This may sound wildly ambitious, but Allaster, who was named by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in sport, serves up a compelling case that the organisation is well on its way.
Arriving for an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific on the morning of an “historic day” for women’s tennis, Allaster is wearing a bandage on her foot. “I did that training to return Serena Williams’ serve,” she jokes.
She has good reason to be cheerful. Allaster’s tenure as chairman and CEO at the WTA began in July 2009 and has been marked by her focus on global growth, with Asia-Pacific a strategic priority. Today is the opening day of the 2014 BNP Paribas WTA Finals, which is taking place in Singapore—marking the first time an Asia-Pacific city has hosted the event. It adds Singapore to the honour roll with Istanbul, Doha, Madrid, Munich, Los Angeles and New York as previous host cities.
It also marks the beginning of a five-year strategic partnership with Singapore to stage the WTA Championships from 2014 through 2018, the largest deal in the history of the WTA. “This is a big, historic step for the growth of women’s tennis in Asia,” Allaster says.
As one of the inaugural events of the S$1.3 billion (US$1.04 billion) Singapore Sports Hub, the arrival of the WTA Finals in Asia-Pacific is part of the payoff for the organisation’s “big bet” on Asia.
“We made the bet on Asia in 2008 when we opened an office in Beijing," Allaster says. "We had two events in China at the time. Today we have 10 events and next year we’ll have 11. We’ve now opened an office in Singapore and we see the opportunity to grow the brand and build the business, and most importantly build our fan base throughout Asia.
At the centre of the WTA’s plans is the shift away from functioning as a sports business to becoming more of an entertainment business. In order to get more people to attend your events, Allaster says, you have to be about more than just tennis.
“If we look at it on a real macro level, we’re ultimately asking fans and sponsors for their disposable time and their disposable income," she says. "That’s become more amplified, to the point where fundamentally we’re in the sports entertainment industry, not the sports business.”
She argues that her competitors are not other sports, but they are in fact the likes of the cinema, the theatre, music concerts and other forms of lifestyle entertainment.
“Last year we created a new vision to be the most inspirational and exciting sports entertainment experience on earth. It’s a real fusion of sports entertainment and really we’re now putting on these very cool, lifestyle events."
As well as increasing consumer demands, Allaster says the rise in digital and mobile is also driving the WTA forward, as fans look for more engagement, more often.
With 54 events in 33 countries throughout the year, the WTA currently produces about 700 of its matches, meaning that two thirds of its matches are never seen beyond the venue where they take place. The goal for 2017 is to have all 2000 main draw singles matches streamed across mobile devices.
“Digital and mobile is a fantastic opportunity for the WTA," Allaster says. "It’s at the heart of our new strategic business plan. With efficiencies in production, we can now stream live matches digitally. And with connectivity being so great on mobile devices, fans will be able watch WTA anywhere, anytime.”
Attracting and engaging more fans with the “sports entertainment” approach is just part of puzzle for Allaster: it’s also about securing sponsors and partnerships. As CEO, she has secured a number of global sponsorships deals, most recently with Xerox and SAP.
The WTA’s strategy is attracting different kinds of sponsorship, and it’s paying off. For the WTA Finals in Singapore, the event has 21 new sponsors, Allaster says. New revenue streams are benefiting the business, fans and the players. Since implementing the a long-term plan for the WTA, prize money has increased more than 70 percent, reaching $118 million in 2013.
“Sponsorship has gone way beyond signage,” she says. “That’s just the baseline. Our most innovative sponsor right now is SAP. They’re using their software and their analytics to create a richer experience for fans and for our broadcasters. They’ve developed a great technology that allows our fans to do more, play more and see more.”
The WTA is evolving its business in an attempt to keep up with culture shifts in the way consumers engage with sport and entertainment. Allaster believes the future is in sports entertainment, and the organisation is proving that by evolving the business can prosper. But mobile apps, digital streaming, big data, and entertainment aside, it’s still the tennis that really matters.
“If you’ve never seen women’s tennis live, you don’t have to be a fan, you’re going to walk away a fan,” says Allaster.