WTA Tour Finals: an event at a crossroads

As the finals in Moscow and Luxembourg played out on Saturday, the 2018 WTA Tour regular season came to an end.

Only the WTA Finals in Singapore (and the second-tier WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China the following week) remain.

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The withdrawal of world No. 1 Simona Halep from Singapore due to the herniated disc in her back is definitely a blow.

The Romanian might not have the marquee value among non-diehard fans that, say, Serena or Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova still have.

But she’s the best in the world – the WTA Tour Player of the Year.

And she’s not playing.

Simona Halep out of Singapore

And this will be the fourth straight season the most famous female tennis player in the world, arguably the best of all time, has not played the Tour Finals.

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The last time the GOAT of women’s tennis played Singapore she won it all. The problem is that she hasn’t played it in four years. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

As the final edition in Singapore gets under way Sunday, here’s a rundown of some of the issues and challenges it’s facing.

The WTA Tour Finals seem to be at a crossroads.

The years in Singapore have featured multiple changes in format. The event itself has been downsized significantly from its original mission to be a large-scale women’s tennis festival.

At the start, there were Futures Stars, and legends, and a full round-robin format for the doubles competition as the ATP Tour has in London.

So it seems it’s not quite sure of which direction it’s headed in. Given the Tour Finals bear the burden of generating a big chunk of the WTA’s annual revenues, this isn’t an insignificant thing.

A new 10-year home in Shenzhen

The fairy-tale offer from Shenzhen, China reportedly will double the available prize money to $14 million per year.

It also will come with a brand-new building.

But we’ve all seen how the offer from the Piqué Group to the ITF for the revamped Davis Cup finals has perhaps turned out to be too good to be true.

The Gemdale Corporation, billed as one of China’s largest property developers in the WTA Tour’s announcement last January, committed to building a 12,000-seat, $450 million, state-of-the-art venue in Shenzhen’s downtown area as part of the deal.

That, reportedly, is the first glitch.

Temporary home for 2019

Sports Business Journal’s Daniel Kaplan reported this week that the venue will not be ready until 2020. WTA Tour president Micky Lawler told Kaplan there always was “a likelihood” it wouldn’t be ready for the big premiere.

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Shenzhen Bay Sports Center, where the WTA Tour Finals will be held on a one-off in 2019.

Lawler said that red tape involving existing businesses on the site, which will need to be razed to make way for the new building, is delaying things.

So in 2019, the Tour Finals will be held in the indoor arena at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center.

The capacity isn’t much different. But the venue, built in 2011, is a half-hour by car and an hour by public transport, west of the downtown core.

So that’s not a good start as you try to build a new, permanent tradition.

And it also begs the question of why a new $450 million venue is needed (especially as the WTA Tour won’t own it). The Shenzhen Bay arena looks spectacular.

But beyond that, the event seems to lack much out-of-the-box, creative thinking about how to stage it, how to draw attention to it via innovation, bells and whistles.

It’s business as usual, even if the lighting inside the Singapore Indoor Arena gives the tournament more ambiance than the average WTA Tour stop.

But beyond that? Even assuming the eight singles qualifiers were all high-profile, marquee attractions (and that’s a very debatable point), we’re in 2018.

And the prevailing sentiment seems to be that quality tennis isn’t enough these days, when you’re trying to sell a big, multi-session event.

But the challenge in bringing it to a wider audience is that the bells and whistles that might engage North America, or Europe, likely are a much harder sell in China. It’s just a different market.

“Red” and “White” groups

There’s an opportunity here for the WTA Tour to pay more than lip service to its long history, by taking a page out of a successful exhibition event.

One of the big pluses with the Laver Cup is that the “Team World” squad is captain by John McEnroe. And the “Team Europe” squad is helmed by McEnroe’s longtime rival Bjorn Borg.

The high-profile involvement of legends McEnroe and Borg adds some significant star power to the Laver Cup. Why doesn’t the WTA Tour take a page out of that book, and give Evert and Navratilova a much bigger role to play? (Photo: Amazon Prime screenshot)

It’s more than just an official designation; the two are active captains, on court for all the matches and very present in the marketing and selling of the very successful event.

“Chrissie Group” and “Martina Group”

How great would it be, instead of calling the two round-robin groups the “Red” and “White” groups (those don’t even match the WTA colors, for crying out loud), they called them the “Chrissie” and “Martina” groups?

Navratilova and Evert have been in attendance for all five editions in Singapore. You’d think they’d want to put them to better use than just chatting up the media and sponsors and maybe taking the occasionalmik turn on TV commentary.

There are a lot more matches during the Tour Finals than the Laver Cup, of course.  So how about Evert and an assistant captain – say, Kim Clijsters – splitting the on-court coaching duties for one group. And Navratilova and – say, Jennifer Capriati, who is in Singapore this year – splitting duties for the other?

Better yet, why not hold a draw where eight legends can each choose a player to coach/mentor during the week? You could have them sit courtside with their players during matches, miked up for television.

Talk about value-added, and promoting interest with the non-hardcore tennis fans who have trouble distinguishing Kiki Bertens from Elina Svitolina.

Not to mention – the great optics of having these fabulous female athletes being coached by other women.

No doubt, it would take away some screen time from the players’ regular coaches, who also deserve credit for making it to Singapore. And perhaps it affects the performances a little (although that’s an arguable point). And yes, we know it’s not an exhibition.

But you could argue the point is to sell the event, which began with terrific attendance in for the debut in Singapore in 2014, but has not set the world on fire since then. Plus, the attendance by international tennis media beyond those from the countries represented (and even then, not every country) has been weak. 

At left, the official, Photoshopped, shiny Singapore selfie. At right, the actual selfie.

The death of the “Rising Stars”

At the start of the WTA Tour’s five-year stint in Singapore, it held a “Future Stars” event as part of the tournament.

The first winner was Monica Puig. The 2015 winner was … Naomi Osaka, who defeated Caroline Garcia.

Those two tuned out pretty well.

We’ll grant you, the definition of “Rising Stars” was fairly elastic; Garcia had qualified for the same event in doubles.

Still, it offered a welcome glimpse of the future.

Now, the event has a far smaller scope, and renamed “Future Stars”. The under-14 and under-16 players come only from the Asian region, and it’s relegated to the sidelines. Only the final will be played in the stadium.

They’re calling it “an engagement platform aimed at encouraging young boys and girls throughout Asia-Pacific to live a better life through sport.”

But it doesn’t resonate much.

Doubles? What doubles?

When the WTA Tour first moved to Singapore, the doubles qualifiers had the same opportunity as the singles stars. The teams could win their way through the same round-robin format to get to the semifinals and finals.

After the first two years, the doubles went back to a straight elimination format in 2016. With eight teams, that meant just three victories needed to win the event.

Not only that, it meant that after working all season to qualify for the Tour Finals and traveling all the way to Singapore, a doubles team could be eliminated in an hour.

The change also meant marginalization of the doubles matches. Singapore had been a rare opportunity on Tour for the best players in that discipline to shine.

The doubles event doesn’t even start until Day 5.

Last year, they streamed the doubles matches on Facebook. No word on whether they’ll do that again this time around.

No more legends on court

While the WTA Finals website lists a full dozen former players as “WTA Finals Legend Ambassadors” – none of them will take the court to actually play.

Instead, per the website, the “WTA Finals Legend Ambassadors will support the 10-day tennis festival through a comprehensive program of sponsor, media and community engagement activities.”

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It feels as though all that “community engagement” work is a fairly moot point this year, since the tournament will depart Singapore for good in 10 days.

And, we should ask, where are Asian legends Kimiko Date and Li Na?

We want to take nothing away from the attending legends. But Date and Li are without a doubt the two most iconic Asian players in women’s tennis history. And they’re not there.

Also – the group skews heavily American. Six of the 12 are from the U.S. What about Gabriela Sabatini, to include South America? Maybe even Cara Black, to represent Africa? Elena Dementieva (Russia) or Ana Ivanovic (Serbia) to represent Eastern Europe?

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Ivanovic, who played in the 2014 event, also graciously gave her time to a press conference about the new SAP comprehensive statistics rollout (Whatever happened to that, anyway?) Wouldn’t it be great if she were one of the legends ambassadors at the Tour Finals, given her popularity and name recognition? (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

With the move to Shenzhen next year, Li Na’s attendance would be all the more compelling.

This wasn’t the case for the first edition in 2014, when the legends took part in three of the weekday sessions. Among those playing were Navratilova, Iva Majoli, and Marion Bartoli.

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Navratilova played in the legends component of the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore in 2014. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Fan engagement and streaming

When the WTA first arrived in Singapore, the singles draw was an event open to the public. And it was streamed live on various social media as well as on the Tour’s website.

Fast forward to 2018.

The singles draw is no longer a public event. It’s by invitation only.

They streamed it at the event plaza at the players’ hotel, the Marina Bay Sands.

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If you had tickets for the WTA Finals, you got 10 per cent off food and beverages at the streaming event. (Photo: WTA Finals Facebook page)

But the stream could not be found on the WTA’s website.

It was uniquely a Facebook event. And these days, a lot of people have issues with Facebook.

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Only a very brief highlights package is available on the website.

beIN not big on the live

If you have WTATV, you’re set for streaming of the event from the first serve on Sunday evening in Singapore (5 a.m. EDT back in North America).

Beyond that, you really have to make a solid effort to figure out where you can watch it. And many prefer to watch on television rather than on their laptops or mobile devices, or don’t want to pay for the WTA’s proprietary streaming service.

There is absolutely nothing on the dedicated WTA Finals website about where you can watch on TV.

On the regular WTA Tour site, under the “watch” tab, there’s a generic list of the networks in each country where you can watch the women’s Tour.

They don’t make it easy – especially in North America.

Hopefully that will all change in the U.S. next season, when the Tennis Channel takes over rights to broadcast the WTA Tour from beIN Sports.

But for now, beIN it is.

Day sessions? You’re on your own

From what we can see on the beIN network’s online schedule, it plans to be live on the main network at 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning (7:30 p.m. in Singapore) for the match between Caroline Wozniacki and Karolina Pliskova.

But, at 5 a.m., for the Petra Kvitova vs. Elina Svitolina clash, the network is scheduled to run an infomercial called “Amazing Abs”.

For the biggest event of the WTA Tour’s season, this isn’t close to satisfactory. It’s not as though beIN has any live programming to conflict with it at 5 am. (2 a.m. PDT).

On Monday, with the start in Singapore at 7:30 p.m., the highly-anticipated matchup between Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, then Angelique Kerber vs. Kiki Bertens, should both be live.

The day sessions – at least on Thursday and Friday, which have a 1:30 a.m. EDT/10:30 p.m. PDT start, look to be live.

Hard to find in Canada

In Canada, the English-language rights are held by DAZN (this isn’t listed on the WTA Tour site, so you’ll have to trust us on that one).

On the plus side, DAZN’s online schedule has it going live at 5 a.m. for the first matches. They have the day sessions going live at 1:30 a.m. all three days. But on those days, they don’t have the night session matches listed (although that could well just be a glitch – it’s not the most user-friendly site ever).

On the down side, who even has DAZN? Well, probably soccer fans do.

On the French-language side, TVA Sports has the WTA Tour rights.

Unfortunately, the only tennis scheduled for Sunday on either TVASports or TVASports 2 is … a rerun of the Moscow singles final at 11:30 a.m.

The news is fairly grim on this front. There appears to be no Singapore scheduled until … Friday. 

From what we can tell, the second quarterfinal will be live, at 9:30 a.m. on the main channel, while the first would be on tape delay at 1 p.m.

The first quarterfinal looks to be live at 7:30 a.m. on TVA Sports 2, with a repeat of both matches from 6-10 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday look to be live broadcasts, both at 7:30 a.m., on the main network.

The day sessions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are nowhere to be found, with the half-hour sports news broadcast set on repeat through the night.

From the looks of it, the one Canadian in the event – doubles star Gabriela Dabrowski – will struggle to get any air time at all at home.

A lame-duck event

The inaugural edition in Singapore in 2014 had impressive attendance. It’s a big event for that part of the world, and course there was the novelty factor. 

Attendance was announced at 129,000 over 10 days the first year, 130,000 over 11 days the second year. The Straits Times reported that no attendance figures were made available for 2016.

There also were more day sessions to help in the overall count.

Since then, though, it hasn’t been nearly as good. The mood lighting in Singapore Indoor Stadium means you can’t really see the stands. And that’s a good thing.

It’s a great event, so that’s disappointing.

So, what about this year, in the final year before the move to China?

It is, to put it gently, a lame-duck event. And that’s been true for a year. At last year’s Tour Finals, during a very lengthy “state of the WTA” press conference, CEO Steve Simon impressed upon the media the amount of fabulous interest the Tour had received from other cities to lure the event away from Singapore.

It was a little tone-deaf.

The announcement ended up being made right at the beginning of the 2018 season, not in April. So Singapore has known all year that they were not considered for an extension, and that this would be the final year.

It makes it harder to build any momentum.

Plenty of good seats available

There are multiple sections (dark pink and purple) in which tickets are available for Sunday night’s final, although more of them are in “limited availability” mode than is the case earlier in the week. Tix for the final are priced at $141 and $239 (Singapore dollars).

It’s hard to calculate exact numbers of seats.

But as we examined the online availability for each of the 11 sessions beginning Sunday night, it’s clear that there are a lot of empty seats – at least as of Saturday night.

We’ve separated the available sections into four: the higher-priced Category A seats (courtside and second tier), the second-tier Category B seats, and the Category B seats in smaller sections atop the east, north and west stands.

That last category seem to have mostly sold out, even if the lower-tier seats are at the same price point.

Below, a chart of the sections where seats are still available. While the majority of the sections show “available”, there are some sections that are marked as “selling fast” or with “limited availability”. 

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Ticket prices are as follows:

Thursday and Friday day sessions: $27 (A) and $65 (B)
Weeknight night sessions: $65 and $109
Semis – Day session: $95 and $159
Semis – Night session: $110 and $195
Finals: $141 and $239

(Prices in Singapore dollars, which are worth about 73 cents U.S.)

Costly Racquet Club seats all but gone

There are five sections – located in the second tier on the south side – that are designated as “Racquet Club” seats.

Those offer food and beverage, but they’re costly.

The cheapest are for the two weekday day sessions ($529.65). The night sessions cost $743.65, the semifinal sessions $1337.50, and one ticket for finals day will set you back … $2140.

There are approximately 850 seats in that section. Other than a rogue few in one section for all but the Friday night session, they’re sold out.

Check out the ticketing site for more comprehensive information.

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