$14M purse for WTA Finals amplifies tour’s global push
The prize money offered for the inaugural Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, starting later this month, is $14 million, double the $7 million total from when the tournament was held last year in Singapore, and it comes with a 10-year commitment by Shenzhen for the event.
That level of support, which tops Grand Slam prize money, is symbolic on several levels.
First, it represents how far the women’s game has come. The tour’s season prize money has increased 90% in the last decade; this year's winner is guaranteed more than $4 million, outdoing the men’s ATP Finals. Also, an undefeated doubles team will win $1 million, the largest doubles prize money ever.
“Money talks,” said Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon. “It says this is as big a sporting event with athletes that are as important as any in sports.”
Additionally, the purse and commitment by Shenzhen signifies the growth of China in the tennis world. By ponying up those dollars and contributing toward a new 12,000-seat stadium, Shenzen topped bids from other cities including Manchester, Prague, Singapore and St. Petersburg.
“We believe women’s tennis will become more and more popular in Asia,” said Kentaro Fujiwara, president of Shiseido China. The tournament title sponsor is a Japanese-based maker of personal care products.
Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen
The WTA’s popularity has been climbing around the world. Globally, the broadcast linear audience rose 33% last year, reaching nearly 600 million viewers overall, while the digital audience is trending for 42% growth compared to 2018. The largest events this year have all seen record attendance.
WTA CEO Steve Simon said this is the payoff for significant commitment to marketing and an improved on-site fan experience, including this year’s “It Takes” campaign. Beyond improving its social media connection to fans, the tour has provided players for more in-depth interviews and appearances at charitable events during tournaments.
The WTA has more than doubled its sponsorship revenue in the last four years and has diversified its sponsor portfolio to include technology, finance, automotive, fashion, wellness and beauty. Brands like Moroccanoil and MCM have joined partners such as Porsche and SAP.
Audience growth has driven those sponsorship gains. One significant move was reuniting in America with the Tennis Channel, where the average household audience is up 41% and age 18-49 viewership is up by 68%. The WTA had sold its rights to all overseas tournaments to BeIN sports starting in 2017. That provided cash but damaged viewership due to BeIN’s weaker distribution and erratic scheduling. The tour cut short the U.S. part of its worldwide deal and this year returned to the Tennis Channel.
“Our first day back with the WTA, our viewership was up triple digits,” Solomon said, adding that his network’s distribution and digital growth in the interim paid big dividends for the reunion. It is now in position to deliver 2,000 WTA matches a year across all platforms. The WTA’s appeal has boosted ratings across the network, he said.
Simon said the tour’s foundation remains in Europe, with 23 events from April through July, but it now has a better global balance than ever. There are 10 Asian events in eight weeks between Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Gemdale Sports, a subsidiary of a leading real estate developer in China, is operating the WTA Finals. The company has promoted the growth of tennis in China for decades. In 2000, China had only two players with a year-end ranking in the top 250; there were six by 2009. At Roland Garros in 2011, Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam (she won another in Australia in 2014), inspiring young Chinese women further. Now there are 16 in the top 250, including four in the top 50.
“It is very important for fans to have local players to focus on, and event sponsors know that a mix of local players with international stars is how you attract big crowds,” Simon said.
Gemdale Sports CEO Eddy Liu, who is also the Shenzhen co-tournament director, said Gemdale wanted a longer term deal with the WTA to make the event “a cultural landmark that integrates the WTA Finals into the city of Shenzhen. [It’s] the best way for WTA tournaments, urban development and tennis to thrive.”
The 10-year commitment “justifies investment from sponsors and for infrastructure because you need time for an event to grow and become special,” Simon said. “This has the opportunity to truly unlock a lot of value.”
Top-rated Chinese women players*
* As of Oct. 14
Audiences in China are expanding, with a 36% television viewership increase and 42% digital growth. WTA’s digital or social media Chinese audience has soared 61% since 2017. (Solomon said technology makes time zone differentials less problematic for Tennis Channel, as fans watch tournaments where and when they want. “You can watch it live, you can take it with you or you can watch it ‘live enough’ — we get bigger numbers on second and third plays for some of those matches,” he said.)
WTA President Micky Lawler said the tour identified China early on as a key market for its growth potential and has spent decades building an infrastructure. She cited long-standing tournament partners like the China Open (which had the tour’s third-highest TV viewership last year) and investment partners Gemdale, iQIYI and now Shiseido. “The China market is an undeniable massive growth opportunity for global businesses and our partners see that as well.”
Porsche is the title sponsor of the qualification ranking for the WTA Finals — the Porsche Race to Shenzhen — and Oliver Eidam, director of brand partnerships and sponsoring for Porsche AG, is all in. “Asia has been a very important region for Porsche for several years now, and it will gain in importance in the future,” he said. “China especially has become one of the most important sales markets for Porsche.”
Simon said Shenzhen was chosen because that region has 59 million people, young demographics, is the fastest growing city in China and has the third-largest GDP. And Lawler said the Chinese government responded with a policy to support Shenzhen in hosting large-scale international sporting events and cultural exchanges.
Simon said China’s political issues — Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights, the U.S. trade war — are not a factor. “We have nothing but great respect for the country and for our partners there,” he said.
When given a chance to revisit the subject after the NBA’s controversy with China, Simon declined to comment further. Efforts to reach members of the WTA Board of Directors and the WTA Players’ Council were unsuccessful.
Stuart Miller is a writer in New York.