Allaster has only been at the USTA for a few weeks, but she has made her presence known in the tennis world for nearly three decades. More than twenty-eight years ago, Allaster’s journey commenced when she went to work for the Ontario Tennis Association. From there, she moved on to Tennis Canada, proving to be invaluable in the hierarchy of that governing body for a long stretch. In 2006, she took over as President of the Women’s Tennis Association, and three years later she became Chairman and CEO for the WTA, remaining in that capacity for over six years before departing in early October of 2015.
By then, the rigors of an exhausting and debilitating tenure at the top of the WTA ladder had understandably caught up with her, and she elected to leave that lofty position and kick back for a while. Now, about seven months later, she is taking on another substantial challenge, relishing the opportunity to display her wisdom, stature and skills on another front. She seems revitalized after her much needed time away from tennis, and is ready to embrace her new role unhesitatingly.
We spoke last week, and Allaster was upbeat as she discussed her move to the USTA. I asked if this opportunity perhaps came along sooner than she might have anticipated after her long tenure at Tennis Canada and the WTA?
Allaster replied, “Many people were surprised, as was I. This was not the plan. I really didn’t think I would have a third set in my tennis career. I definitely was thinking I would take a full year off, but there was no definitive timeline. What I did commit to doing was I would make no decisions until January. So I stayed true to that. I was listening to a lot of people. There was no shortage of offers. I was heading down a path of really creating that portfolio career, and it would have involved an opportunity to be be on a new agency, doing board work, teaching at the MBA level for sports management, and public speaking. I now have an agent and did a few speaking gigs.”
Be that at it may, Smith called in late December, and said he wanted to speak with Allaster, simply to get her views on pro tennis. When he called back in January, about a week before the Australian Open, he made it absolutely clear to Allaster that he wanted her to work in a significant capacity for the USTA. They were in Tampa, Florida on a Friday afternoon. She was about to leave for India to attend a friend’s wedding. “That was when Gordon unveiled why he wanted to meet with me and said he wanted me to join his leadership team. I was shocked to say the least, because I was not expecting this at all. I also was incredibly humbled and honored that Gordon and Katrina Adams would want me to join the best pro tennis team in the world.”
Smith departed for the Australian Open, but he made certain to speak with Allaster day after day while he was away, at 4PM her time and 8 AM for him. “He was persistent,” recalls Allaster. “We basically talked almost every day while he was in Australia. We spoke a lot about the role expectations, how I would make this portfolio work for the USTA, and for me personally with my family. I didn’t want to wander backwards from where my husband John and I were with our family priorities, so Gordon and I talked it all through. And, at the end of the day, we were able to create a portfolio of responsibilities that were very much aligned with my strengths and could compliment the strengths of the existing team here. So I will split my time between White Plains and the home of American tennis in Orlando. I am incredibly excited about it.”
Allaster and her husband spent two weeks in India and when she returned, she came to terms with Gordon Smith on the job front. As she explains, “It was kind of like one of those once in a lifetime opportunities. I always had a very close working relationship with the USTA, not ever thinking I would end up working here. I liked the work that Arlen Kantarian and Jim Curley did with innovating the sport. I was part of the U.S. Open Series while I was on the board of the WTA. So I was the ringleader to encourage the tournaments back then to get on board. I was also on the steering committee for electronic line calling. Jim Curley and I had a healthy debate and working relationship on how we got the Roadmap passed at the WTA with the USTA’s blessing. So there was always a real affinity for me with the people here at the USTA.”
Kantarian was a dynamic leader when he was at the USTA from 2000 to 2008. I asked Allaster if her new position is similar or different than Kantarian’s role. She answers, “It is different for sure, and that was one of the reasons I was attracted to the portfolio. I can not believe what a fantastic job Lou Sherr is doing as Chief Revenue Officer for the U.S. Open. It is phenomenal. So I don’t have to wake up every morning thinking about the sponsorship dollars. I am there to support Lou in that effort. For 28 years in my other roles, I had that as a primary responsibility. I am still going to be involved, but it is different now. That is not my core responsibility.”
Now, Allaster clarifies with more depth the parameters of her new position. She asserts, “One of the things that attracted Gordon to me for this job was my duality of national governing body experience and the promotional and development side of the sport. The fusion and true integration of the mission with Pro Tennis is a top priority, and Gordon has been on that path for many years. Arlen didn’t have the same lens at the time. He was very, very focussed on the Open at the time, on making it our Super Bowl while making as much money as possible for the mission, while I will have more community development and professional development on my plate. On a regular basis—except for when we are running up to the U.S. Open—I will be in Orlando at the new home of American tennis. Martin Blackman is there heading up player development, Kurt Kamperman is there heading up community development and Craig Morris has come over from Tennis Australia to head up our youth tennis development and work in community development as well. So we will all be working there day to day, and bringing the integration of professional tennis into the mission as more than just a revenue source.”
How does Allaster assess her chief goals as she embarks on her USTA professional adventure? She responds, “They are fairly broad, but the overarching goal is: how do we use Pro Tennis as the financial and marketing engine to inspire kids and adults to follow our sport year round. That is what for me the whole lens is about. I didn’t realize this totally—I heard about it, yet until you see it first hand it is not the same thing—but the transformation of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is incredible. It is not just about the roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Basically the whole site is being redone. And once this years’ event finishes and the new Armstrong project begins, by the time we get to the end of 2018 it is a brand new site. So then we can focus on the strategic plan for growth once we get through this major project. We have to determine what we can we do to continue increasing the scope of it, so that it can impact the mission and drive even more financial success.”
As Allaster delves more deeply into this topic, she says, “There are some similarities now to what I was doing at the WTA and Tennis Canada with trying to provide very fan and player-centric leadership. Our team at the USTA wants to give our fans and partners the ultimate, sport-entertainment experience, on an annual basis. I am jazzed up and in awe about what 2016 is going to be about. We are in the midst of thinking about what will be new and exciting in 2017 and what we are going to do after 2018 at the Open. Maximizing all of our pro tennis assets is very important—whether it be the U.S. Open Series, the Open, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, pro circuit events— but really I want to make sure that all of those pro tennis assets are woven tightly. Ultimately, Pro Tennis is there to support Player Development and Community Tennis.”
Meanwhile, Allaster is looking forward to renewing her bond with the women players, and building some new alliances with the men. She says, “I want to foster great relationships with the athletes. Obviously I have great relationships with the female players and now I need to get to know our American players better. And, of course, on the guys side I haven’t had much interaction with them for several years, so I look forward to building those relationships. It is a simple science: happy players equals happy fans and happy partners.”
Clearly, Allaster will draw abundantly on her time at Tennis Canada and the WTA. She contends, “I think I can draw upon my national sport governing experience from Tennis Canada. I worked for the Ontario Tennis Association, which would be the equivalent of a section leader. So I have done everything from running Player Development at the section level to running satellites and Futures, all the way up into running the Canadian Open. But obviously that is at a different scale from the U.S. Open, and many of those experiences are analogous to this role here. I understand the importance of governance within the USTA.”
Describing her style in the workplace, Allaster says, “For the most part I think of it as collaborative leadership, getting along with everyone and knowing that everyone plays a significant part in allowing our sport to grow. To me, it is not about ego; it is about edging things out and working together. I have this 28 years of experience and have been given the chance to have done pretty much every role in tennis. So I can speak to it from a real perspective. It is not theoretical for me.”
Allaster is indeed a multi-facted woman who has managed to balance the scales of her private and professional lives from her twenties into her early fifties with equanimity. When she was at the WTA, she travelled widely and often internationally. Now, at the USTA, her routine will revolve largely around dividing her time between the White Plains and Orlando headquarters, although she will make selected trips to Wimbledon and other places overseas.
She explains, “At the WTA, I was a mobile leader there for 150 days a year. traveling far and wide with significant time zone changes, with four offices. So I think this model of being in White Plains from May through the U.S. Open for the most part will be great. Our family will summer in the north and we found a place where we can bring our dogs, so we are approaching this as quite an adventure. As of September, I will be based in Florida about an hour-and-a-half from my home. I will not make that drive every day, but the nice thing is that, if there is an important event at school, I can still drop the kids off for that. I will be able to ebb and flow. Physically, it will be a healthier place for me.”
So Allaster finds herself feeling revitalized as she puts her old knowledge to good use in new surroundings. Her fresh state of mind has not come about by accident. As she points out, “I worked for 28 straight years and that was a mistake. I learned from the break I had between the WTA job and the USTA. I read this book called ” Reboot Your Life”, which was written by four professional women CEO’s. They called them the ‘sabbatical sisters’. And they really talked in that book about the importance— for yourself and your organizations— to take scheduled breaks. The book goes through different types of breaks you could take. I had seven months off, so that was a lot of time and I am healthier. I am committed to exercising more, and that is No. 1: to be a corporate professional, you have to be a corporate athlete. I have got to stay right on top of that. I believe that all of the international travel I did was incredibly tough and demanding on my body, year in and year out. It is a journey and you learn a lot. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think I was mentally, physically, and emotionally ready and committed to Gordon Smith and the team.”
I wanted to know some of the other lessons Allaster might have learned from “Reboot Your Life”. She replied, “I learned a lot about self awareness and monitoring. I know that I need to sleep. Some people can get away with five hours a night, but I can’t. I am one of those people that needs seven or eight hours. If I can get that much sleep, then I can exercise. The combination goes to healthier eating habits. As long as I can stay true to that, I will be good. I was just chatting with my team at the USTA today and we don’t need to be on email 24 hours a day. We do run 95 Pro Circuit events and they are continuous so, of course, you can’t shut it down all the time. But I said to my team that I am going to take some breaks and I talked openly to them about that. This work/life balance is critically important to me being a successful leader, and for the team to be successful and happy. You just go, go, go, go go and it is pretty easy to get caught up in the wheel. You have to stop sometimes and smell the roses, to go ahead and take these mini-breaks and real breaks. So I am blocking time out in my calendar for no meetings, and that means no meetings!”
And yet, when Allaster is pursuing her USTA objectives at full force, she will work closely with Gordon Smith. Ultimately, these two leaders will enhance each other’s strengths and bring a clarity of vision to everything they are doing. As Allaster concludes, “For certain I will report directly to Gordon. He has a fantastic senior leadership team, so we meet as a group on a fairly regular basis. It is a matrix organization so one of my internal goals is working well with Gordon’s direct reports so we can collectively be successful. There will be interaction with the USTA board on an as needed basis. I have met with Katrina Adams a few times. So in an organization like the USTA, it takes a good, collaborative team to be the champions and be able to deliver the mission.”
Count on this: Stacey Allaster will pursue her latest endeavor as earnestly and forthrightly as she has done in all of her previous posts. As always. she will wear success exceedingly well.