Stacey Allaster holds court in the WTA
On the eve of the 2011 U.S. Open, espnW caught up with WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster as part of our ongoing Power Play series highlighting women in the sports business. The Canadian native has held her position with the WTA since July 2009.
espnW: You grew up playing tennis. What elements of your experience as a former player do you bring to your role as CEO of the WTA?
Stacey Allaster: I played tennis in high school and college and I always classified myself as a good club player but never professional. Irrespective, the sport taught me so much. I think it taught me how to win and it taught me how to lose. When you win, you obviously learn how to succeed and how to build upon your success. More important, my playing days taught me how to deal with failure and how to restart and re-strategize on how I should have played a match. If you correlate it to business -- you didn't close a deal, a situation happened you wish you'd perhaps managed differently -- you can then reflect upon that situation and, again, re-strategize to think how would I do this differently to be more effective.
I think I've pretty well done almost every job in tennis and certainly in my role as a tournament director, I have a very good understanding of what the athletes need to successfully perform on court. You need a full house to provide the energy in the stadium, you want to have good systems in place like transport and their hotel, their food service, their lounge and then a little bit of off-court fun as they're sitting around waiting.
espnW: You've spoken about the importance of strong female role models in your life. Can you share more about your mother and grandmother and their influence on you?
SA: They are two women in my life who were incredibly hardworking, dedicated to their families, dealt with a significant amount of adversity and still persevered and did a great job at raising their families. My grandmother had five kids, and my grandfather got sick with Alzheimer's. Just step by step she bought one house and fixed it up and was able to buy another. Before you know it she's got a pool of 10 houses or so and that provided revenue streams for the family. Then she actually opened up a children's shoe store in the family home. The dining room became this shoe store and she became the place to go for kids shoes. There she was trying to take care of my grandfather, run the store, run the houses and working all the time, obviously to provide for her kids.
My mom was a nurse and she got injured on the job very early on in life to the point that she could not work full time. She'd work sometimes the night shift of nursing where you didn't have the heavy lifting of the patients and then for her to have income for us -- a single mom -- she also bought a house. My grandmother helped and she turned the house into a boarding home for college students. At any one point in time we had eight college students living with us.
They were creative, dedicated, just hardworking women that I could look up to. There was no silver spoon.
espnW: Recognizing that no day is typical, can you take us through your typical day?
SA: When I'm not on the road, I turn on my Sony Ericsson Xperia Smartphone and respond to emails from our team in London and Beijing. ... I then will review the results from the previous day looking at who won. Then I do a quick scan of media clippings or the issues of the day, media writing about the sport. By then my kids are getting up and I switch to getting myself ready and getting the kids ready. I do like to actually take them to school if I'm here. I drop them off at school and then I'll either try to go to the gym or then I head to the office.
espnW: What is it about women's tennis and the WTA that has made it more successful than other women's sports?
SA: I truly do believe that our athletes are the best on the planet. To have a year-round, 40-week schedule, the wear and tear on their bodies and for them to perform the way they do is incredible. Second of all, we have excellent tournament promoters, very experienced, who know how to adapt their businesses and meet the needs of fans and sponsors. That's a winning equation week in week out. Third, women's tennis has always been fortunate to have sponsors who get it. Billie Jean King would say, "These corporate partners get it." The mission is not just about forehands and backhands; it is about presenting women in a strong, confident position globally and we've had commercial partners who not only want to just get their ROI but they truly want women's tennis to be successful.
espnW: What is your take on the grunting and shrieking controversy in the women's game that recently took Wimbledon by storm?
SA: We've had grunting in men's and women's tennis for years, if you go back to the days of Monica Seles. Technology has changed such that the amplification on center court is vastly improved and that is obviously turning up the volume through broadcast. We have a rule in place. It's called the hindrance rule and if the chair umpire feels that an athlete is doing something to impede the other athlete's ability to compete the chair umpire could, in fact, enforce the hindrance rule. But, the reality of it is the players themselves are not complaining. So that's one lens to it. Always at Wimbledon -- perhaps because it's the world of "Quiet, please" -- it always comes up. I'm a very fan-centric tennis leader and I am hearing on a more regular basis from fans, from broadcasters, that they'd like us to look at it.
Our board is going to discuss it. I don't believe that we can do that much to change the current generation of athlete. They have trained their whole lives this way thus I'm wondering if we worked with the coaches, with the ITF for the junior circuit, if that's where change for the next generation could, in fact, be managed. But it's an issue we're closely looking at and definitely talking about.
espnW: What are the biggest challenges you see facing the tour in the next year or two?
SA: Like all businesses you continue to be challenged with the economy. I'm not complacent with our growth. I'm mindful of the global recession that we're living in. ... In addition, how are we truly going to monetize on the investment that we are making in China, which is critical for sustainable revenue growth for the organization? We want to have healthy athletes so we have to continue to be very, very careful to not over-expand with the number of events and make sure that the calendar flow and the surface flow is good so that the athletes can stay at their optimal performance.
espnW: What advice do you have for women who want to work in the sports industry?
SA: I speak only from my own perspective but the journey to success is a long and winding road with many deviations and many road blocks. I would say never take no for an answer and you've got to be resilient. You've got to accept that entry into sports means volunteering, becoming an intern for many years. It took me more than five years just to get in the door. Tennis Canada turned me down three times before I was offered a job and then it was another five years of hard slugging where I would actually work at Tennis Canada by day and then I would go teach tennis at night and on the weekends. Along that pathway I really tried to differentiate myself. How could I make myself more valuable to the organization than others? That meant that I never stopped learning and I always looked to learn from other related industries to bring to my organization. You know I have a lot of people who always come to me saying, "Oh, I love tennis" or "I'd love to be in sports marketing." Who cares? What matters to me as someone who's looking to add people to our team is can you make us money, can you save us money, can you add value? If you manage your career with those three objectives in mind, being able to sell yourself [in] the ways that you're going to add value to sports is the way to stay in sports and to advance.