by Steve Flink
In less than two weeks - on the first of January to be precise - Stacey Allaster will reach a significant milestone in her distinguished tenure as a leader for the WTA Tour. It was on that day nearly five years ago that Allaster took on the newly created role of President for the women’s tour, standing ably as second in command behind then Chairman and CEO Larry Scott. When Scott departed in the summer of 2009, it was no startling development to those who know her that Allaster become the new Chairman and CEO. Highly intelligent, a savvy businesswoman, and a natural leader with an uncommonly orderly mind, Allaster took over her new and exalted position on July 13, 2009 for the WTA Tour, and with her understated self assurance and unflappable demeanor, she has never looked back. As a longtime observer of this sport, I have seen a multitude of leaders move through the corridors of power in the women’s game, and my belief is unequivocal: Allaster is among the very best ever to reside at the top of the administrative game.
Late last week, I spent a productive 43 minutes on the phone with Allaster, listening to her expansive views on a wide range of topics. The clarity of her thinking was evident throughout as she answered questions thoughtfully and frankly. At the outset, I wanted to know what has been most surprising for her since she started as CEO. Allaster replied earnestly, “Honestly, there really haven’t been any surprises. I have been involved now in men’s and women’s tennis for over twenty years, worked with the [Canadian] federation, worked with the ATP and was part of building the Masters Series, and I was on the board for the WTA and worked with Larry for three-and-a-half years. So I think I have a very good lens into what my members think, and what all of the governing bodies are thinking.”
But that is not to say that Allaster has not witnessed some fundamental changes in and around her universe since arriving at the WTA. As she points out, “When I reflect about change in the world and what is happening that is such an opportunity for our sport, there is this whole area of social media and the engagement of fans and their insatiable appetite to stay connected with these short sound bites from our players. Five million fans are connected through all of our players on Facebook and Twitter, so it is just exponential growth and a terrific opportunity for women’s tennis to grow our fan base. That blows me away as it relates to what has happened in a very short period of time.”
In that time, Allaster has set a certain tone as a leader,stating her views lucidly and even forcefully, yet always coming across as a voice of reason. How much was she influenced by Larry Scott or others who once were in charge of the organization? She replies, “I definitely have a very collaborative leadership style. Because my professional career started at Tennis Canada - a not for profit - it was again about serving players and growing the sport, which I am doing here at the WTA with serving players andtournaments. You need to build consensus amongst a variety of different interest groups. We are a very important member of the tennis family, but only one member. For the WTA to be successful we need to collaboratively work with all of the other members of the tennis family. I have a very strong team around me, and I definitely learned that from Larry. Surround yourself with brilliant and dedicated and talented people and you can achieve anything. I really like to share the control, empower people to get on with it, and I don’t mind taking a back seat and letting everybody celebrate in the success.”
They call that inner security, and Allaster seems to have it in abundance. Elaborating on her transition to the role as CEO and the comfort she has in wearing that robe, Allaster says, “There was definitely what Larry would call an ‘Aha’ moment for me at the U.S. Open in 2009 with the episode with Serena [and the lineswoman]. That was probably the first time I really had to be there in the spotlight. That moment for me was finding out what it really means to be the CEO of the WTA Tour, because now everybody is looking to you as to what your reaction is going to be. You grow and learn from those moments.For me it has been a natural transition with the staff and with the members, and a very good transition with the athletes. I was a tournament director and I understand what the players need from a tournament to perform at their very best on and off the court. It has been such an honor for me to work with the world’s best athletes and together I think we had a fantastic 2010.”
In many ways, the women did indeed have an inspiring 2010 campaign, with Serena Williams taking two major titles, Francesca Schiavone capturing her first Grand Slam tournament singles championship at Roland Garros, and the ever popular Kim Clijsters defending her U.S. Open title. But - at least as I saw it - there was some ongoing instability in the upper regions of the game. Justine Henin returned magnificently after 20 months away but suffered an injury at Wimbledon and was gone for the year. Serena never played an official match after Wimbledon after a bizarre foot injury, and Caroline Wozniacki was immensely consistent but finished the year at No. 1 despite not winning a major. Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer made more history and the men’s game seemed much more stable at the top.
Asked to address this identity problem, Allaster answered,“We are going through a different cycle than men’s tennis. There have always been periods where we have had a dominant No. 1 and No. 2. We had Chrissie and Martina and their rivalry and Steffi and Monica. So we are just in this different phase now. We have depth and a mix of veterans along with young up and comers. But when I look at 2010 I think we had an incredible year, including growth in attendance and in our number of television hours that was great for the exposure of women’s tennis. Caroline is a fantastic bright new star for women’s tennis and she won six tournaments in 2010. I know she is very focused on wanting to win a major. Kim comes back and repeats at the U.S. Open and that is storybook. Serena did win two Slams before her freak accident and Justine played unbelievable the first half of the year before her injury. Zvonareva made those back to back finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and she is a talented player who is really knocking at the door. And Stosur and Schiavone gave us an unbelievably emotional French Open and became national heroes in their countries. I know 2011 will be very interesting for us and so will 2012.”
Looking at off court progress made by the WTA in 2010 - especially in expanding their alliance with the ATP - Allaster unhesitatingly points to a primary source of pride. “ TennisTV.com is what I am most proud of, simply because it is the first program where we have actually had our commercial rights together on the same platform with the ATP so fans can watch men’s and women’s tennis on the same platform. This is about what is best for the fans and for the sport. Our brands will shine once these fans are engaged watching the product and with 23 combined or back to back events in 2011 [with the men and women], TennisTV.com is the perfect example of where we need to get to. Our teams at the WTA and ATP are working very cooperatively. We share the same HR person. She works here one week and then goes to the ATP at Ponte Vedra the next week. Our IT departments are now merged as one. And we are launching a joint officiating program in 2011. That has never happened.”
There is surely a lot of common ground being built between the WTA and ATP, and Allaster points to the great relationship she hasdeveloped with ATP Executive Chairman Adam Helfant. The two tours are looking for ways to grow together, which is admirable. But the sport has so many administrative layers, and diverse power bases. The ITF runs Fed Cup and Davis Cup, and the four Grand Slam nations all stake their claim to authority. I have long believed a commissioner would be the best solution for a sport with somany competing interests. How does Allaster feel about that notion?
She responds, “We as a sport have looked very internal in managing our power bases and we should definitely be working far more closely together to see how we can compete as a sport externally against all of the other economic forces at play. Is it a commissioner [we need]? Each of these governing bodies we have in tennis wants to continue to control their business, much like countries want to control their citizens, etcetera… We should as asport examine our alternative governance models where nobody has to give up their power but where we can all work together to enhance our own businesses and to enhance the collective business of tennis. We have got a lot of new leaders in tennis with myself and Adam Helfant at the ATP, at the USTA with Gordon Smith, change at Tennis Australia with Geoff Pollard no longer the chairman, change at the French Federation and change now at Wimbledon. The chairmen of these Grand Slam events know they need good professional staffs to maximize opportunities.We are all saying a lot of the same things and I do see a collective spirit tosee where we can cooperate even more.”
I believe that both Fed Cup and Davis Cup have been sorely obscured by spreading out the dates of the competition throughout the year and confusing the public. Would Allaster like to see Fed Cup put back into a compressed time frame, thus encouraging all of the leading players to commit and heightening public interest? “First and foremost,” she says, “international team competition is a great promotion for our sport. Fans can embrace their national heroes. But ultimately the ITF owns Fed Cup and the WTA does not. It is not up to the WTA to tell Fed Cup what their members need, but I have a responsibility to work with the ITF and to represent our players’ needs, to look at the impact Fed Cup has on our calendar. We have our eight week off season and we want to protect that. I would certainly be open to any changes that would make Fed Cup shine very brightly but ultimately it is an ITF decision.”
Allaster realizes that the WTA was ahead of the game in shortening their season, and that move has been met with universal approval in the tennis community. Yet injuries keep occurring at a sometimes alarming rate.How can the injury syndrome somehow be controlled? Allaster asserts, “We are two years now into the new circuit structure where there are ten events the top players need to commit to. The players are getting used to a new schedule of periodization.We know that Caroline Wozniacki is not going to play 20-plus events like she did in 2010 and she will adjust her schedule. We need to continue to monitor the quotient of play against the injuries. What was very interesting at our Championships in Doha was that we didn’t get one court call. The athletes who were there for that tournament never once called for a trainer. Serena’s injury after Wimbledon was freaky, Venus is 30 and has always managed her quotient of play and allowed herself to still be performing at an incredibly high level,and Justine’s injury at Wimbledon was a freak one. It shows how tough women’s tennis is and the demands on the athletes. You can’t say that those three players were injured from overplaying.”
Fair enough. But what can the increasingly sophisticated training community do to stop more of these injuries from occurring in the first place? “No question," answers Allaster, “that it still comes back to the preventative. The training off court is becoming ever more important to deal with the demands of competitive play. The other important area is when players can take a break. We have three weeks after Wimbledon on purpose. They all feel like they can put it down for a week or two then. For the top women this is a mid season break that is almost forced on them by not have a premier event in that three week period of time. But science wise there is more work to be done to see the evolution of how the women are hitting the ball and how they are preparing. I believe a lot of this has to do with when the players are young and the formations of their patterns of play back then impacting their performances once they make it to the pros.”
The conversation shifts to the concept of a combined Year End Championships for the men and women. The view here is that a joint Masters Championships would be more successful for both tours than either event is now on its own. Butch Buchholz once tried to make this dream a reality in a major market like Madison Square Garden in New York, with London or Paris as alternatives. But it never came to pass. Addressing this topic, Allaster says,“If we look at the four most successful events in our sport, there is a common denominator: big stages in big markets, men and women combined. There can be no denying a men’s and women’s Year End Championships would be very good for the fans and for our sport. What it comes down to a lot is the scheduling of the calendar and the commercial deal. But it would be great for our sport.”
Speaking with Allaster in depth about weighty topics, it is strikingly apparent that here is a big picture thinker, open to new ideas,ready to advance tennis in any way she can. I asked her about some of her long range ambitions. She replied, “Long term, at some point in time - no pun intended - we are going to have to address the issue of time associated with our sport. I mean time in a variety of ways. For example, there is the warm up for television [before the start of a match]. You can’t start your show and have a seven or eight minute warm up. Fans are fast moving and quick and they are ready to go on to the next thing. When the show starts, boom, we’ve got to deliver right away for the fans watching on television. We have made strides but we still come on and the players can be warming up. We need to get right to the match.”
Taking her case on time management further, Allaster asserts, “Think about time between points. When we look at young fans, they are saying, ‘Give it to me quickly’. We have to be mindful of that. I agree with Martina Navratilova that we should play lets. I don’t know if I could ever get that passed but it makes sense. That would shake things up. And the length of matches: we are not television friendly that way. How do you program tennis? Is it going to be 40 minutes [for a match]? Will it be an hour-and-a-half, or two-and-a-half hours? It is impossible for broadcasters to figure out how toschedule us. Ultimately, how do things change? Commercial pressures ultimately force you to change and adapt. Look at on court coaching. I didn’t sit in the back [of the room] and say we should do on court coaching. It came about because television broadcasters said we should provide this enhancement to the viewer at home and add another dimension to the fan experience. We need to listen closely to what our business partners are telling us about what fans want and how they are consuming. That will dictate how we as a sport will adapt to the realities of the business.”
Can Allaster envision No-Ad scoring - under the right set of circumstances - becoming accepted at tournaments for singles? She responds, “Things like that increase the intensity for the fan and those exciting moments are things that long term we should look at. I think No-Ad scoring would be very exciting. We are experiencing it in doubles now. Those are massive changes to the competitive environment and they are not short term. You really have to start down at the juniors because you want the professional athlete to grow up in the competitive environment for which they would be competing on the pro tours. We have this inherent issue of the Grand Slams being very, very traditional and that is good, but for pro tennis [outside of the Grand Slams] we have got a different business model and we have got to be sensitive about what we deliver for the fans.”
So what pops up in the eye of her mind when she gazes far into the future? Allaster answers, “As I look long term, the premier events are only going to get bigger. If we look at the last 20 to 30 years, the growth of the Grand Slams and the transformation of their venues have been just incredible. And there is a mirror image with our premier mandatory events. What I do see for us in women’s tennis is more from China. We are not in India yet but I do see women’s tennis long term in India. And we don’t have a major presence in the South American continent or Africa. So I see an opportunity longterm for women’s tennis everywhere, going to other parts of Asia Pacific territory and with continued growth in the Middle East.”
Stacey Allaster hopes to remain in her post for a long time to come. Her aspirations remain large. As she says, “I have a lot more I want to accomplish and I will continue to work with our members to grow the sport short term and position it for the long term. Hopefully the members will want to keep me around. I am committed to them. I also am fortunate to have people I can turn to. I know Larry Scott is only a phone call or an email away if ever I need him. Here in my office is a picture of Anne [Person Worcester] that I keep front and center. She has lived it as a woman leading this organization and she is truly one of the best promoters we have in the business. I keep in regular contact with Stephanie Tolleson, who built women’s tennis at IMG. She is an incredibly bright businesswoman. Billie Jean King is a confidante and consultant. To lead the organization that Billie Jean founded is incredible for me. And Peachy Kellmeyer is still on staff as a consultant after 37 years because any time I have an idea, she can turn to me and say, ‘Stacey, we tried that and this is why it didn’t work!’ So I am very fortunate to have a great network supporting me and sharing their knowledge with me as I try to make sure I am successful and the WTA is successful.”