“We’ve learned how to operate in this environment” : exclusive interview with WTA chief Steve Simon

After a year in which the WTA was forced to cancel tournaments for five months and in which it was unable to stage its lucrative WTA Finals, chairman and CEO Steve Simon tells Simon Cambers why there are reasons to be positive as we head into 2021

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Steve Simon has been the WTA chairman and CEO since November 2015 but after four years of growth, 2020 saw the WTA hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, with its season-ending Finals in China a victim of the restrictions put in place. In a wide-ranging interview with Tennis Majors, and with vaccines beginning to be rolled out, Simon discusses how the WTA is gearing up for 2021. Below is an edited version of the interview, conducted by Zoom.

Tennis Majors: Obviously, no one would have predicted the pandemic. How do you feel the WTA handled everything that was put in front of you?

Steve Simon: You know, I think we leave this year with a lot of pride how we were able to handle it. It was great, obviously, to get back to play. And we can take a lot of pride in that. We did find a way to get back on the court. We had 10 events and two grand slams. In a situation that isn’t like most leagues and regional sports where you could create bubbles or keep everybody at home, we have to travel people, and we proved that you can do it and we did it safely. You can count on one hand how many positive cases we had. And fortunately, no one got very sick and no one got sick at our tournaments, the tournament staff. So a lot of pride in that.

It was all about from the get-go, everybody pulling together, and (the ethos that) if we stay together, we’ll get through this. And we did. We saw it with our tournaments, our players, our staff, our partners, the organisation really did come together. And I think we’re stronger as a result of it. And, we’re very excited about about the future. And I think some of the initiatives that we have coming out, with our branding and everything, shows that we haven’t been sitting back and just trying to cover ourselves. We do have a good, bright future and we have come together and we’re coming out strong. So I think there’s a lot we can take away from it that’s very positive.

The WTA and the sport in general took a huge financial hit this year. What kind of financial situation is the WTA in right now and how much longer could the Tour survive without a return of fans, without things getting back to something close to normal?

“I think it’s going to be an interesting year. The WTA, like many businesses in this world, most businesses and the leagues have all taken significant financial hits. There’s no question. Fortunately, we did have the foresight and we had set ourselves up for financial challenges if they ever occurred. And (because of that) the WTA is in a good place. We were very fortunate, (that) when we all came together, our partners came together as well, and we were able to restructure (sponsorship deals) and we haven’t lost anybody. We have a good foundation to go into 2021 with and we’re fine.

“Could we go through another year of 2020, like that? I’m not sure how many businesses or leagues could, but I think that as we’ve learned how to operate in this environment, we’re going to be OK. And we’re strong. So I think we’re in a good place and we have a big plan and our outlook right now is very solid for 2021. So I think the WTA is just fine.”

What’s the impact of the Chinese tournaments not happening, and the WTA Finals not happening in 2020? Have they committed to next year yet?

“Everybody in China is expecting to operate this year and being later in the year, I think there’s a good chance that it’s going to happen. Yeah, my own opinion – and it’s worth nothing – is that, the first part of the year, first and second quarter will continue to be a challenge for everybody. A lot of unknowns. But I do think as we get later in the year, things will begin to become a little bit closer to normal, hopefully. Not that 2021 is going to be normal. But I do think our odds of of being able to finish our year in Asia are strong right now and everybody’s committed and planning to operate. Our Finals last year – obviously (we) did not have our year-end swing, (it) was a challenge for sure. We were able to add a couple of events but it was a challenge. But it goes back to our partnership, our partners at Gemdale Sport and Shiseido, our title sponsor, you know, both stepped up and, you know, we’ve restructured our agreements there and we’re in a good place. So we’re very, very fortunate to have those relationships and that support. And as a result, we’re ready to go. And we haven’t had any tournament that said that they’re not going to operate this year, as of yet. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see. But at this point, we’re planning a full schedule and have appropriate contingencies in place if we do run into an issue throughout the year, which I’m sure we will at some point.”

How close did you get to relocating the end-of-season Finals? Did you look at moving it?

“No, we didn’t. And we didn’t actively look to move the Finals. We looked to figure out how we were going to finish the year. From my perspective, we lost (too much) of the calendar to have a year-end Finals that truly is a year-end Finals and a celebration of 54 tournaments worth of results. We weren’t going to run it just to run it. And that’s why again we work with our partners…to run a Finals and (to) move it, that wouldn’t have been at the same scale as what we currently run it at, (so it) wouldn’t have been appropriate for the brand of the Finals either. So it was a strategic decision that we made. I think it was the right one. And certainly we didn’t like not having the Finals, for sure. But, you know, I think if we’re going to have a Finals, it truly needs to be a Finals and we need to have it done appropriately. And fortunately, our partners agreed as well. So we were looking at other opportunities and new types of events we could have operated. We had a couple that would have been really fun events that wouldn’t have replaced the Finals, but would have been unique. But unfortunately, the Covid stopped them at the wrong time in the locations we had. But there wasn’t a discussion about quote unquote moving the Finals. There were a lot of rumours about it, but we never were contemplating moving.”

I take it you’re still waiting on Australia to decide what they’re doing first before the first chunk of tournaments?

“Yeah, we’re waiting to get that finalised. I think we’re very close. I think the next few days, all of that will be finalised. Australia is going to happen, which is good, it’s just finalising dates and which tournaments are going to run and moving the calendar around. It all has its issues, its flow-on effects. And it’s a puzzle. But I think we’re in a good place and we will get started in Australia. It’ll be a little bit later start to the year due to the quarantine that’s going to be required and everything but the good news is that the players are going to have a very safe environment down there to play in and then we’ll be able to move into our season full bore.”

You mentioned that you’ve restructured deals with your partners, your sponsors. Does that mean there will be prize money cuts in general at tournaments throughout 2021. And if that’s the case, how are the players responding to that?

“Well, I think I have to give the both the tournaments and the players a lot of credit in this year. Prize money compensation will not be back to normal levels. There’s no question. Our players have gone through, obviously, a very tough year financially, just like everybody else, and our tournaments have as well. The tournaments that operated last year were operating to mitigate loss, not to produce profit, which is what you want them to be.

“And so both sides deserve a lot of credit. And they’ve done this for all of the right reasons and have come together. The players have been very understanding and supportive that, you know, we need to keep our tournaments going. We need to keep them healthy, and we need to make sure the financial model works when you’re going to be operating events either without fans or with limited levels of fans, because I don’t think it’s going to be until maybe late in the year that we start to see full stadiums again, it may not even be until 2022. So everybody understood it. I think we’ve got a prize money policy this year in the way that we’re handling it that helps both the tournaments and helps the players. And again, it’s one of those where we came together as a group and the players have been terrific with it. And the tournaments have as well because, again, they’re not operating under good circumstances, either.”

Will you be loading the money a little bit more towards the earlier rounds?

“Yeah, we obviously we won’t play for the same level of money, but we worked with the players and said, how do you want us to do the distribution? And so we’ve worked with them on the distribution model that they think is fair. And there certainly will be money skewed towards the early rounds and qualifiers who have probably been hurt the most. And I think it’s a credit to the players that traditionally play deeper in tournaments, the higher ranked ones, that they’ve been willing to allow this to happen too, because they’re giving on that at the end as well. So it’s been as positive, I think, of a process as you can have, in topics that no one likes to talk about.”

What’s the position of the WTA with regard to the PTPA, the Professional Tennis Players Association, and the idea that the women could be involved?

“We haven’t had much interaction – we haven’t had any with the PTPA, that’s been a men’s-driven initiative. I know they’ve spoken to many of our players and we certainly haven’t gotten in the way of anybody speaking to anybody. That’s fine. We have just focused on what we do and we have worked very, very hard. I think it really came out in 2020 that the players on our side believe that we do have good communication with them and that their voice is heard.

“The key to anything I think right now is communication, the quality of it and a perception that everyone wants their voice to be heard and respected. Doesn’t mean you get what you want all the time, but you do have a feel that, you know, it’s being heard and respected. And we have worked very hard on having regular communication with them. I think they’ve seen that their voice has resulted in changes in certain areas. And we seem to have a very good communication and position with our athletes. Doesn’t mean they’re all happy, of course. We have tournaments that’ll be happy and unhappy, players that’ll be happy and unhappy. But I think overall they do believe that we do have a good lines of communication with them and that their voice is heard. If they make a decision to join the PTPA and do that, we will deal with that, as we need to, when and if that comes. But that’s upon them. Those are their decisions to make.”

You rebranded this week with a new logo and tournament categories in alignment with the ATP. How much should we be reading into this in terms of a closer working relationship between the ATP and WTA?

“I think a lot should be read into it that, as we have said and Andrea (Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman) has spoken to it and I have as well, that the more we work together, the better. I think this is a perfect example. When I approached the ATP that we were considering this and for the reasons, they didn’t hesitate at all and they certainly could have…I wouldn’t want to encroach upon it (the names of events) unless they were supportive. I think it was done purely for an effort to obviously make it easier for the fans and media to understand what the levels of events are. And I think it’s a very positive step and showing everybody that we are actually working together. Through this last year, I think the entire sport has worked closer than it ever has together. I think situations like this do bring people together and it’s been positive. And I think you’re going to see the ATP and the WTA doing more and more together, which I think is something very, very positive.”

When Roger Federer tweeted in April about a merger between the ATP and WTA, I take it that wasn’t a surprise that he said that.

“Well, knowing Roger, it’s not a surprise to me because I think he always looks at the bigger picture of things. I can share that we have athletes that would feel the same way. If you talked to Serena (Williams) or Venus (Williams) or any of them, you would hear some similar comments and our Player Council would love to see us working together, too. So I think it’s something that I certainly believe in, us working strongly together. There’s obviously challenges and a lot of business issues that make it challenging at times to get it across. But I think the more that we do it and the more we keep pushing that direction, it clearly is the right thing to do.”

Did you know that he was going to do that?

“No, I did not.”

So what happened when the tweet came out, what happened in WTA circles?

“It (the idea of a merger) is something that we’ve talked about many, many times. And again, I think it was very interesting at the time. I think no one was ready for it or expecting it at the time. But it shows that Roger does think independently and on his own, which I think we all respect. And, you know, it created conversation. I think that’s the best way that you can describe it and where it went.”

Are you and Andrea (Gaudenzi) in regular contact over issues and matters going forward? How does it work?

“We speak fairly regularly. Andrea and Massimo (Calvelli, the ATP CEO), obviously, leading the team, and their executive team as well. Our teams do speak a lot together. We speak on a regular basis, as appropriate and as needed. But no, we have a lot of respect for everybody at the ATP. And the more we can work together, the better.”

Can I ask you about the deal you announced with Perform, selling the data rights. How happy are you with it, given that betting is a contentious issue in sport, and tennis?

“I think it’s a challenging topic for sure. Betting is a part of sport, (if) people want to admit to it or not, it is. The key is, how do you manage the integrity of it and ensure that your competition is legit…which I think tennis has been leaders in sport with respect to that, when it created the TIU (Tennis Integrity Unit) and now it’s ITIA (International Tennis Integrity Agency), it’s invested probably more money into the area than many other sports. The opinion, with respect to being involved with the betting industry, varies from region to region of the world. You have many regions of the world that it (betting) has been there a lot longer and you could almost see them moving backwards on that a little bit. And other regions are running towards it. The United States as an example, it’s booming over here. So your perception will change based upon where you are and how you’ve dealt with it. I think it’s like anything else. It’s dealing with it responsibly. It (betting) is part of it. It brings great viewership, it enhances viewership, we found, bringing new viewers to it. But now, how do you do it responsibly? And you make sure that everybody knows that the competition on the court is clean and appropriate, which I think it is. I think we’ve shown that, especially at the higher levels that we’re at now. So I think it is a matter of how do we manage it, how do we position it, are the areas that we’re looking at. And I do think it’s manageable. And I do think there’s a place for it, but it has to be done correctly.”

There used to be a William Hill betting tent at Wimbledon in 1970s. Amazing to think that now.

“Well, that’s what I’m saying. It’s been around for a long time. It’s been part of sport. It’s how do we do it responsibly and make sure that the integrity of the sport is not compromised at all. I don’t think being involved with it in the matters that we currently are today affects the integrity. That would be there, whether we were involved or not. The question is, is how do we do it? How do we work with these groups, that also want the integrity, as well? And how do we work on this together in this deal and manage it so that our sports and our businesses can continue to grow?”

I know you’re someone who likes innovation. I wondered what you thought about an idea that Paul McNamee has raised, which is about starting tournaments on Saturdays and finishing on Fridays, moving tournaments a little bit to try and take a (TV) slot where you’re not challenged at a weekend in peak times?

“I do like innovation and I do think we have to think differently at times. And just because you’ve done it for the last 20 years doesn’t mean that it’s right. And I also think that unless you do that and unless you’re embracing change, you’re actually moving backwards over time. Obviously, the landscape for viewership and attendance is changing all the time and becoming more and more competitive. And how people are viewing it is changing as well. I mean, a lot of it isn’t necessarily live. It’s appointment watching as well. So I think all of those things, if you can look at where you can get the right broadcast windows and does it truly drive more audience, which you need to find out, and if you can balance what needs to happen on site as far as being able to get people to those events, because obviously, you know, a Saturday, Sunday, you know, you’re going to get people, they’re off work and more likely to go. Those are the biggest days versus the work week. You know, those are the challenges that I think you have to work in. I’d be very open to, you know, Saturday to Friday. We’ve talked about Wednesday to Monday. We’ve talked about all of those different things that still allow you to have quarters, semis and then you have your finals at night for one match. I think all of those things are things we should look at and be willing to try and evaluate the data and decide what’s in the best interest of the model. It’s not (new), we’ve heard the various approaches before and I’m not certainly not against looking at it.”

Because of the pandemic, mental health has been talked about a lot more in sport and in life in general. Is that something that the WTA is actively thinking about with its players?

“Yeah, we always have thought about it but it’s something certainly that’s growing for sure. And I think the reason it’s growing is because the stigma around mental health is beginning to lessen. Yeah. And it’s OK to talk about it now, whereas before maybe it wasn’t. And I think that’s good. One of our initiatives we have working on, is actually to continue expanding our efforts in this space and be able to provide the opportunities for our athletes, our staff or anybody that has some concerns in this space to be able to have a place to go to that they feel comfortable. They can talk to them and deal with the issues that may be troubling them at that time. But it’s something that we’re not running away from, we’re actually trying to invest more into it. We’ve done some. I don’t think we’ve done enough. We need to expand it. And it’s one of our areas of investment that we’re actually working on and hope to have, continue to improve each year going forward here, because I do think it’s something very, very important.”

What are your main hopes for 2021?

“Well, I mean, what I’m excited about, our hopes are is that our plans for 2021, we will obviously be able to deliver our full calendar of events. We have them scheduled, we think we can, we have the contingency planning in place, but I hope that we are able to, in 2021, not only get through the year, but hopefully we’ll see as a world we get back to a level of normalcy again, which I think will be great, that we’re not all worried about getting sick or, you know, taking a test. We have reflected, with our branding launch and everything, we plan to come out into 2021 very aggressive. We’re ready to go. We haven’t been sitting back and just trying to figure out how to survive. We’re figuring out how to move forward. And I’m hoping that 2021 will be a great launching pad for that moving forward, because I do think from challenging times as we’ve been through it also creates opportunity. And we hope that we’ve become a stronger organisation because of what we’ve gone through. And hopefully now we can build upon that.”

You have a number of young players who are right at the top of the game already. The (Naomi) Osakas, the (Iga) Swiateks of this world. It seems like a very exciting time for the women’s game?

“It really is. I mean, the depth that we have is unprecedented for us. We’re still waiting for that athlete to take a stranglehold, become the dominant player, per se. But as you can see, just by our results, the level of tennis is phenomenal. It’s very difficult for players to win multiple weeks in a row on our Tour, due to the depth. So I do think it’s very exciting. It’s great having these new stars, the globalness of the new stars is great, too, so I think it bodes very well for us.”

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