Tuesday November 1st, 2011

Stacey Allaster has been with the WTA since January, 2006 and was promoted to Chairman and CEO on July 13, 2009. (EPA)

WTA CEO Stacey Allaster gave her annual "State of the WTA" address on Sunday, emphasizing achievements not just in 2011, but since 2009 when she took stewardship of a Tour at a crossroads.

Players were complaining of burnout, injuries were threatening the careers of big names and questions swirled about the Tour's ability to market itself to fans, tournaments and sponsors in an economic downturn.

But with the introduction of the WTA Roadmap, the Tour has become a more stable commodity. That increased predictability -- at least as it pertains to off-court investments -- has paid dividends in the form of fan and sponsorship interest.

Here are the highlights of Allaster's media session, which came a week after her contract was extended through 2017:

2011 in review: After saluting the four Grand Slam winners, the resurgence of German tennis and the performances of Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, Allaster highlighted the growth and stability of the Tour under her reign.

• Top player participation is up 24 percent at premier events.

• Injuries are down 18 percent.

• Attendance is up 12 percent.

• Four new tournaments have been introduced.

• Prize money will increase 8 percent next year.

• Sponsors are happy. Allaster noted the commitment from Sony Ericsson, a six-year deal with Rolex to sponsor the WTA Championships, Oriflame's renewal for 2012 and increased engagement from USANA, PEAK and Jetstar. PEAK will launch its WTA clothing line in China next year, providing an apparel option for players without sponsorship deals.

Doubling production of live matches: While Allaster said viewership has increased 73 percent and broadcast hours are up 14 percent, she acknowledged the WTA's need to embrace non-television outlets to grow its fan base.

"In the future, there's no doubt this is going to be about multi-platform," Allaster said. "This is no longer just about television as we produce and send out these incredible matches."

Allaster announced that the WTA is in negotiation with PERFORM, the UK digital company that currently powers TennisTV, to produce more matches starting in 2013. The four-year deal will double the number of live matches the WTA produces a year, from 250 to more than 500 in 2013.

"Think about the opportunities that we have to promote all of these national stars through these multiple platforms and to reach younger consumers who are not watching WTA tennis on television," Allaster said.

It's still all about China: With Li Na's historic victory at the French Open and the vast opportunity in China, it's no shock that the WTA is committed to mining the country for talent and money.

"China will be the epicenter of our global strategy," Allaster said. "The China Open is the foundation."

But turnout for the Beijing tournament has been poor and Allaster admitted that it will take time to get the Chinese up to speed.

"We will continue with having promotion of our sport," she said. "We've got a long way to go to educate Chinese people on the rules, on how to play the sport. So we will work with the CTA [Chinese Tennis Association], and we will work with our stars in China to inspire and energize and ultimately get rackets in kids' hands. We know that these are the generation of next stars of the WTA and our next generation of fans."

Introducing the WTA Challenger Series: Noting the need to expand the sport while refusing to lengthen the season or stack too many events in one week, Allaster revealed a new series events called the WTA Challenger Series. While WTA International events have $220,000 in prize money and ITF events no more than $100,000, the Challenger Series will be somewhere in between, with prize money at $125,000.

"This is meant to add opportunities for our athletes who are on the pathway to the international and the premier level of the WTA," Allaster said, "[and] at the same time provide opportunities to grow our sport in markets where we can't find a home for them on our premier and our international calendar."

The series will roll out slowly, with two pilot events held during the 2012 offseason targeting China and the Asia-Pacific region. The goal is eight to 10 events by 2014.

Grunting: Allaster once again noted that her willingness to address the issue in any real way is based on the increased complaints from fans and not necessarily because players have complained.

"Grunting is part of our sport, full stop," she said. "Athletes hitting the ball as hard as they do, they expel and there are sounds. Guys do it, women do it, been doing it for a long time.

"But at the same time, I'm mindful of being very fan-centric and listening to fans," she continued. "It is factual that there seems to be an increase in fan communication to me about some of the grunting."

So grunting is clearly on the WTA's radar. Allaster questioned if there was a technological basis for the increase in fan complaints.

"I wonder if technology is enhanced so much with digital that the volume has been turned up. It could be a part of the issue," she said. "Some of the athletes that were playing today were playing many years ago, and we didn't have an issue there. "

A combined Championships: Allaster made it clear that there have not been any recent or current talks with the ATP about the possibility of a combined year-end event. Discussions were held in 2008 but abandoned once the WTA instituted its Roadmap to shorten the season, thus putting the respective Tours' calendars out of sync. But that doesn't mean Allaster isn't going to keep trying.

"If we could ever align the two calendars, if they could in fact shorten their season where our dates could be aligned, then we would look to have open discussions with them to see if a combined Championships would make sense for us and for them," Allaster said. "I think when you look long term, would a combined Championships be great for fans? Yes. But in the near‑term horizon, I don't see it. But I don't give up easily, and I am a dreamer and I do look long term. "

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