Women's Tennis Changes Its Game

There was no honeymoon for Stacey Allaster when she became chief executive officer of WTA, the women's pro tennis tour, in 2009. 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. Worse, its contract with Sony Ericsson was about to expire. "When I first started, a lot of people were saying 'Do you know what you are getting yourself into?'" recalls Allaster.

Less than two years later, Allaster has rebranded the tour, retained its biggest corporate supporter, and closed on a record $75 million in sponsorship deals. Allaster, once a junior tennis player in Canada, has signed three new corporate sponsors for the women's tour in the past year. The WTA says 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," says four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters.

The WTA was founded by 63 women, including Billie Jean King, in a London hotel in 1973. Today it hosts 52 events in 33 countries and features tennis stars like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. 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. The women's tour's current No. 2 player, Belgium's Clijsters, won the Australian Open in January by beating Li Na, the first player from China in a major final. That match was viewed by 60 million Chinese, making it the most watched tennis match in Chinese history, according to CSM Media Research. It will likely be that nation's most-watched sporting event of any kind this year, CSM predicts. The WTA has a four-year deal with state-owned broadcaster China Central Television to show women's tennis in 335 million households.

Besides working to boost the popularity of tennis in foreign markets, Allaster has tried to make matches more fan-friendly. She has introduced on-court coaching—allowing spectators to hear conversations between players and their mic'd advisers—and video instant replays to confirm officials' line calls at all tour matches. She also 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.

As part of its current two-year deal with 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 signage at all tour matches. The name change was crucial in attracting new sponsors, Allaster said. "We've got that brand back," she says. "It created ownership and clarity."

Nigel Currie, director of London-based sports marketing agency brandRapport, says 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 says the tour's geographic spread and social networking presence—most of its top players send out daily Twitter updates to their fans—were reasons for its decision 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," says Stephan Croix, head of global marketing partnerships.

WTA has since signed new agreements with Swedish cosmetics maker Oriflame Cosmetics, 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. "It's now the WTA, rather than the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, which makes it marketable for us," says Michael Cervell, senior vice-president for global direct sales at Oriflame. "It's something positive for the other sponsors who want to join the tour."

The bottom line: A rebranding push by the WTA has positioned the women's pro tennis tour for more sponsorships and growth in tennis-crazed China.

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