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Volume 21 No. 39
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WTA close on lead sponsor?

WTA officials believe the marketplace is responding to the tour’s growing television audience.
Photo: Getty Images

The WTA Tour is closing in on a new deal for a lead sponsor after six years without one.

The tour has been looking for a replacement since 2012, when Sony Ericsson decided, in the wake of corporate restructuring, to end its role as the WTA’s lead or title sponsor after seven years. WTA CEO Steve Simon declined to comment on the lead sponsor talks or identify the company the tour is negotiating with. However, he said, “When you think about how we have been able to see audience growth, which drives everything, we are seeing reactions from the marketplace. I have never been more positive about the health of the WTA.”

One reason for Simon’s positive outlook is the WTA’s growing TV audience. In 2015, there were 395 million viewers of WTA matches (not including Grand Slams), half that of the men’s tour — according to a letter three tournaments sent in late 2016 to Simon complaining about having to award female players equal pay with male players when the women were not allegedly pulling in the same resources. In an interview last week, Simon said the WTA’s TV audience was 500 million in 2017 and would jump as high as 600 million this year, citing research the WTA commissioned from SRi. While that is still far less than that of the men (in 2017 the ATP said its global TV audience was 995.7 million) the growth of the WTA’s audience has apparently earned the attention of sponsors.

The fact that the top professional sport for women has struggled so mightily to attract corporate partners underscored the difficulties female sports has in attracting revenue. In the WTA’s case, after nearly reaching parity with the ATP in terms of revenue flowing through the tours’ respective headquarters by 2007, the men’s circuit has surged to nearly double the revenue of the women’s circuit, according to tax filings.

One of the difficulties the WTA has long encountered is the global nature of the sport and finding a company with enough worldwide reach to execute the sponsorship and make it effective globally. It currently has five sponsors (the ATP has 11), including some lower-level global deals with the likes of Porsche and SAP, but it has been looking for more of an umbrella sponsorship for six years.

Endeavor’s IMG has in the past assisted in selling the deal, though an agency spokeswoman said that it has no role in the WTA’s prospective new deal.

Speaking of WTA sponsor deals, several of its tournaments have casino sponsorships, which could become an issue when the final Independent Review Panel report emerges later this year. The interim report, written after lower-level match-fixing scandals in tennis sparked the formation of the IRP, recommended doing away with such deals. The ATP has already put new casino deals on hold. But Simon doesn’t sound like he will do the same. “Gaming, fantasy, gambling is all part of sport, it’s part of consumption,” he said. “It’s not going away, and again the sport of tennis has done a great job on the integrity side of it, will always fight and say we have shown great integrity.”

If the final report recommends ending casino deals and the other entities in the sport go along, the WTA may have a tough time going its own way.

Virtual reality has played many roles in sports, from coaching to seat sales to televising games. The USTA used it, though, for a more mundane purpose: to preview player and chair umpire seats that were unveiled on the four stadium courts this year. Four times this past winter, snowstorms delayed meetings between Michael Graves Architecture & Design and the USTA. Eventually VR goggles were sent to the USTA for signoff on new designs for the chairs. The new player and umpire chairs bring a more uniform feel to the court and allow for greater sponsor branding. Next year the new court furniture will spread to all courts at the U.S. Open.