Enter Stacey Allaster, who recently departed after nearly ten years of working in crucial leadership positions at the WTA. Allaster joined the WTA as President on January 1, 2006, and contributed mightily to the organization in that capacity for three-and-a-half years. On July 13, 2009, she took over as Chairman & CEO. For more than six years, she was exemplary in that post before electing to step aside about ten days ago. Since the WTA was established in 1973, they were sometimes hindered by those at the top who did not know how to lead or precisely where to go with their aspirations. But—the way I see it—the best of the WTA breed at the top of the organization have been the hard-edged yet sharp-witted Jerry Diamond in the 1970’s; the sprightly, enterprising and articulate Anne Person Worcester (1994-1997); the forward thinking and stately Larry Scott ( 2003-2009 ), and, of course, the immensely capable Allaster.
It seemed to me that Allaster was born for the role. She is a woman who conducted herself with striking assurance and unshakable dignity from the beginning to the end of her tenure. Allaster was entirely comfortable in her surroundings, establishing her priorities unequivocally, expressing herself with a distinctive voice of reason, knowing precisely who she was and what she wanted to accomplish. Her achievements during her time at the top of the WTA were numerous and irrefutable. Under her guidance, the WTA brought in a billion dollars in diversified contracted revenues, most notably a groundbreaking international media agreement designed to gain the greatest possible fan exposure worldwide for women’s tennis with wider visibility across the airwaves than ever before.
There was much more. She took the WTA Finals to a new location and a loftier level by carving out a strategic partnership with Singapore to hold the season-ending event, which will be presented by SC Global from 2014 to 2018. Thanks largely to the boundless energy and commitment of Allaster, the WTA Finals is the largest financial partnership ever negotiated in the history of the event. She was a prime mover behind equal prize money for the women players at six tournaments outside the Grand Slam venues as well as the four majors. Her contribution to the establishment of the highly regarded Roadmap—a crucial streamlining of the WTA calendar that benefitted the players immeasurably that also guaranteed a better delivery system for the top players at tournaments around the globe—was instrumental.
All in all, Allaster was enormously productive, disciplined and creative, determined and unswerving. We spoke on the phone last week about her decision to leave now after such a long line of triumphs. I asked her if she had wrestled with that decision for a long time. She replied thoughtfully, “I would say it was a good two years in the making. It was a combination of looking to the future, and the demands of the job—particularly the stress of the travel and being away from my kids when they were teenagers. I turned 50 two years ago and your priorities change. I started looking at life through a different lens. There was no definitive timeline [for my departure]. I had talked with Mickey Lawler [current WTA President] at the end of 2012. It didn’t work out for a number of good reasons but she did join us in 2014. That was an important piece of the equation. We had an 18 month period with some surreal family things. I got a call one night from [my husband] John’s 49-year-old brother saying he had a headache, and the next day he got a death sentence of less than a year to live, and Brad Drewett’s death hit me very, very hard. My professional career is important and has been No. 1, but it now needs to take a bit of a back seat to letting family and me be the priority for a while.”
As Allaster reflects on her experience at the helm of the WTA, was the securing of the billion dollars in contract revenues her proudest moment? Can she put that accomplishment—which required an enormous amount of hard work, energy and persistence—into perspective? Allaster replies, “Each and every day I would wake up thinking about how to make my members more money. For the athletes, that means more prize money. Their prize money doubled. The distributions to tournaments doubled, the television deal quadrupled. It was poignant that during the audit from Price, Waterhouse, Cooper, they said to the finance committee there was a 240% increase in contracted security revenues. That gives the organization financial stability. It is now no longer solely reliant on one source like sponsorship. There are new diversified sources. The Finals deal is the biggest in our history, so it is that whole aggregate growth that matters because it is leaving the organization in a stronger financial position. That is what makes me most proud.”
How did she manage to pull off these financial feats? Allaster ponders that question, then answers, “It does take a vision, and it took transformational change, collaboration and trust amongst the members and the board. We didn’t know how much we would grow the revenues but we did say to all 55 of our tournaments, ‘We are going to aggregate all of your rights.’ That is big for the tournament members to give up their rights to grow their revenues, thinking that the aggregate will lift everyone. The players as well have been great about embracing change in how we present the product around the fringes and they know we haven’t touched how we play the sport. This is not rocket science but rather good communications.”
How highly does she value the move to making Singapore the largest financial package ever negotiated in the history of the Finals? Allaster says, “It is a game changer on many fronts. A lot of people didn’t believe the value was in the asset and that the monies we generated out of Qatar and Istanbul perhaps were inflated. So for Istanbul, we engaged a sports consultancy group out of London, and it was a 14 month plan. We did an economic study so we had a validation value, and we ran it like it was a mini-Olympic bid with 43 expressions of interest. Then we narrowed it and it got down to four candidate cities. There was no doubt for me when I stood on top of the Marina Bay Sands looking out at Singapore. I was thinking about how great it would be for the WTA brand to be aligned with Singapore. They had transformed the Formula One and they were looking for another strategic asset. To be aligned with Singapore and with their innovation to the gateway to Southeast Asia, I had to make sure to keep my game face on so we could maximize the bid process. We got a partner who was not only innovative but who also wanted to transform the event into sport/entertainment. The other big change was a lot of people had said that nobody cares about The Finals until post-U.S. Open, and we realized it had to be not just a ten day event but a year-long promotional campaign. Thus we created the road to Singapore.”
As Allaster readily recollects, the WTA was told my an accounting firm that “we would generate $100 million in media based on this year long plan and the broadcast, and our team generated $182 million. This year’s goal is $200 million and it is multi-pronged with the legends who are a big part of the ambassadorial program to promote The Finals and its relevance. Then you have got the WTA Future Stars with the 16 and under and the 14 and under players. You have the WTA Rising Stars that has just concluded and that was an online social vote. Recently I was told we had one million fans who had voted. So all of these things are increasing the value of this very important asset for the WTA.”
We turn to equal prize money at the six tour events and the four Grand Slam tournaments. Allaster recollects, “When I look back to 2006 and 2007, we were 93 percent there with Wimbledon and Roland Garros. It was an incredibly well executed plan from a public relations perspective under Larry Scott’s leadership. Andrew Walker was key. We had a great strategy and it was the right time. Venus Williams played a big role. And we were lucky. So many people fought hard for this. It paved the way not only for the four Grand Slams but for the six other events on the WTA Tour. Without question it was a challenge and it will continue to be a challenge. Billie [Jean King] says it best: it was never about the money. It was about the message that as little boys and girls looked at the sport of tennis they would see men and women on the same stage being treated equally. That is a powerful and pure message.”
Allaster expands, “My personal motivation came from the great work that the “Original Nine” did and Billie, Chrissie and Martina along with all of the champions who have helped empower women. I would travel the world and be inspired by that. I remember so vividly giving my business card to a young woman in China and she looked at me and said she had never received a business card from a woman with the title C.E.O. I took my role as a female CEO as a real responsibility to be successful and to show that there is a pathway to sport. It is not just about reaching the pros. There are so many opportunities from a career perspective and preparing for life that you can receive by playing our sport.”
How about shaping that essential WTA Roadmap? How does Allaster recollect that crucial period in her professional life? She answers, “Steve Simon and I were board members at the time when Larry Scott came in, and he was very visionary. He had a definitive plan. He got Sony Ericsson on board with the plan and that was critically important. He went to broadcasters and recruited me because he knew I had the trust and confidence of the tournaments. I spent a great part of my first couple of years on the road working with members to know their concerns. We would work on how we could reshape it and on bringing the roadmap together. It was fun to execute it and see it come to life in 2009. The Roadmap has always been about putting our best product on a consistent basis on the biggest stages, and we have achieved that.”
Nonetheless, some say with the slightly abbreviated annual campaign of tournaments that exhibitions are popping up too frequently in the off season. Allaster asserts, “Some of the tournaments are saying we shortened the season but now the players are having all of these exos. Exos have always been a part of the sport and they always will be. We will just have to keep navigating on things like this going forward. It is a very long year. I have lived with these players for almost ten years and have seen the physical wear and tear. We would always talk internally about the post-Wimbledon period and I was very adamant that we needed to preserve that mid-season break. The players are out of gas. When you think about it, it is a hard run post-Australian Open: Doha, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, Wimbledon. And then you have the summer hard court events and the U.S. Open. Now, one third of our WTA prize money is post-U.S. Open in Asia Pacific. After The Finals, our athletes are done, physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Some people who are immersed in the internal workings of the sport wonder why the WTA Tour has not had a title sponsor for so long. But Allaster sheds considerable light on that topic. As she points out, “We had a couple of rounds of renewal with Sony Ericsson and then on the final round we took them off ‘title’ and got our brand back. We were able to get five new sponsors. So the sponsorship strategy was not to get a title[sponsor] but to get a lead global partner. It was never about replacing the Title but about getting a new No. 1. We had a plan that could be global and could be regional. There are very few brands that are now buying global because the sponsorship market is soft. Out of the efforts to get the lead global partner, we did secure Xerox and we did secure SAP. We were incredibly close on a couple of really great brands but it didn’t happen.”
Allaster pauses for a moment, and then adds, “As an organization, one of the biggest challenges is that you have 55 tournaments who are getting their own sponsors and they have their own title sponsors. Then you have the top players who are getting their own sponsors. When you try to puzzle that out and figure out where you can deliver a clean category, it is nearly impossible. Some asked why we didn’t have a bank. Well, we had really positive conversations with BNP Paribas about investing in the tour, but if you take that category away from the tournaments many of them would be bankrupt. You are inherently trying to generate monies for your members but at the same time you are competing against your members. That is an inherent challenge of conflict with the business model. Mickey Lawler is a fantastic deal maker and in my opinion she will generate a lot of money for the WTA, but it might not be in the old classical model of just sponsorship. I think you will see integrated media deals.”
As Allaster concludes her thoughts on this issue, she says, “If I was still in the leadership position, I would continue to ty to find a lead global partner or a regional partner and maintain our brand. The awareness level for the WTA brand is very low, so when you sell it to Sony Ericsson or Kraft or Virginia Slims, you are promoting their brand and not creating the WTA brand. Ultimately, it is a long play. But, if you can build the value of the WTA brand and increase revenues through licensing and sponsorship rights, you can then look at how other leagues have generated their commercial model. I always felt if some company said, “Here is a hundred million dollars’ and they wanted to be the title sponsor for the WTA, I would probably say we should do it. But when we had Sony Ericsson we didn’t sell one sponsorship for six years because brands don’t want to align with the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour; they want to align with the WTA Tour.”
All of the complexities of running the WTA now fall into the hands of the capable Steve Simon, a man who established an excellent reputation for himself as the Tournament Director at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Allaster is highly enthused about his prospects as her successor. She says, “Having worked with Steve for 15 years and being on the board with him together while I was President and then CEO, I know he is a very wise industry leader. He is a fantastic choice by the board. He is a man of high integrity and great values and he knows the business like no one else. He is a real leader. I am thrilled and proud that he is the new Chairman and CEO. It is a particularly good and natural decision to have him there as we get ready to launch this WTA Media deal in 2017. There is a massive buildup for that and he was right there beside me as we put that deal together.”
As Simon moves in one direction and picks up where Allaster left off, she now shifts to a new phase of her life, leaving behind a shining legacy. What will she miss the most about the job, and where does she see herself five to ten years from now?
Allaster replies, “There are a couple of things I will miss so much. It is quite intangible, but it is coming on site and meeting with our corporate partners, particularly women who would look to me and thank me and be seeking advice. I will also miss the athletes as it relates to the one on one conversations or the small CEO roundtables we would have. What people don’t know is these players are so smart, and not only on the court. Their business acumen is very energizing. At our roundtables, as a rule we would meet once a year and it was based on their ranking groups: 1 to 20; 21 onwards, and a session just for the doubles players. It would be so much fun to watch a player who I first engaged with when they were 17 or 18, and, engaging them ten years later, seeing the maturity and hearing them talking about the empowerment of women.”
She has responded to part one of my question, and now Allaster moves over to the ad court for part two to address her longer term future. “The first part of the path, “she says, “is no decisions for me for three months. I would really like to take six to 12 months off. I need a physical and mental reboot. I was talking to my tennis coach who got me into the game at the age of 12. He is 95 and he reminded me that I have been working in tennis for 42 years. My first job was cleaning the red clay courts when I was 12 at the tennis club. I started teaching and running junior programs later on. At Tennis Canada, I was working two jobs for ten years. I had 15 tough years there without taking a day off and then I went hard from day on at the WTA. I need a good break.”
She has two kids: Jack, 13, and Alexandra, 11. Allaster wants to be able to pick them up each day after school. Her daughter is on two hockey teams and her son is passionate about music and the arts. She needs more time with them after traveling the world for so long. In turn, she has some strong notions about what she would like to do with other parts of her life, including consulting and advisory work, serving on some corporate boards and community work with youth sports. “ I am the kind of person,” she says, “ who achieves something and then thinks about what’s next. I tend to look down the road pretty far.”
As we approached the end of the interview, I asked Allaster how she would describe her WTA legacy? She chuckles a bit before responding, “I guided my tenure trying to take the organization from being insular and thinking about players and tournaments to thinking about the fans more, and transforming the business from a service organization to a marketing and media enterprise. I believe we are on that journey now. I thought of myself as a visionary who trail blazed a bit. It was about embracing chance because that is how you grow long term. I always wanted to look myself in the mirror and know each day that I did everything I could in the best interests of the members. I do feel I can hold my head high because I did that and maintained my integrity.”
Stacey Allaster did just that. She was a leader through and through for the WTA. Steve Simon would be the first to admit that Allaster will be a very tough act to follow.