The Grand Slam Eluding Women's Tennis

Why it's not capitalizing on crowd-pleasing success

In the nexus of sports, sex, and entertainment, no league is hotter than women's tennis. The players of the WTA Tour Inc. are arguably the most powerful bunch of female athletes in recent history -- at least as popular as their male counterparts. But despite its bevy of bankable stars, the WTA operates in controlled turmoil.

Unable to escape its byzantine structure, in which players, tournaments, and big management companies such as IMG and Octagon refuse to relinquish their individual fiefdoms, women's tennis is undermining itself. It has no meaningful broadcast deal, TV ratings are flattening, corporate sponsors are shying away, and prize money is leveling off. More important, years of dismal marketing efforts and leadership turnover have started to erode the brand.

"I said 15 years ago they should blow [the WTA] up and start over," said 46-year-old Martina Navratilova at January's Australian Open, where she won the mixed doubles title. "I still feel that way."

In its latest effort to impose order, the WTA on Mar. 29 appointed Larry Scott, COO of the men's ATP Tour Inc., as the third chief executive of the WTA in the past six years. Scott succeeds former Nike Inc. executive Kevin Wulff, who quit after 18 months.

Scott says his vision for the WTA will be evident within the next 100 days, but he may have few lessons to bring with him from the men's tour. The ATP is battling dissent over pensions, falling prize money, and battered TV ratings. And players such as 2002 Wimbledon champ Lleyton Hewitt have formed a breakaway group.

How bad is the disarray at the WTA? In addition to Wulff's surrender, the tour lost body-care company Sanex, a unit of Sara Lee Corp. (SLE ), as its global title sponsor at the end of last year, a deal valued at around $6 million annually. The WTA has now gone through three title sponsors in the past decade. So the tour enters 2003 with 40% fewer sponsorship dollars than it had the year before. It did sign Porsche as its North American sponsor but has no sponsors for Europe or Asia.

The tour's structure deserves much of the blame. Unlike most leagues, the WTA has no central authority and does not own the assets -- namely, players and tournaments -- that it's trying to sell. Nor does it control the main events, the Grand Slams, which are run independently. On a shoestring, the decentralized WTA must serve scores of conflicting interests while peddling a product around the globe. "It's run more like an academic institution than a business," says departed CEO Wulff.

The biggest knock: the lack of a U.S. TV package. While other sports with individually controlled events, such as the PGA Tour Inc. and NASCAR, have pooled resources and created multimillion-dollar deals, each WTA tournament goes it alone. The upshot is a gaggle of contracts instead of one organized package for advertisers to sink their teeth into. "What you have is a very confused marketplace," says Neal Pilson, a former head of CBS Sports and a consultant who has been retained by the WTA.

Still, it's hard to argue that women's tennis is a disaster. In a difficult business climate, the tour is healthier than many leagues, such as the contracting WNBA. Buoyed by the flamboyant appeal of players such as Serena Williams -- who recently posed in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue -- and sassy newcomers such as ninth-ranked Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, the WTA still packs stadiums and posts respectable TV ratings.

Tourwide attendance has risen in the past five years, to a record 4.5 million in 2002. With some $52 million in prize money, players are competing for $1 million more than last year -- though that's still about $25 million less than the men. After rising during the past few years, TV ratings are flattening but have still outranked the men in six of the past eight Grand Slam finals. And the WTA recently sealed a $40 million extension of its 1998 contract with Hollywood producer New Regency Enterprises Inc., which will continue to control international TV rights to the tour's top 28 tournaments through 2007.

Nevertheless, a lot of other businesses would be knocking the cover off the ball if they had the WTA's roster of stars. Just consider the superathletes who are recognizable by only their first names -- Michael, Tiger, Lennox, Lance, and, um,.... Then think about the number of women tennis players who need no introduction other than Serena, Venus, Anna, and Jennifer -- to name four. That tell you anything?

By Douglas Robson on the road with the WTA Tour

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