May 16, 2024

Open Court


Opinion: Caught between a rock and a hard place, WTA chooses Saudi Arabia

It was an inevitable outcome. And now the fallout will begin.

The WTA Tour finally announced Thursday morning what most knew was coming – that Riyadh, Saudi Arabia will be the host of the year-end WTA Finals for the next three years, beginning this November.

The full announcement is here.

This, despite the country’s bottom-rung treatment of women and the LGTBQ community, both of which (obviously, in the first case) are an integral part of the fabric of the biggest women’s sports organization in the world.

This, despite the very vocal dissent of the sport’s biggest legends, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, notably in a piece published in the Washington Post last January.

It was likely not random that the Tour waited until the two WTA 1000s in the U.S. at Indian Wells and Miami, were done. They made the announcement during a smaller event in Charleston, where there are fewer actual journalists present. The top four players in the world also aren’t playing Charleston, and thus aren’t available to be asked questions about it – and won’t be for a few weeks, at least.

While much of the attention will be focused on the country’s repressive and backward positions on women, gays and appalling human rights record in the wake of this announcement – quite rightly – the practical story here is a simple one.

It’s economics. It’s about the survival of the WTA Tour as a business, a situation that was hardly ideal even before the pandemic – their bottom line was in the red even before COVID – but quickly was on life support in its aftermath. They’ve moved heaven and earth just to keep their collective head above water.

They really didn’t have a choice but to sell to the highest bidder.

As someone who loves and supports women’s tennis (and plays women’s tennis), I can separate the emotional from the necessary, the understandable reaction from the reality.

But despite the financial relief that it will bring, it’s a risky play.

A lot of positive spin

Now that the announcement has been made, the spin has begun.

But you know the old saying about “putting lipstick on a pig”?

You can slap as much on as you like, and it’s … still a pig.

The WTA has been searching for a replacement for chairman and CEO Steve Simon for months now. Former president Mickey Lawler quietly left. It seems that announcement of their successors will take even longer than the one about Riyadh. To say the least, it’s not an optimal time in the Tour’s history to be rudderless.

The spin from the Tour and Simon has been a well-doused word salad sprinkled liberally with nose-stretching croutons. (In Simon’s defence, anyone in his job would be saying all these things, too).

The WTA says Saudi Arabia was chosen “following a comprehensive evaluation process over several months … multiple bids … positive step for the long-term growth of women’s tennis as a global and inclusive sport. … “

The president of the Saudi Tennis Federation – not accidentally, a women, the first elected female president of any Saudi Arabian sports federation – says their entire focus is “to inspire future generations of players and celebrate women’s tennis …. potential to power the dreams of millions of young people … Our country is moving forward … many historic steps taken by women in all sectors in recent years … will only accelerate our transformation …”

Arij Mutabagani also emphasized that “everyone will be made to feel extremely welcome”.

Simon, who said that on a couple of exploratory trips to Riyadh the WTA “had some people join us from the LGBTQ+ community”, told the BBC this: “We have also done a lot of research for some of the other sporting events that have been held over there, and they have only had positive experiences within the region.”

(How many of those events were … all-women enterprises involving LGBTQ women and a large gay fan base? Any? We thought so).

The challenging history of the WTA Finals

We’re a long, long way from the annual WTA Finals celebration at iconic Madison Square Garden.

And many have forgotten that it’s not the WTA’s first rodeo in the Middle East. It held its WTA Finals event in Doha, Qatar for three years, from 2008 through 2010.

Even in the third year of that deal, the fans weren’t banging down the doors to watch a final between popular players Kim Clijsters and Caroline Wozniacki.






(Or for the semifinals either, for that matter).


But remember that huge 10-year deal in Shenzhen, China to host the WTA Finals?

Despite China’s issues with human rights and lack of crowds and broken promises, the biggest talking point was the fact that the women’s prize purse that first year in Shenzhen ($14 million US) exceeded that of the men at the ATP Finals. At times, it seemed that was the only talking point.

The Shenzhen event was held once in 2019, almost in an abyss except for said prize money (Ashleigh Barty won the singles, and Timea Babos/Kristina Mladenovic won the doubles, if that makes you feel old).

After that, the WTA scrambled. Not entirely because of their ethical stand taken against China, in the wake of the lack of answers concerning the welfare of disappeared former Chinese player Peng Shuai.

That was debunked soon enough, disappointing many activists who clung onto hope that someone was standing up for Peng.

No sporting events were held in China, period; they were shut tight because of COVID. That made it risk-free to take that position, even though it wasn’t sustainable. When the country opened up again last year, SEVEN WTA tournaments were quickly re-staged in that country even though the WTA had still not, in fact, been in direct contant with Peng.

But not, quite visibly, the finals in Shenzhen.

(The Fort Worth finals in 2022. Photo: Associated Press)

So the WTA went to Guadalajara, Mexico in 2021. And then they went to Fort Worth. And then they went to Cancun, Mexico. All were announced late in the game; all were a scramble to get to the starting line and all but Guadalajara a disappointment in terms of attendance.

The WTA Finals are the jewel in the tour’s crown, responsible for more than a third of its annual revenues. It simply cannot afford not to maximize, if that money is on the table. And that’s especially true after it had to put up the prize money for the WTA Finals for several years and a number of other tournaments during the season out of its own bank account, simply to secure places to hold tournaments during the pandemic and for its athletes to have the necessary playing opportunities.

In that, they did an admirable job. But at tremendous cost to their bottom line.

So, again, what choice do they have?

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Following the fellas

The other underreported issue facing the WTA is that in the quest for bigger events and more revenue, they very much have followed where the ATP has led.

If you hadn’t noticed, it’s always been the men who pushing the envelope for more prize money and more revenue and bigger events – notably, the expanded Masters 1000s and bigger 96-player, 12-day events that will become universal by 2025.

Without having to utter more than a peep, the women have benefited immensely by proxy.

And with the ATP clearly having zero qualms about venturing into the Middle East to secure the bag, the women almost have no choice but to follow.

At Indian Wells and Miami, the Saudis had an instantaneous presence following the announcement of a $100 million investment by its Public Investment Fund, amid all the rumours and back-office discussions of a “Premier League” or “Super Tour” that includes the four Grand Slam tournaments.

The Saudi PIF already had a major presence at Indian Wells – with a sponsorship tent on site and advertising signage. That despite the fact that the ink was barely dry on the announcement of its new $100 million sponsorship.

My first instinct was that once the Saudis basically control tennis was that it would be far too easy for them to maneuver the WTA into a tough position. The tournament in Madrid, as one example, already has a history of lack of respect for the women.

As in, “You know, we probably can sell out the Caja Magica – or our brand-new 1000 in Riyadh – with just the men. And we’d save the nearly $20 million US in prize money and the feeding and watering of about 150 players by dropping you. So what can you offer us?”

Thinking it over, it’s an unlikely development. Not because of the financials, but because of the optics. In the context of the Saudis’ near-unlimited coffers, the money they pay the women is loose couch change. But shutting them out would go against all the “reasons” they’re welcoming the WTA Finals.

In addition to the tent and the signage, the PIF had plenty of promotional advertising time during matches, on the big screen.

Do the players see reality? Do they care?

We absolutely put aside WTA icon Billie Jean King’s support of the decision to hold the Finals in this part of the world – it seems, in her golden years, there’s no cause she won’t find a way to embrace if there’s money to be made. That’s all she knows, after a lifetime of battling for women’s sports. But there is one area of her long and storied tennis legacy that the players would do well to take heed of.

King, and the rest of the “Original Nine”, were in a position in the early 1970s that they had to no choice but to do whatever they could to sell their sport. And they did.

(Photo: International Tennis Hall of Fame)

The current generation arrived with the WTA Tour a long-established product. They take it for granted, for the most part; just like kids born in the smart phone era, they don’t know anything else. And even though I was told in Cancun that Simon had indeed communicated to the players that the Tour’s situation was perilous, it didn’t seem to get through.

The way most of the women who competed in last year’s WTA Finals – we’re talking the singles players here – dissed the tournament, its organization and the conditions was extremely concerning even if many fans, of course, backed them all the way. It was rhetoric that should have been reprimanded under the tour’s “code of conduct”. But won’t be.

Just as concerning was the behaviour exhibited by some on the match court.

We get it, we understand. The situation was far from ideal (we spent significant time courtside ourselves that week getting rained on). It didn’t rain the previous week in Cancun. The weather was fine the following week. It was even fine some 75 km down the coast, where friends of Open Court were on a golfing vacation.

But that week, it was a sodden struggle.

At the end of a long season, the players were a bit fractious. Tired. Impatient. Broken.

And some of them made sure the fans, who came in increasing numbers as the week went on at the site and who obviously were watching around the world all week, KNEW they were miserable when they were on court. Potential future hosts for the event, potential sponsors and fans, and advertisers were surely watching as well.

Nothing was going to be done about it that week. What was done, was done. And yet, the prize money and ranking points were still on offer. The players owed the Tour, the organizers and the fans their best attitude and their best effort, and many didn’t deliver.

Here are some words from icons Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova about the situation at the time (apologies for the sound; it wasn’t ideal in a ballroom with a high ceiling).

The players did the same the previous year after the last-minute hosting in Fort Worth, Texas. Although in milder form. They decried the poor turnout, and moaned the $5 million in prize money that year (which, as with Guadalajara, the WTA had to dig into its own pockets for) was dwarfed by the $14.75 million on offer for the men.

It seems as though too many of the top players don’t fully realize the fix the WTA is in.

Or if they do, they – and/or their agents – think it’s someone else’s problem and their job is just to play tennis.

The proactive thing would be to reach out and ask what they can do to help: be more available to media, help the Tour reach outside the little tennis ecosystem to bring women’s tennis to new audiences. In other words, take a proactive role in ensuring the WTA rides the current wave of increased interest in women’s sports and reaps the benefits, instead of falling behind as it currently is.

The WTA seems uncertain about HOW to market its players in the 21st century. And, we’ll grant you, it’s a tricky proposition. But there seems to be a dearth of fresh, out-of-the-box ideas. It gets very little coverage at its own events beyond a small cadre of fan media. Its marketing is limited to mostly online and social-media efforts that reach those who already are diehards. The website and promotional material are in urgent need of fixing and updating.

But the reality is that going beyond the little women’s tennis bubble requires significant investment.

Which it … doesn’t currently have the means to make. So it does the best it can.

There is genuine hope that the newly-formed WTA Ventures arm will eventually generate enough revenue to be able to infuse the Tour with cash to fix all that is broken. But that’s still in the early stages at this point.

This is a time when the Tour and its players need to come together in a true partnership for the greater good and profit of all. That would require a sea change on both sides that isn’t likely to come.

Will the people come to Riyadh?

Saudi Arabia is a world away from the major world markets and a place where even the opaque Simon acknowledges it’s going to be a challenge to fill the seats.

The first “official” tennis event ever hosted in Saudi Arabia was the exhibition “Next-Gen Finals” involving all the under-21 ATP players who didn’t have a top ATP ranking. The weekend was okay, attendance-wise; the rest of the week was a struggle.

The region has the funds to attract big-money events. But as has been shown with Formula 1, boxing and even LIV golf, getting fan engagement and energy at those events (and those aren’t even events involving women) has been an uphill battle.

“One of the areas that we will have to work on with them, like we had to in China and in Singapore, is audience delivery. We have shown, with what we did in Singapore and in China, that we can do that,” Simon told the BBC.

From Istanbul, to Singapore, to Shenzhen

That would be … rosy spin. We covered that first WTA Finals in Singapore, a decade ago now.

That inaugural edition was well-attended although not as well as the announced figure of 129,000 for the week.

But with every year, despite tweaking the format, adding sessions and changing the schedules around and a lot of other efforts, it struggled to maintain that. The event didn’t even announce official attendance for the 2016 edition although the numbers upticked in 2017. By the fifth and final year, the WTA was looking for something better and Singapore wasn’t willing to step up and match the Chinese dollars. And that’s how they ended up in Shenzhen. And that’s what led to … all this.

Before that, it had a boffo first year in Istanbul, Turkey. But there were caveats to that success; tickets were almost given away that first year – like, $10 and $20 to sit right up close – because the government wanted to put the best possible face on a quest to secure the Olympics.

By the second year, when the ticket prices went back up to “normal” levels, the picture was quite different.

As for success in China, we’re not sure what metric is being used for audience delivery. Certainly it didn’t apply to the inaugural edition of the WTA Finals, quickly forgotten in all its desolate solitude, lack of atmosphere and the withdrawals during the event of breakout stars Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu.

Then again, they never really had a chance to build something. A purpose-built $450 million, 12,000-seat arena promised for the first of the planned 10 editions of the event was, unsurprisingly, not ready in time. In fact, it wasn’t even going to be ready for the second edition in 2020, which of course did not take place.

Instead, the women were shuffled to a multipurpose stadium used for table tennis and swimming. It had hosted a huge basketball event just weeks before the first edition, so there was a lot of last-minute scrambling to get it ready. Not only that, the Hong Kong riots were going on just a few kilometres away; the sports centre’s parking lot had been used as a storage spot for paramilitary vehicles. And just a few months before, the fields were used for military drills.

The whole thing seemed kind of snakebitten from the start – another decision made out of financial necessity, but built on shifting, unreliable sands in a complicated country with its own human rights issues. Which was then followed, of course, by a once-a-century pandemic.

It’s all about us

That Marina Storti of the WTA Ventures arm of the tour would need to confirm to the Telegraph (of course, she’d have been asked the question, and responded) that same-sex couples and those with various religious beliefs would “be accommodated” in Riyadh should go without saying.

But given the conditions there, it actually NEEDED to be said.

Simon said essentially the same to The Athletic: “We have assurances that everybody is welcome in the country to come and compete and work and do what needs to be done. They don’t judge anyone coming in. “

So it’s a bare minimum. The bigger picture, though, is that ANYONE else – other women, others with the same sexual orientation or religions – would NOT be given the royal treatment. In fact, they could literally be in danger. They could end up in prison. Just for existing, for who they love – even merely for protesting the situation.

For the WTA, which embraces members of the LGBTQ community amongst its player group, its employees AND across its fan base, there’s a lot more to this than whether same-sex couples can share a hotel room at a tennis tournament where the red carpet is being laid out.

The arrival of the WTA Finals for three weeks over the next three years is unlikely to change the fundamental nature of this country, no matter the lovely words from the Saudi organizers.

(And yes, you could certainly point to other decisions to hold events in other parts of the world where human rights and other issues are problematic. But we’re talking about THIS one – the MARQUEE event for the women’s tour every year. So let’s stay on topic).

The fact that the WTA has dithered about this decision for such a long time is an indicator of not only the magnitude of the decision but its consequences, and the number of stakeholders that needed to be brought on board despite obvious concerns.

What the spin will be

The players were given talking points about this inevitable decision a long time ago.

And we heard over and over: some version of “maybe our going there can effect some positive change in the region.”

But underlying all that is, “Show us the money we think we deserve.”

A number of players were asked about this over the last year, because that’s how long it’s been almost an inevitability.

Jessica Pegula, before Wimbledon 2023

I definitely don’t think I’m against doing something just because I think that they’re going to do what they want anyways. The PGA kind of went through a rough patch, then they decided to do something with them. A lot of the players felt really blindsided by it. I don’t think we want to get to that point. I don’t think we want to repeat what they just did. Hopefully we can kind of learn from that situation as far as whatever relationship we have with them. I trust Steve (Simon) obviously to make the right decision on what he feels is best for the WTA. I’m sure we’ll talk and go about it. Especially, I mean, if they could help getting us to equal prize money, even though there are negatives, I think there’s a lot of positives that can come out of it as well.”

Coco Gauff, in January (per The Athletic)

“Definitely don’t support the situation there. But I hope that if we do decide to go there, I hope that we’re able to make change and improve the quality there and engage in the local communities and make a difference.”

Ons Jabeur, at Wimbledon 2023, was all in.

“If it benefits for the player, I’m 100 per cent there. … I believe in Saudi they’re doing great giving women more rights. It’s time to change things. Believe it or not, we have the best two womens in Arabic world right now playing in tennis. It’s now or never. I hope they really invest in WTA. … I went to Saudi last year, and I was very impressed. I believe it could be a great idea to go there and play tournaments. Yeah, let’s see what the deal will be. I hope they will see us for players, not just an investment but to give us more benefits than what we’re having right now.”

As the only top-level Muslim WTA player, Jabeur is in a uniquely delicate situation.

As well, she’s on the back end of her career and visibly struggling with both motivation and her chronically-ailing right knee. It’s prime time to squeeze out as much off-court revenue as she can before calling it a career. And this is her market to do it.

In Australia in January, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek was uncertain.

“For sure I feel like it’s not black and white, everything that’s going on, in the sport. It’s hard for me to sum up in one sentence. There were a lot of rumors about WTA Finals going to Saudi. We’re still waiting for the decision. It was always hard for me to say if it’s good or not because it’s not easy for women in these areas. Obviously these countries also want to change and improve politically and sociologically. It’s not easy to decide. Also in terms of many events that were held, there were rumors about sportswashing. … I don’t know if it’s a good decision or not.”

Short-term gain, long term … ??

It is far too soon to know what the short- and long-term effects will be in the wake of this decision.

But it’s hard to fathom people travelling to Saudi Arabia as tourists to attend the week. Although surely some will.

We’ve seen with the new “neutral” venues for Davis Cup and BJK Cup that the assumption patriotic fans would travel long distances to cheer on their country has, with rare exceptions, proven to be a pipe dream. And Saudi Arabia is a far more daunting, intimidating trip than Manchester or Valencia.

The fans who say they will boycott it on principle (whether in person or, mostly, virtually) might stick to that; the diehards probably won’t be able to help themselves and tune in.

Potential fans who might catch a look could well be turned off by seeing empty stands. Potential investors and sponsors might have the same reaction.

That’s especially true with in the current climate, especially in North America where the women’s NCAA basketball tournament is playing to huge crowds with media interest that’s unprecedented. The new professional women’s hockey league, even if it came online a season too early and had its growing pains, is proving a popular sell in many markets.

Women’s sports are finally getting their due at this moment in history. And people and sponsors want to go where they see people.

Will they see people? If feels, especially in the first year, that this will be an uphill battle.

So the bottom line is that in the short term, the WTA will gratefully and necessarily shore up its bottom line. It will be able to “brag” that it offers equal prize money to the men at the ATP Finals – a far more established event that has been hugely successful, with only one location change, for decades.

Again, the WTA had no option here. The narrative now turns to whether, now that its immediate concerns seem to be assuaged, it’s a move that will pay off in the longer term.

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