Pro sports leader looks for edge in wooing more fans
Steve Simon doesn’t flinch when confronted with an online sports news story from January, published around the Australian Open, which refers to him as a “radical figure” in tennis.
Simon, 63, was named top executive at the WTA, based in St. Petersburg, in 2015. Prior to that he was the longtime director of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. — the kickoff event of the spring U.S. hard-court season that includes the Miami Open.
Simon has become somewhat of a lightning rod for criticism since he took the helm of the WTA. That includes what some call radical ideas to speed up the pace of play in tennis and make it more appealing to a younger, more attention-starved generation of TV viewers.
'Fans won’t sit still for three, four or five hours to watch something anymore. Media consumption habits are changing.' Steve Simon, CEO, Women’s Tennis Association
Simon advocates a host of controversial changes to the way tennis matches are played, including a strict 25-second time limit enforced between points; no-ad scoring; and match or “super” tiebreaks — meaning matches deadlocked at one set apiece would automatically be decided by a tiebreaker, instead of a full third set.
“We know that fans won’t sit still for three, four or five hours to watch something anymore,” he says. “Media consumption habits are changing. We’re different than our parents were and our kids are different than us and my grandkids are different than me.”
Both the WTA and its men’s tennis counterpart, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), have tested some of Simon’s ideas in doubles matches, which routinely draw far fewer viewers than singles tilts. The goal is to reduce the time it takes to play a match to 60-90 minutes, and in some cases, the steps implemented have worked.
Yet some singles players, especially, are outspoken in their opposition to shortening matches for the sake of broadcasters’ schedules and viewers’ attention spans. For example, American rising star Coco Vandeweghe, primarily known as a singles player on the WTA tour, also plays doubles and she’s publicly disclosed her dislike of no-ad scoring, saying it reduces matches to a matter of luck.
Simon is undeterred by the criticism. In his defense, he cites “the sports that were bold enough to change.”
“We want to make this the best event on the tour — our crown jewel, if you will — so the investment that we envisioned was very significant.” — WTA president Micky Lawler.
Cricket, he explains, is a perfect parallel. Its governing bodies created shorter, more fan-friendly alternative formats to the test matches than can drag on for three to five days. “It's going gangbusters right now,” says Simon. “And rugby to rugby sevens is a huge success. I think we have an obligation to look at [pace of play changes]. I'm not saying do it just to do it, but rather that we should be looking at it and trying things to see what works.”
Outside of the criticism lies another question: will these moves lead to more interest in women’s tennis?
Bill Sutton, director of the Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program, part of the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business, isn’t so sure. He says various sports’ efforts, including tennis, to speed up pace of play don’t have much impact on viewership.
“If you’re talking about television, [the problem is] how many commercials are in there [during sports broadcasts],” Sutton says. “Commercials aren’t part of how sports are played, but we’ve adapted games to showing commercials.”
The proliferation of instant replay is another perpetrator of pace-of-play crimes, says Sutton. Take, for example, “an NFL game … if you sit there with a stopwatch and only count the time that the ball is in play, the longest game you’ll find is between 15 and 16 minutes. So you’ve got two hours and 45 minutes worth of … what? Dead time. A lot of people are oblivious to it. I’m not, but I’ve grown to accept what it is.”
Player health is another reason why Simon wants to see shorter, less physically exhausting matches become the norm. Much like the ATP, the WTA’s most marketable players — Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova — are in their 30s. The WTA has a plethora of rising stars, including Americans Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Sloan Stephens, as well as Romania’s Simona Halep and Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki. But none are considered appointment viewing in the same sense as the “Big Three.”
Simon, while well aware of his sport’s stars’ diminishing shelf life, is secure in believing the show will go on without them.
“I can remember the past conversations very well,” he says. “Who's gonna replace Steffi [Graf], who's gonna replace Chris [Evert] and Martina [Navratilova], who's gonna replace Pete [Sampras] and Andre [Agassi]? Players will come and go and we just need to celebrate the Serenas and Venuses as long as they play and know that we're in very good hands when they do decide to move on … but hopefully they still play for another 10 years.”
That seems unlikely, given how grueling tennis can be on the body, as well as the sport’s nearly year-round schedule. “It is demanding on the athletes’ physical abilities,” Simon acknowledges.
But that’s another justification for the changes he wants to see implemented. “If players are competing in 90-minute matches versus three hours, or more,” says Simon, “they stay healthier and ultimately play more, which helps build the sport for the fans, and the players’ earning capacity goes up.”
One shift the women’s game has embraced, of late, is the sport’s global prominence.
The flexibility to move quickly on global opportunities partially stems from the association’s ownership structure: a 50-50 partnership between players and tournaments.
That gives the players an insider voice and control, instead of going through a labor association. The privately owned organization, with other offices in London, Beijing and Singapore, has about 120 employees worldwide. Simon declines to disclose annual revenues or other financial data.
“We’ve taken a very long-term view with our approach to our financials and our financial structures and building our platforms,” he says. “And I think that we're in a place now where our tour has a very good runway, financially, ahead of it, with no short-term cliffs that face a lot of other companies.”
That long-term view is evident in the WTA’s 10-year deal to move its marquee year-end tournament, the WTA Finals, from Singapore to Shenzhen, China, beginning in 2019. Announced in mid-January, WTA president Micky Lawler, who helped negotiate the transaction, calls it one of the biggest deals in the history of women’s tennis.
“It’s a massive turning point,” says Lawler, 57, who came to the WTA in 2015 from Octagon, a Stamford, Conn.-based sports and entertainment management and marketing company. She also served on the WTA board for 11 years before joining the organization’s executive team. “We want to make this the best event on the tour — our crown jewel, if you will — so the investment that we envisioned was very significant.”
With a population of some 68 million, the greater Shenzhen metro area is a megalopolis located on the southeast coast of China, just north of Hong Kong. Gemdale Corp., a Shenzhen-based real estate development company, submitted a $1 billion bid for the WTA Finals that beat out entries from groups based in Manchester, England; Prague; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Singapore, the incumbent host city.
“Going to Shenzhen clearly reflected a commitment to the Chinese marketplace, where we’ve had a lot of business over the past several years,” Simon says, alluding to the nine other WTA tournaments that already take place in China. “Women’s tennis is doing very well in that marketplace.”
The Shenzhen bid includes a brand new, 12,000-seat, $500 million indoor tennis venue, as well as a record-setting $14 million in prize money for the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams. The size of the purse is also significant in that it’s nearly double what the men of the ATP receive in that tour’s year-end finals, held in London.
“The record prize money level that will come from Shenzhen is a huge statement, with respect to the world of equality,” says Simon. “Shenzhen deserves a great deal of credit for stepping up to that. But I think it says even more about the quality of our product and what these incredible athletes are worth.”
Lawler concurs, adding that longtime followers of women’s tennis believe the Shenzhen deal will have an impact on the sport similar to the early 1970s, when Billie Jean King and a group of “renegade” female tennis players founded the WTA. “We are the main show now,” she says, referring to the global popularity of women’s tennis. “We stand on our own two feet and offer incredible athleticism and performance.”