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Allaster’s $75 Million Sponsorship Bet Changes Tennis Business

Stacey Allaster faced a three-headed financial monster in 2009 when she became chief executive officer of the WTA, the women’s pro tennis tour.

The recession had squeezed sports that depend heavily on corporate sponsors. The tennis circuit, then called the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, hadn’t signed a new sponsor in four years. And its contract with its main backer, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB, was about to expire.

“When I first started, a lot of people were saying ‘Do you know what you are getting yourself into?’” Allaster said in a telephone interview from the WTA’s offices in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Less than two years later, Allaster, 47, has rebranded the tour, retained its biggest corporate supporter, and closed on a record $75 million in sponsorship deals, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its March 14 issue. Allaster, once a junior tennis player in Canada, has signed three new sponsors in the past year. The WTA said it’s close to signing two more for its season-ending championships, to be held in Istanbul for the next three years.

“It wasn’t always that easy, but she’s done well in using the best things that the tour has to offer,” said four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium.

The WTA was founded by 63 women, including Billie Jean King of the U.S., in a London hotel in 1973. Today it hosts 52 events in 33 countries and features stars like Serena Williams of the U.S. and Maria Sharapova of Russia. Each of the 10 top female tennis players now hails from a different nation.

Tennis is one of the fastest-growing sports in China, where the women’s tour opened an office in 2008 and now holds two tournaments annually. Clijsters, now ranked No. 2 in the world, won the Australian Open in January by beating Li Na, the first player from China in a major final.

Record Audience

The championship was viewed by 60 million Chinese viewers, the biggest tennis audience in the nation’s history, according to Beijing-based CSM Media Research. It will likely be that nation’s most-watched sports event of any kind this year, CSM predicted. The WTA has a four-year deal with state-owned broadcaster China Central Television to show women’s tennis in 335 million households.

Allaster also has tried to make matches more fan-friendly. She introduced on-court coaching -- allowing spectators to hear conversations between players and their microphone-equipped advisers -- and video replays to confirm line calls at all tour matches. She has increased the tour’s presence on social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. The women’s tour has more than twice as many Facebook fans as the men’s ATP World Tour. The WTA and its players combined now have more than 11.4 million fans across Facebook and Chinese social media.

Name Drop

As part of its current two-year deal with Lund, Sweden-based Sony Ericsson, reached in March 2010, the tour dropped the mobile-phone maker’s name and now calls itself the WTA. Sony Ericsson remains the lead global sponsor, retaining prime sign space at all tour matches.

The name change was crucial in attracting new sponsors, Allaster said.

“We’ve got that brand back,” she said. “It created ownership and clarity.”

Nigel Currie, director of the London-based sports marketing agency brandRapport, said women’s tennis “has become so big and so global that the wider branding opportunities probably outweigh the safer option of just going with the one sponsor and restricting yourself accordingly.”

Sony Ericsson said the tour’s geographic spread and social networking presence were reasons the company decided to remain a WTA sponsor. The company’s six-year relationship with the tour has given it “a very recognizable brand name across the world,” said Stephan Croix, Sony Ericsson’s head of global marketing partnerships.

Deal Signer

The WTA has since signed new agreements with Swedish cosmetics maker Oriflame Cosmetics SA, Chinese sports apparel maker Peak, and Jetstar, the budget unit of Australia’s Qantas Airways. The tour also renewed deals with London-based Travelex and Salt Lake City-based vitamin and health supplement maker Usana Health Sciences Inc.

“It’s now the WTA, rather than the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, which makes it marketable for us,” Michael Cervell, senior vice-president for global direct sales at Oriflame, said by telephone from his Stockholm office. “It’s something positive for the other sponsors who want to join the tour.”

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