The WTA season ended with a whimper. Its year end Number 1 ranked player Angelique Kerber lost the YEC to Dominika Cibulkova , a player who is looked at by many as a bit of a side show. She’s listed at 5’3″ but that is arguably PR. She plays a high energy game and has been known in the past to run out of steam or ideas. She didn’t in Singapore and soundly beat Kerber who showed adjusting is not her strong suit and that with the right attitude she is easily beaten. The same thing happened to Kerber at the Olympics when playing in a similar fashion Monica Puig defeated her for the Gold Medal.
In addition to the year ending without a dominant top ranked player the last thing the WTA needed was the inability to expose its brand to more fans. Yet that is the situation fans of women’s tennis are facing. Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA admitted when pressed that there will be no streaming platform for women’s tennis until maybe the second quarter of 2017. He wasn’t all that definite on that.
Add to that the doping scandal it seems to want fans to forget about and the future of the WTA hasn’t been shakier. I’m not talking about the “depth” of competition. I’m talking about marketing. Product placement. And finally level of competition.
So, one at a time.
Marketing has been a total failure for several years now. There are two players who kept the WTA relevant, Venus Williams and Serena Williams . Yes there’s a lot of talk about a doper being the player who put butts in the seats but you have to deal with reality. She is not the one who brought fans to see women’s tennis. I remember many of her matches being poorly attended and fan negatives pretty high. Something to do with screaming. It didn’t help that as she got older her thug tactics against opponents were harder to explain away or sweep under the rug. It also became somewhat of a joke that no matter what she couldn’t beat the woman who sat on top of the WTA rankings for many years. Instead of the WTA taking the opportunity to promote women’s tennis when she was caught doping they doubled down on the her being the “face of the WTA” and became the only professional sport to allow propaganda from a doper to be featured on its official website. The people in charge are also acting as if her return from her doping suspension will see the revival of women’s tennis with both Williams in the twilight of their careers. It’s a mistake of massive proportions. Her people are working very hard to make it seem as if fans are not concerned about the optics of what’s been happening but the proof will indeed be in the pudding so to speak. When given the chance fans voice their displeasure at what the WTA has done in this situation and rightly ask if any other player would be afforded such leniency by their Association.. What happens this summer will go a long way to see if the WTA made a big mistake regarding it’s first real, long term doping scandal.
That leads right to a discussion of product placement. Many casual fans still think that Anna Kournikova was one of the greatest players ever. If that doesn’t tell you how well the WTA has marketed its players, and maybe the greatest female player ever, nothing else will. Their entire focus has been making the casual fan believe the best players all look like Ms Kournikova did back in the day – Young, blonde and “sexy”. Every player out of the US, Canada and Eastern Europe has tried to make herself fit this mold. It doesn’t help that they all play alike. When your top player doesn’t fit what you feel is the “ideal look” for a woman player you’ve got big problems but nothing that a dedication to promoting the SPORT of women’s tennis couldn’t have overcome. When the “look” is more important than the tennis you end up with the Eugenie Bouchard marketing disaster.
One thing that helps promote a sport is high quality play combined with interesting personalities. It’s one thing if all the players look alike. It’s another thing altogether if they all play alike. If that level of play is mediocre no one is going to care what the players look like. If the players don’t have engaging on court personalities (engaging doesn’t mean arrogant) and the tennis is snooze worthy you’ve got a problem. And let’s face it outside of Serena and Venus the current players are DULL!!! DULL!!! DULL!!! I recently heard Tracy Austin trying to say Kerber’s on court demeanor is “calm”. That’s one way to describe it. The other player who has people bandwagoning is Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza . The team that’s supposed to pull that wagon hasn’t been found yet. After finding a way to win the French Open Muguruza has done nothing to justify the hype around her. She reminds me of Petra Kvitova in a way except that Kvitova, when she wants to, can rally herself and utilize her god given talent and beat people. Muguruza doesn’t seem to want to rally herself at all. Instead she’s laboring under the illusion that her opponents should be in awe of her. So far none of them have obliged her. If it wasn’t for a tired opponent at the YEC she wouldn’t have won a match there.
So, next year?
It’s going to be hard to say since we won’t have a viable platform to watch the WTA until the second quarter, and that isn’t even a given as I’ve already said. Keep in mind that without a streaming platform there won’t be many sources for the people who run illegal streams to use. In the US Tennis Channel is focusing on young US players. If you have money to spare they have Tennis Channel+ which features both mens and women’s tennis. We also have ESPN, the outlet with the rights to all four Slams. But Doha. Dubai. Indian Wells. The Golden Swing. TennisTV used to carry the WTA matches. Not any more. I don’t think TC+ will be carrying them either or Simon would’ve mentioned that there is an agreement with them to defuse the widespread anger and disappointment of fans upset at losing access via TennisTV. Keep in mind most of the contracts for on air talent are finalized early in the year. The best are already signed up.
There are also many fans who only watch the WTA. I have to say I was surprised about that. I’m a fan of tennis and appreciate the differences between the two tours. The ATP is going to hit the ground running with prospective fans able to watch its product on various live and streaming platforms. The potential to keep or add viewers among cord cutters is huge. The WTA is always talking about the billions of fans who will potentially watch it’s product in Asia but I don’t understand them shutting out the millions of potential viewers who will actually pay to see women play tennis live and will look at it when they want to at home. With the time differences between Europe, South America, the United States and Asia being able to watch at your convenience is a big plus for fans.
Most of you know I don’t do predictions but I do have some ideas.
- I think Serena has one more Slam in her.
- I think we’ll see a revolving door at the top of the rankings because Kerber will not be a dominant Number 1.
- Several of the top players from the last ten to fifteen years will “age out” and retire.
- The stature of the WTA will be reduced due to incompetent management. While Simon hasn’t shown he’s got the right stuff to run women’s tennis a lot of the things he’s stuck with were put in place by his predecessor and are not easily ended or redirected.
- Sadly I think we’re stuck with on court coaching, the single worst thing that has been done to women’s tennis so far.
I also hope that Simon is unable to implement some of the changes he’s talked about – no AD scoring for one, and eliminating “real” tie breakers. Those changes would turn women’s tennis from a sport to sports entertainment and leave mens tennis as “true” tennis. All the work that the founders put into getting respect for the women who play tennis would’ve been for nothing.
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