will only build on our credibility within the game, with fans and our attractiveness with sponsors."

Worcester, who became the first woman to lead a professional sports organization, took over as WTA Tour CEO in 1994. It was trying times. A Sports Illustrated headline had just questioned, "Is Tennis Dying?" The women's tour was running on a $2 million deficit, had recently lost key sponsors Virginia Slims and Kraft, and lacked an international TV contract.

Comparing her situation to the state of the WTA Tour today, Worcester believes Allaster is inheriting a healthy organization with limitless possibilities.

"I don't view the current climate as being daunting," Worcester said. "The viability of the sport always ebbs and flows. They have a terrific sponsor in Sony Ericsson and they're doing everything to keep them in that global spot. There's so much stability in their coffers, as well as commercial partners, as well as players who understand their responsibilities, the WTA is light years ahead of where we were 15 years ago."

Nevertheless, the WTA is not as solid a product as its ATP counterpart. Beyond the trendy trio of Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the tour doesn't have consistent marquee names to promote.

"You have two to three players who talentwise have stepped up above the others, but that haven't been consistent in how much they play the last couple of years," said Adam Barrett, a Sony Ericsson Open and Bank of the West Classic tournament director.

"The other group, you have a talented group of women, who have the ability to have marquee value, but none of them -- Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, and even Ana Ivanovic -- have consistently stepped up to win the big event. And like everything else, unless you win the big events, you don't have that marketing value."

John Arrix, the MPS group championships tournament director, feels there's one area where Allaster lacks experience: "I think the one aspect that she'll face and may have some uncertainty toward is how to maximize the opportunities from a media point of view over the next couple of years. With the media world changing, and the digital component being so important, it's will be knowing how to maximize that to help grow not only tennis, but sport altogether."

In the final analysis, the executive search was nothing beyond a formality as Allaster was, undoubtedly, the presumptive heiress. That clout could put a lot of pressure on Allaster as she takes charge. But in her mind, she's just continuing the natural progression of the journey she began when she first joined the WTA Tour.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.