Women’s tennis CEO Stacey Allaster on equal pay, sexy tennis garb, and Venus

In conversation with Kate Fillion

Photograph by Bob Croslin/Getty

A 15-year veteran of Tennis Canada, Stacey Allaster—who got her start cleaning courts in Welland, Ont.—is now chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association. She joined the WTA in 2006 as president, and was instrumental in achieving pay equity in prize money for female players at all four Grand Slam events. The total prize money on the women’s tour is US$85 million—up from $300,000 in 1973.

Q: In terms of global reach and total revenues, no other women’s sport comes close to tennis. Why is there greater public acceptance of female athletes in tennis?
A: They are truly the best female athletes in the world. Look at the 40 weeks they play, the level of athletic performance, combined with the global footprint of tennis and the amount of television coverage. And we are the only sport in the world where men and women play on the same stage. That brings more viewers, and all of a sudden it’s an aha moment around how talented these female athletes are.

Q: Where do you look for inspiration, since other women’s sports can’t provide it?
I’ve always looked to one of the greatest leaders in professional sports: [NBA Commissioner] David Stern. He said, “It’s not about the sport, it’s about the fans, and we can’t be afraid to transform the sport to meet the needs and the wants of our fans.”

Q: Applying that in tennis, which is so fixated on tradition, must be a challenge.
[Laughs] No question. Up until electronic line-calling, we hadn’t had any changes in over 32 years. So it’s not easy bringing change to our sport, but when I first started at the WTA, I went to a television summit that ESPN hosted—they had all their producers, directors and talent there, and they gave us a list of 13 things that we needed to do as a sport to be able to be more competitive and compelling through the medium of television.

Q: Such as?
Interviewing players before they walk on court, which now happens, but prior to 2006, never happened. Another example, probably the most controversial fan experience I’ve brought in, is on-court coaching. The old rule in tennis was that coaches sit courtside, not participating in the match, whereas in many other sports the coach is part of the show. The caddy is giving constant tips to the golfer even though it’s an individual sport. The boxer is coming into his or her corner and getting tips, strategy and motivation. What we do now—just on the WTA, the men don’t do this—is that if players want, their coaches can come on the court once per set, and they’re miked to provide an enhanced experience for the viewer at home. Fans are 50-50 on it so I wouldn’t call it a hit. But it allows fans at home to be part of the show and have more insight into the match.

Q: How hard is it to manage the players?
Like any organization, you have some demanding personalities, but generally, I’m dealing with young women who have a real understanding of and respect for the opportunities they have.

Q: What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to say to a player?
To date, having to pull an athlete out of a year-end championship because she missed a couple of filings of her whereabouts. We have absolutely zero tolerance for drugs in tennis, and testing happens randomly throughout the year; athletes have to put into a computer where they’re going to be one hour a day, and on any day, someone could turn up there for a test. This player didn’t test positive, she just didn’t file her whereabouts, and I had to sit with her and her dad and inform them that she had to withdraw from the competition. Heart-wrenching, because it was an administrative error, but professional sport comes with significant obligations for an athlete.

Q: What do you like most and least about your job?
I’ve got the dream job, leading the organization Billie Jean King founded. Going to events and hearing the roar of the fans in a full stadium is what drives me. And being able to make a difference: yes, it’s about forehands and backhands, but so much more. It’s about what Billie started, that women are strong and confident, and deserve to be equal. As we go to other parts of the world, where appreciation for women is not the same, it’s pretty energizing. My least favourite part is the travel. I’m on the road 150 days a year, so there’s physical wear and tear combined with being away from my husband, who’s left his career to be at home, and my kids.

Q: They’re pretty young, right?
Yes, six and eight.

Q: How do you explain your job to them?
I don’t think they’ve figured out what Mommy’s job is. They know I travel a lot to tennis events and they see me doing media interviews, but I don’t take them to a lot of matches. During Wimbledon, my daughter said to me, “Mama, I was watching you on TV—why didn’t you wave to me? I was waving to you.”

Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of running the WTA?
Probably that it’s a very political sport, and we’re fragmented. You have the WTA, the men’s governing body, the four Grand Slams that are each independent, the International Tennis Federation—seven independent organizations trying to govern the sport and playing, at times, on the same stage.

Q: So each one is jockeying for position?
Sure. We have different agendas, different interests, so for me, it’s balancing all of the political interests while trying to advance women’s tennis. For example, in 2011, we have 52 events, and 25 of them will be combined with the men or back-to-back. But the men’s organization, the ATP, is completely separate. We sell our television rights to a separate group of broadcasters, they sell theirs to a different group. One of my strategic goals is to try to find a way to combine our television rights. Right now, for the fans, it’s disjointed. You could be watching a women’s match, and it’s, “Coming up next, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer”—then the screen goes dark. I don’t think we’re making it easy for fans to follow us, as a sport, and we’re cannibalizing each other in the marketplace.

Q: Combining TV rights sounds like a no-brainer. Why do you have difficulty convincing the ATP?
I think there’s a willingness to sit at the table and look at this, but in some ways, we still have the same locker-room mentality we had 37 years ago when Billie Jean founded the WTA. I think we need to do what’s right for our fans and sponsors, and find a way to co-operate. And we are doing some things together, but we’ve just got some heritage, some guys-versus-girls dynamic.

Q: Sponsors have been pulling out of pro sports because of the recession. One of your big accomplishments was convincing Sony Ericsson to re-sign in March as the lead WTA sponsor for the next two years. What’s your secret?
It comes down to making sure you truly understand how a marketing investment in women’s tennis is going to meet a sponsor’s business objectives. And I’m lucky, because our athletes understand the importance of this. When I needed to go renew Sony Ericsson, Venus got on a red-eye and joined me for the meeting. I did not pay her to do that, she did it because it was the right thing to do to help us renew and extend sponsorship.

Q: Venus Williams caused a stir with that black lace number at the French Open—is this sexism, focusing on what women players wear?
What athletes wear has become a big part of pro sports. It’s show business—we call it sportainment. In tennis, each athlete can decide how she wants to manage her brand. You have some who enjoy the red carpet and fashion aspects, and others who prefer to represent themselves more as a performance brand.

Q: At least one Williams sister has played in the Wimbledon final for 10 of the past 11 years. Can you tell us something about them that we don’t already know?
They’re incredibly bright young women, and they’re very giving of their time. Venus has given 10 years of her time to the Players’ Council to provide leadership. We meet with the council, always, right before Grand Slams, when she’s under tremendous pressure to go to her sponsors, to do media. But she’s there, she’s read her materials, and is insightful and thoughtful. And Serena, she’s a very good businesswoman. She can be sitting in a meeting, tweeting away, but then she pops right up and says something—she’s been listening the whole time.

Q: You’ve said that to succeed in sports, you’ve had to be tough. What do you think is the biggest mistake women make in the corporate world?
In my 30s, I never thought there would be discrimination because of my gender. I always felt more age discrimination: “You can’t be a VP, you’re too young.” So in that period of time, I was just, “I’m going to work hard, and do a great job. I’m not going to play the political game, I don’t have to do that.” I remember that so distinctly! But the bottom line is, like everything in this world, business is political, and in many respects it’s been set up by men, so you have to learn how to play their games in their world if you want to succeed.

Q: What is the life expectancy of your job?
Hopefully, I can dictate it! They say 40 per cent of CEOs don’t last past their first 18 months, and I’ve just passed the 12-month mark, so?.?.?.?ask me in six months.

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