WTA missing only one ingredient

7/25/2009 - Tennis

Venus Williams fixed her questioner with a glint-eyed stare when asked a negative question about the state of the game.

"Are you trying to be down on women's tennis?" she said, brushing off follow-up queries in the Wimbledon interview room. "I don't deal with down at all. I think women's tennis is fantastic."

From a broad perspective, who could argue? Despite occasional challenges from golf, basketball and soccer, tennis remains by far the premier sport for female athletes.

Financially, tennis falls in the mid- to upper range for professional sports; but almost uniquely among those sports, the top women generally earn money and fame comparable with that of their male counterparts.

Look at any year of Forbes' rankings of highest-paid sports stars; almost all the handful of women listed will be tennis players. Half the top 10 in a recent Harris poll of America's favorite female athletes were tennis players, with Venus and younger sister Serena Williams ranked second and first, respectively.

And despite a tough economic climate, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is offering its biggest-ever payouts this year. Total prize money on the tour was pegged at $77 million this year, up $10 million from last year.

Equal prize money, the goal that spurred the creation of the WTA in the 1970s, was achieved at all the Grand Slams in 2007 and at the four next-largest tournaments this year. "I'm humbled and honored to have finished off a campaign started by Billie Jean King in that regard," outgoing WTA CEO Larry Scott said earlier this month, adding, "I want to signal Venus Williams as well … in 2006, she came with me to meet with the Grand Slam committee here the day before she was going to contest the final."

The big picture may be rosy, but up close, things are much harder to get a handle on. Is the No. 1 really the No. 1? Is the new CEO really new? Is the money flowing or about to dry up? Nothing is quite as simple as it first seems.

Taking charge

So why the flak for Venus that day at Wimbledon?

At the time, the world No. 3 had just played some commanding tennis to win her semifinal match 6-1, 6-0. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the victim of the drubbing happened to be the No. 1 player in the world, Dinara Safina.

Wasn't it a little embarrassing for the tour, Venus was asked. But she wasn't having any of it. "I respect Dinara Safina immensely, and I think you should, too," she replied coolly.

But the result only reinforced the conspicuous absence of a legitimate dominant player in the women's game, a void that has been in place since Justine Henin retired while holding the top spot in May 2008. In practice, Serena has filled the gap by winning three of the past four majors. But the perception has taken on a life of its own, helped by the revolving door of No. 1s. Five women have held the ranking since Henin retired: Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Serena and Safina.

Until recently, the power vacuum extended from the court to the corner office. It was in March that CEO Larry Scott announced he was stepping down to become the commissioner of the Pac-10. He decided to look for new challenges after a pitch to merge the men's and women's tours got a thumbs-down from the ATP.

The news was unexpected and unsettling. Formerly the chief operating officer of the ATP tour, Scott ended a revolving door of WTA CEOs when he took the post in 2003. In addition to giving the women's tour respected and visible leadership, he more than doubled the tour's revenue, reeling in a number of lucrative financial deals capped by the $88 million title sponsorship agreement with Sony Ericsson.

Some of the tour's initiatives during this period were controversial: on-court coaching, heavy sponsor influence on management priorities and a shift toward Middle and Far Eastern markets somewhat at the expense of traditional venues in Europe and the United States. But there was little doubt the tour had become a slicker, richer operation overall.

This year marked the launch of Scott's brainchild: the WTA Roadmap. A complex package of reforms that is both more and less than it appears, the Roadmap essentially concentrates the tour's focus and resources on its top players and top tournaments. Members of the top 10 have the bulk of their schedule decided for them, and in return receive a slightly reduced workload and sharp rise in prize money (health and wealth).

The task of managing the revamped structure now falls to Stacey Allaster, who was serving as WTA president before being selected to step into Scott's shoes two weeks ago.

Allaster says Scott's vision for the tour is the reason she joined the WTA in the first place, so it's no surprise she intends to continue down a similar path.

"I'm a different person and I'll have a different leadership style, but in general I want to only improve upon the great foundation that he built," said Allaster, once the tournament director of the Canadian Open in Toronto.

"I think because I've come from the front line of selling tennis at the tournament level, I will bring quite a fan-centric and transactional focus."

The money supply

Formal acceptance of the Roadmap was achieved only after a long period of struggle and compromise, though disgruntled constituents remain. Getting the changes to take root will be one of Allaster's main goals.

The other big task will be trying to renew the tour's deal with Sony Ericsson, which ends at the end of next year.

"I've faced this challenge before, of renewing a title sponsor during tough economic times," said Allaster, referring to her experiences as a tournament director.

"In 2005, Sony Ericsson was a company that really was looking for brand awareness. [Now] I think we will be speaking to Sony Ericsson in a different way: 'Your company is now six years older, you're going to have different objectives, different strategy. … How can we adapt what we provide you?'"

Negotiations with the cell phone maker are projected to begin toward the end of this season. Officials are reluctant to speculate about the outcome, but will express a cautious (hopeful?) optimism.

Earlier this year, Sony Ericsson renewed its sponsorship of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, but for only one additional year through 2011. No event has bucked the economic trend more than Indian Wells, which became the BNP Paribas Open after signing a five-year deal with the French bank.

"There are opportunities out there," said Indian Wells tournament director Steve Simon. "We were fortunate enough to secure BNP Paribas, who came on in as title sponsor here, and it has been just a wonderful partnership to date. Our sales efforts from the tournament period have been very encouraging for 2010 sponsorship markets.

"So there are sponsorship dollars being spent, [but] they are obviously being scrutinized very heavily."

Having secured a financial cushion, Simon said the tournament's prize money increase for the women -- from $2.1 million last year to $4.5 million this year -- was "sustainable."

That's even if the Williams sisters continue their boycott of the event and the occasional top-10 player doesn't show up. "We committed to this for the long term," he said.

Micky Lawler, a WTA board member and director of women's tennis for sports agency Octagon, feels Sony Ericsson's now-established relationship with the WTA might be a factor in the upcoming renewal talks.

"From my experience, I can tell you that companies have significant emotional tie-in to tennis," she said. "Ultimately, it will be a business decision. But if it's a business decision that's on the cusp, then I think all the emotional factors -- the social impact and what this partnership has come to be -- will play a major role."

These are the preoccupations of the game's business executives, but it's important to remember that all this is far removed from the mindset of fans who focus on players and matches.

It's the matches, stupid

Women's tennis might be an unqualified success in the context of women's sports as a whole, but the usual point of comparison is closer to home: men's tennis.

Recent reviews have not been in the ladies' favor. The men's game is enjoying a golden age centered on the historic rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The women's game, meanwhile, has lacked an overarching narrative to help penetrate public consciousness.

That doesn't reflect an innate deficiency. The current top females have entertaining, varied personalities and reasonably distinctive games. The true missing link has been great matches: big names playing big matches on big occasions.

Why the trend? Inconsistency, injury and early retirements. Behind them lies a complex cocktail of positive and negative factors: greater depth, increased power and fitness, ever-expanding publicity obligations and, not least, self-conflict about the rewards and pressures of the game.

Grand Slam finals involving the women have recently been disappointing. And for better or worse, those are the encounters that have the biggest influence on popular perception.

It's a frustrating reality for executives, because unlike calendar changes or new marketing campaigns, what happens on court isn't in their control. The good news is that the state of competition tends to be cyclical, so today's parity gives way to tomorrow's dominance and back around again.

Ten years ago, the current situation was reversed: The men were in a period of flux and being compared unfavorably with the women, who were enjoying a wave of mainstream interest thanks to a glamorous new generation that included the Williamses, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, in addition to well-established figures like Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati.

"The sport goes through different product life cycles," Allaster said. "I think women's tennis is incredibly strong right now, with great depth, and we are in a period of time where we don't have a dominance of a No. 1 or No. 2 player.

"We're in this particular period of time, whereas the men right now are in this fantastic period of time with the Roger and Rafa rivalry, and Andy [Roddick]'s performance at Wimbledon was incredible.

"All of this together as an aggregate is great for tennis."

Although it can't order great matches on demand, the tour does have a role to play in creating a stage for such matches to take place: developing quality tournaments, attracting good fields and getting them on television for people to see.

The Grand Slams, which are run by the ITF, remain the main venues. But a strong circuit of WTA-associated tournaments helps build rivalries and creates familiarity with emerging faces, as well as produces some entertaining competition in its own right.

"You need good product at every level," Lawler said. "First the players have to play well, then the tournaments have to put on a good event, and the tours have to follow."

Venus' defense of the women's game at Wimbledon might have been noble. But earlier that same day, Serena -- despite showing Safina very little respect indeed -- provided a more eloquent defense by playing a classic semifinal against Elena Dementieva.

It was one of the most memorable women's matches in years. Serena saved a match point to win 6-7 (4), 7-5, 8-6 after 2 hours, 49 minutes of stellar play. Needless to say, there were no questions about the game being embarrassed after that encounter.

In the business of sport, the score line remains the bottom line.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.