The WTA moved its season-ending event – the crown-jewel event of its season, and its biggest revenue generator – to Asia for the first time in 2014.
It was clearly a “follow the money” move, as so many decisions by the women’s tennis association have been in recent years.
At the time, the WTA said it had received “expressions of interest” from 43 cities. Singapore was chosen over finalists Tianjin (China), Monterrey (Mexico) and Kazan (Russia).
Then-CEO Stacey Allaster said the event represented 35-40 percent of the tour’s net operating revenues. And that the deal was worth more than the $14 million US a year it generated during the three-year stint in Istanbul.
The prize money for the first year in 2014 was upped to $6.5 million, as Allaster said it would rise more from there over the length of the deal.
That didn’t really happen, to any significant extent. It was raised to $7 million in 2015 – and remained at that level for the rest of the Singapore stay.
(2010: Doha; 2011-13: Istanbul; 2014-18: Singapore; 2019- : Shenzhen)
The offer from Shenzhen, where the tournament will move next year, will double the prize money to $14 million.
Photos from 2014
It was a happier, more innocent time. 🙂
— Courtney Walsh (@walshcee) October 21, 2017
We covered the inaugural event in 2014, which seemed to create a fair amount of engagement in the city and was spectacularly well put on by the organizers.
(The players were: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and, in her career-making 2014 season finale, Genie Bouchard. There was a significant amount of star power for this one, with some of the most high-profile and popular players in recent years).
Here are some of the pics from that year.
Yes, there are a lot of photos of Bouchard. That was the main reason for being there, as the lone Canadian journalist. But there also are photos of the scenes, the other players and the activities.
In the press room:
Genie Bouchard – with Halep, Williams and Ivanovic:
The attendance was impressive – announced at 129,000 for the first year. That was a bit misleading, as the WTA’s report at the time indicates that number was for fans attracted “to the Singapore Sports Hub during the 10 days of tennis, entertainment and business.”
The actual match attendance was put at “more than 93,000” through 14 sessions, including three reserved for the “Rising Stars” event featured the first couple of years. That’s an average of 6,642 per session, with the final being the last of four sellouts, at 9,986 fans.
Attendance numbers well-spun
Attendance for the second edition in 2015 was announced at 130,000, but over 18 sessions. While it was difficult to judge the fullness of the stands with the dark lighting, sources on site indicated that they weren’t nearly as full as the first year.
That’s not unusual, as the first year was impressive. And in any event of this nature, the novelty is more likely than not to wear off by Year 2 in an area of the planet without any sort of established tennis tradition.
For 2016, the WTA Tour didn’t announce any official attendance figure.
In 2017, the WTA announced attendance as 133,000, over only 11 sessions with no legends, and the straight-elimination doubles draw. By those numbers, the event would have had 11 sellouts, plus another 23,000 fans attending the experience. Might be a little … optimistic.
This year, there’s been no number announced although, as we laid out here, there were plenty of good seats available for every session.
WTA CEO Steve Simon, in his season-ending press conference last week, said he expected a record.
“I think that you can see that through this year we will have record attendance again. I believe it will exceed last year’s 133,000 people. You have seen it the first few nights at the event. You have seen it in the evolution of the fans here,” Simon said.
Law of diminishing returns
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Singapore is that a five-year stay helps create, as Allaster said when the venue was announced, financial stability. But in a country without an established tennis fan base – the type of fan base you need to fill an arena for a week or more – it’s a challenge to keep an event growing.
The players who would attract the less-than-diehard tennis fans – notably, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – have not been annual attendees.
Williams played only once in Singapore – the first year in 2014, when she defeated Halep in the final.
Sharapova qualified in 2014 (exiting after the pool stage) and 2015 (undefeated in the round robin, but out in the semifinals to Kvitova). But she hasn’t played since.
The challenge with the new 10-year commitment in Shenzhen, China will be the same – except double.
Shenzhen has double the population base to draw from. And it’s also near several other large population hubs. And it does have somewhat more of a tennis tradition with annual WTA and ATP Tour events held there.
“The largest and most significant WTA Finals deal in the 45 years since the WTA was founded and promises to take the event to a spectacular new level,” Simon said when the deal was announced.
A 10-year commitment
The prize-money pool will double, to $14 million in 2019.
The deal, according to Sports Business Journal, is reportedly worth close to … $1 billion. That’s $100 million a year, or more than seven times the reported value of the deal in Istanbul five years ago even though the prize money is “only” doubled.
Simon told the New York Times the deal was actually worth in excess of that figure. But that number includes the reported $450 million to be spent on the new indoor arena to be built, which the WTA won’t actually own, “and other real-estate elements”. Simon also said that the share of the WTA’s total revenues generated by the event is now less than that 35-40 per cent figure stated a few years ago by Allaster.
It’s a number that stretches credulity, on the face of it. Let’s just say it’s right up there with he WTA’s $525 million, 10-year live media rights and production deal with beIN and Perform, and the 25-year, $3 billion deal between the ITF and the Kosmos Group for the “new” Davis Cup.
(After the first two years of the five-year deal with beIN, the rights in the U.S. have switched over to the Tennis Channel for 2019).
The new arena in Shenzhen won’t be ready in time for the inaugural edition in 2019.
Farewell Singapore, hello Shenzhen
The main priority, though, is that the WTA be able to create a lasting, significant tennis tradition in new its home.
The WTA couldn’t confirm that the annual WTA stop in Shenzhen, which takes place just two months after the Tour Finals, would survive. So it may have to find another home in Asia (or Australia, for that matter) for a tournament amidst a tricky time within the game.
The ATP Tour is planning a team event beginning in 2020. And that tournament looks to taking place in several venues where there are currently joint WTA/ATP events. Among the possibilities are Perth (where the Hopman Cup is in danger). Also being considered are Brisbane (well-attended by the top WTA players) and Sydney, the week before the Australian Open.
Shenzhen is so far away from North America and Europe that it’s not going to be able to count on hordes of women’s tennis fans making the long, expensive trip. So it’s going to have to find its market around that part of China. That was, of course, also true in Singapore.
There are enough people in the area; that’s for sure. The challenge will be get them to the event, and keep them coming.