SBJ/August 29 - September 4, 2005/One On One

One-on-One with Larry Scott, chairman and CEO, WTA Tour

When Larry Scott took over the floundering WTA in 2003, its finances were in shambles and its players distrustful of the organization. Fast forward 2 1/2 years: The WTA is on firm financial ground, and many of its players are flourishing. During Scott’s tenure, a little-known Russian with a hard-to-pronounce last name became the top-paid female athlete in the world (Maria Sharapova), and the tour took in an $88 million deal from a new title sponsor, Sony Ericsson. Not bad for Scott, who spent 11 years with the ATP before jumping to the women’s side. Scott sat down recently in New York for a conversation with SportsBusiness Journal’s Daniel Kaplan and Jerry Kavanagh.

Education: B.A., European history, Harvard, 1986
Favorite piece of music: “Desert Rose” by Sting
Favorite movie: I love all the James Bond movies.
Favorite author: Ayn Rand
Last book read: “The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova — Their Rivalry, Their Friendship, Their Legacy” by Johnette Howard
Favorite quote: Benjamin Franklin’s “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.”
Best advice you received in the tennis business: When I moved over from the ATP to the WTA, [NBA Commissioner] David Stern told me to make decisions as if you’re going to be in the role for 15 years, to take the long-term view on things.

What in tennis would you not miss if it were done away with?
Scott:
“Quiet, please.” I don’t like hearing our umpires reprimand our paying fans.

You were an All-American at Harvard and played professionally. Does the fact that you competed so successfully give you an advantage or added credibility with the players?
Scott:
Absolutely. It gives me a certain street cred with our players. We have to talk about the game and talk about what they’re going through with confidence. I think it’s one of those intangibles that really helps you be successful in a role like I’m in.

If you could change one thing about the game, what would it be?
Scott:
A significantly different season structure and length of the season. And if I could wave a magic wand, I would have tennis become a single entity with all the grand slams, ATP, WTA all under one roof.

You talked about the structure of the calendar, but what about the structure of the sport. The ATP and WTA have both player and tournament representation under the same roof. Can that continue, or do you ever see that changing?
Scott:
No, I’m actually a big fan of that structure. I know people question it sometimes, especially in light of some of the labor unrest that other sports have faced. I think a structure where the interests of the players and tournaments are more aligned at a board level, at a policy-making level, I think gives our sport a certain amount of stability and also allows from a commercial perspective to integrate the various assets of the sport in a way that most can’t. An example is the Sony Ericsson deal where at the same time we’ve been given tournament rights, media rights and player rights. I think that gives us a leg up compared to our competition.

Do you foresee the day when WTA events will gain rights fees instead of buying their way onto TV in the U.S.?
Scott:
Yes. I think a lot’s going to depend on the media environment, but I’d say it will be five to 10 years. As there are more and more choices in terms of how you can distribute your rights — as is becoming the case, with the start of The Tennis Channel, DirecTV, as well as ESPN and Fox Sports Net and others — I think we are going to see a turnaround in the U.S. TV money.

ATP’s Mark Miles (left), Sony Ericsson marketing chief Dee Dutta (center) and Scott
When you came into [women’s tennis in 2003], what was the financial picture like for the WTA?
Scott:
It was very weak. I came at a time when the title sponsor of the tour, Sanex, had not renewed their contract. [We were also] possibly renegotiating a major TV deal with Eurosport. They had concerns about the championships. So, on the whole commercial side there were some significant concerns, which I was very concerned about and spent a lot of time trying to understand. Fortunately, I came from the industry so I had a real belief and conviction for what could be done. Looking back 2 1/2 years later, I’m proud of the turnaround that’s happened. The tour is very vibrant, very solid in growth financially, but it’s been a major turnaround from what it was.

How is the Sony Ericsson deal different from previous WTA title sponsors, who seemed to come and go in the night?
Scott:
First of all, it’s one of the hottest brands in the world. It’s as blue as blue chip gets. Secondly, they’re in a product category which our players love, and it’s going to help broaden our demographic audience. They’re very strong in the 18 to 35 and the 25 to 35 demographic markets, which are the key demos that tennis wants to expand to. They are tied into one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world in Sony. … It’s a strategic alliance well beyond writing us a big check and well beyond receiving your typical sponsor benefits. That’s already showing up in the kind of advertising they’re doing, the kind of technology they’re bringing to the sport, like live scores with the hand-held and the way they are enhancing our entertainment proposition with … the three concerts this summer in which we’re bringing music to tennis and, again, trying to attract younger people. Tennis has never had a partner like that.

Maria Sharapova’s rise to prominence “was storybook kind of stuff,” Scott says.
Were you surprised at how quickly Maria Sharapova capitalized on the Wimbledon victory last year to become, overnight almost, the highest-paid female athlete endorser in history?
Scott:
It’s a truly amazing story. I don’t think you could have scripted it better in terms of where she came from — 6 years old, moving to Bollettieri’s, the whole family pursuing that dream — to her ascension in the public eye at Wimbledon, the most prestigious stage, and then winning against Serena Williams, the dominant player in our sport. It was storybook kind of stuff. On top of that, the great looks, the charm, the youthful, playful nature and her style of play. Fantastic. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how the corporate world would have reacted. I don’t think anyone would have predicted the levels of earnings and the number of deals that would be put in place so quickly.

Sharapova has already begun to talk about outside interests. Is it a problem for tennis that some of its top stars seem to have very distinct interests outside the sport that draw them away?
Scott:
I love it. Obviously there’s a balance to be struck. I want to make sure the players meet their commitments. I want to make sure they support the system. By the same token, most of the commissioners of sport would give their right arm to have a network like ABC Family do a reality series on some of their top stars [the Williamses], to have Vogue interested in doing photo shoots and to have the players interested in doing it. That’s sort of a magic combination that I think some of my peers in other sports would be quite envious of, and it happens quite naturally. I think one of the things that’s been most impressive to me is the degree to which our players love being celebrities. They get it. They invest the time in it. They enjoy it. And that gives me something to work with with commercial partners and the media that isn’t always so easy.


Look for more of this conversation in our sister publication, SportsBusiness Daily, located at www.sportsbusinessdaily.com.

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ATP, WTA

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