When the first ball is struck between Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza later this evening (morning? tomorrow? I can’t with you, Asian swing) in Wuhan, the WTA will have entered a brave, new frontier — at least for the near and immediate future.
The world’s leading professional sport for women will have no one at the helm — off the court, that is.
On January 1, 2006, Canadian Stacey Allaster was appointed to be the WTA’s president; three years later, in July 2009, she was promoted to chairman and CEO succeeding Larry Scott — whom the WTA lost to the (now)-Pac-12 Conference. But early last week, as the WTA set off to the Far East — a place Allaster worked to cultivate over her six-year tenure at the top — she announced she was stepping down, seemingly out of nowhere. To put it simply: one of the world’s most, if not the most, powerful women in sports was leaving the career that she spent a lifetime working towards, behind.
“It’s been a privilege to lead the organization that Billie Jean King founded and to have worked with the world’s best female athletes, dedicated tournament promoters and passionate and professional WTA team members. For 25 years I have dedicated my professional life to the sport and I’m proud of the work I leave behind,” Allaster said in a statement posted on the WTA’s website last Tuesday.
“But the recent loss of my brother-in-law and the ATP’s CEO, Brad Drewett, has provided a personal wake-up call about life, family and priorities and it is time for me to shift some time and energy that way,” she added. “When I joined the WTA my goal was to leave the organization on a stronger footing and I feel a humble sense of pride in what we have all accomplished here. I have focused on what it means to be a champion and I have tried to be a strong role model for women to encourage success in the sports industry.”
Allaster’s tenure at the top of the WTA had its highs: she worked to ensure equal prize money at the four Grand Slams and six WTA events; she helped facilitate $1 billion in contracted revenues, including a massive deal with PERFORM Group that will ensure unprecedented digital live-streaming of the WTA in the coming years. She also secured sponsorships with organizations such as Xerox and SAP in an attempt to provide fans across the globe with unprecedented access to their favorite players and address the sport’s need for enhanced statistics for both media and fans.
Under her leadership, prize money increased more than 70 percent in six years, reaching the $118 million mark last season. Allaster oversaw the rebranding of the WTA Tour Championships, which quickly became a record-setting WTA Finals in Istanbul. The five-year partnership with the city of Singapore to stage the current edition from 2014-2018 is the largest deal ever completed in the history of the WTA.
Over her six years, Allaster stood for what she worked so tirelessly as: a woman, at the helm of the world’s leading professional sports organization for women, hoping to make current and future generations of women better. Allaster’s passion for the sport and her athletes was evident in not just her actions, but in her words. Quick to publicly support her athletes, and denounce anything that publicly criticized them or threatened the organization, there were several instances in Allaster’s tenure where she was forced to make a strong statement — and she did so.
“Stacey’s leadership, work ethic and ability to relate to all facets of the industry made her a leader many women and men respect and look up to,” said Ilana Kloss, CEO of Mylan World TeamTennis. “I extend a great debt of thanks for her dedication and commitment to ensuring women’s tennis remains the number one sport globally.”
However, Allaster’s tenure was not without its points of contention. One of the hallmarks of Scott’s time as CEO was the signing of the largest sponsorship in tennis history and women’s professional sports when Sony Ericsson signed on as title sponsor in 2005. However, the cell phone company did not renew its title-sponsorship — nor its contract with the tour — when the extension expired in 2012, and the tour marched on across the globe without a title sponsor.
Allaster’s focus — and not just hers in this sport, to be fair — on expanding the WTA’s presence in the Asia-Pacific market, generated much grumbling from the sport’s ever-present traditionalists and nostalgists — as the global focus seemingly came at the expense of many long-standing indoor events in Europe. One of the biggest changes seen in the WTA during Allaster’s time as CEO was the institution of the Roadmap — which removed the tournament Tier system in favor of Premier and International events, shorted the WTA season and reduced the number of events players were required to play in 2009 — and Allaster’s WTA soon saw long-time tour stops in places like Warsaw, Berlin and Zurich replaced by shiny, expensive and state-of-the-art events in Madrid, Wuhan and Beijing.
Attempting to create tradition in a place where none exists — especially with the face of the region in the sport (Li Na) no longer active — is not an easy endeavor, and the WTA’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific region is unlike anything else in professional sport. Other American-based organizations have annual forays into uncharted territories — think the National Football League’s annual game in London or Major League Baseball’s Opening Day in Sydney, Australia last year — but tennis takes this a step further in a variety of ways. The WTA is not merely dipping its toes in with its venture into these uncharted waters — Allaster made sure it dove in head-first. Her retirement comes at an interesting time for the WTA, as the 2016 Rio Olympics has been cited by many as the potential watershed moment for the intersection of the current and next generation of the WTA’s elite.
While Allaster’s successor has not yet been named, WTA President Micky Lawler and David Shoemaker — the chief executive of NBA China and a finalist for the ATP Tour CEO position — were named as possible replacements by Christopher Clarey of The New York Times in his interview with Allaster last week. While many have floated around the idea of an ex-player taking the tour’s reins, the ideal candidate likely possesses a sharp business mind and the vision that it’s vital to balance commercial and fan needs with the players’ best interests and happiness.
At heart, Allaster had that vision — and for better or for worse, she was unafraid to make the decisions she felt was best for the WTA, and for the women who make it great.