Asia new hotspot for WTA Tour
It's the time of year when players pack their bags and head for Asia, and on the WTA tour, that now means an extended stay.
The post-US Open season, once dominated by European indoor events, has become a full-fledged Asian swing. Serena Williams and the injured Maria Sharapova aside, most of the top women are in Toyko this week for the first big event of the fall, followed by the Premier mandatory event in Beijing next week and other smaller events in the region in surrounding weeks. That trend will only increase starting next year, when Singapore begins the first of its five years hosting the TEB BNP Paribas year-end championships.
In 2007, there were indoor European events during six of the nine weeks of play after the US Open, including all but one of the high-level tournaments (Beijing) and the year-end championships in Madrid. Next year, six of the seven tournament weeks after the US Open will contain events in South East Asia, including all but one (Moscow) of the high-level Premier tournaments. Events in places like China and Thailand are also dotted through the early part of the season, along with tournaments in Doha and Dubai that have given the tour an established presence in the Persian Gulf.Although Europe still has the highest concentration of the 54 tournaments on the WTA -- as well as over two-thirds of the top 100 -- Asian events now outnumber North American ones. The Asia-Pacific region as a whole will account for 23 of the tour's events in 2014.
The shift has been caused largely by financial factors. The tour, still without a lead global sponsor following the departure of Sony Ericsson last year, wants to put tournaments in its most lucrative locales -- traditional strongholds like Europe, the U.S. and rapidly growing Southeast Asia.
"I think we just made a strategic decision to nurture our mature markets and make them successful, [plus] look at where an opportunity is -- one market," WTA CEO Stacey Allaster told ESPN.com at the New York Tennis Debate last month. "And we chose Asia in 2008.
"And we're only starting," she added. "We haven't even begun to realize the opportunity of China and Southeast Asia."
China has been at the forefront of the trend, going from just one event in 2007 to a scheduled eight in 2014. That will include five WTA events, two at the Premier level and three at the lower International level -- including a new tournament in Wuhan, Li Na's hometown.
The other three will be WTA 125 tournaments, a new, smaller group of events introduced last year to try to bridge the gap with the minor league ITF Pro circuit events as well give more playing opportunities to lower-ranked players following the calendar overhaul done as part of the WTA's Roadmap project in 2009.
As China's economy has grown and trade has increased, the nation has also invested in its presence on the international sporting scene, most prominently with the Beijing Games in 2008. Tennis tournaments also have been a significant part of that effort -- Shanghai hosted the ATP season-ending Masters Cup from 2005 to 2008, and since 2009, China has had a top-level tour event on both the men's and women's side with the ATP Masters in Shanghai and the WTA Premier mandatory in Beijing.
At the same time, a growing cadre of Chinese players on the women's tour has helped capture the attention of the general public. Growing enthusiasm then turned into full-blown frenzy when Li became the first Chinese player to win a singles Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2011 -- some major "good fortune" for the WTA's strategy, notes Allaster.
But the tour's initial focus on China has now broadened to include the whole region, she adds.
"What has been clear to me as we went through the [bidding] process of the year-end championships is that China is China. China is not your Asia-Pacific strategy," said Allaster. "Southeast Asia is a big world, and [having the] championships in Singapore becomes a gateway into Southeast Asia."
The overall distribution of tournaments seems to be working financially. Prize money, now partly linked to tournament revenues, has gone up by two-thirds since the Roadmap was implemented in 2009. And although the global presence of the WTA has increased, critics have said that long-running tournaments are being uprooted from traditional venues to make way for extravagant, state-bankrolled events, and also noted spotty attendance at big stadiums in Beijing and Shanghai.
While selecting the next host of the year-end championships, the WTA expressly said a "government-backed" bid was the most practical option given the high sums involved -- a financial commitment of at least $15 million a year, plus operating costs of $6 million to $10 million. The deal with Singapore was for a "record-breaking" amount, said the tour when announcing the deal, with the five-year length of the agreement providing added security. Allaster has said the year-end championships account for 40 percent of the tour's net revenue, which is more than a sponsorship.
Still, there is a ceiling on the number of events in any one place. "There's only so many weeks on the tour, so we're quite limited, and also by the geographic flow of the Grand Slams," said Allaster. "So it's either the start of the year or after the US Open.
''So we're for the most part full, for our Premier and our International [events]. We're solidifying our Asian swing now that Singapore is where the championships will be. I think the WTA 125s, the new events we've created, that's where we can build women's tennis throughout Asia-Pacific. I could foresee 10, 15 of them five years from now.''
Overall, geographic fluctuations are hardly new. The emergence of Steffi Graf and Boris Becker fueled a surge of public interest in Germany in the 1980s that led to many big tournaments springing up there. But as the number of top-level players dried up, so did the events, an experience that continues to serve as a cautionary tale even though Germany still supports a number of smaller events. More recently, tournaments centered around players like Caroline Wozniacki's hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Novak Djokovic's family-owned event in Belgrade, Serbia, have had even shorter runs. And traditional hotbeds like Southern California are struggling to retain their tournaments.
But though supply has traditionally followed demand, an increasingly popular approach involves creating supply -- stadiums, tournaments, players -- in hopes that demand will follow.
How do players based in Western countries feel the great migration of tournaments held at this time of year? For the 22-year-old Wozniacki, the situation is normal. She is too young to remember the halcyon days of the European indoor circuit.
"When I started playing full time on tour, those tournaments were not really there anymore," she said during her last previous appearance at the year-end championships in Istanbul. "I think I might have played Zurich once, but I never played Linz.
"I heard there was four big tournaments in a row or three big tournaments in a row indoor. I wasn't there.
"Just grew up playing those tournaments in Tokyo and Beijing, and I think Asia is a big market, and it's important to promote tennis there, as well."
Sharapova, though appreciative of the big crowds in Istanbul, feels the bigger picture has to be taken into account.
"Obviously as players, we want that excitement from the crowd," she said at the tournament last year. "There is no better feeling than having that energy from people that want to watch you play. It's a little bit different when the stadium is a bit more empty; there is no doubt.
"But it's not just the tickets that make an event happen. It's also the involvement of the government, the sponsors, so there is a lot involved."
Before the winning city for next year's year-end championships was announced, Sharapova said she would like to see the event go to Brazil, taking place South America for the first time. Although the WTA's international expansion has included the addition of tournaments in South America -- a record three are scheduled for 2014 -- and India, such expansion has been more limited.
Where events go in the future will be driven by the strength of national economies, said Allaster.
"We want to be in markets where there's good GDP today, and being forecasted, because that's where sponsors are going to want to be," she said. "So if we're building the business in those markets … when we go and speak to sponsors, strategically we can deliver to them."