By Barry Janoff
October 26, 2016: Citing as its goal a desire to "revolutionize the way women's tennis is consumed, distributed and monetized," the WTA, the world organizing body for women’s tennis, today unveiled plans for WTA Networks, "a new digital media division that will deliver fans the highest quality on- and off-court content."
According to the WTA, through "innovative digital storytelling," the new WTA Networks venture will create a "top destination for tennis news and content, giving fans unprecedented, behind-the-scenes access to star athletes and the inner world of tennis."
The WTA is working with The Social Channel, a leading full-service digital marketing, sales and content development company based in New York, on the launch, which is scheduled for January 2017.
"What we need as an organization and as a sport is to think differently," Steve Simon, WTA said during a media conference in Singapore, where the BNP Paripas WTA Finals are being held. "We need to evolve, retain our current audience but build a new audience.
"We are very proud of our stature as being the No. 1 women’s professional tour in the world. However, what we want is to strive not be only the No. 1 women’s sport but be competitive with all profession sports, irrespective of gender, because then we have truly reached equality. And then we are also able to be competitive in the marketplace in which we compete for broadcast rights, sponsorships, and video rights, as well as something that is very critical to us, audience," said Simon.
"The WTA is a major sports league and we see this step in our digital and social evolution as transformational, for all involved, especially tennis fans, and are hugely committed to this venture financially. Our goal is simple — take our fans on tour with us and experience the WTA like never before," said Simon.
As part of the WTA Networks launch, the WTA said it is working with such technology companies as Ooyala, Microsoft, Greenfly and Domo to "provide a seamless, rich content experience across its Web sites, mobile apps and social platforms."
The launch will be integrated with a ten-year deal with iQIYI, the largest online video content service platform in China, signed in 2015, which beginning in 2017 makes iQIYI the WTA's digital rights partner in China.
That deal includes live transmission of more than 2,000 singles and doubles matches, exclusive highlights, player interviews and content from the WTA Magazine Show, available to iQIYI users on their personal computers, mobile phones and OTT TV via internet in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.
WTA will support the WTA Networks launch with multi-platform marketing under the new umbrella tag, "The Pulse of Women's Tennis."
Among other impacts that will be felt by tennis fans, marketers and consumers, all WTA singles matches will be distributed to more than 913 million household worldwide.
"We do think this is instrumental in building the business," Micky Lawler, WTA president (pictured above), said during the media conference. "We are talking to a lot of new partners both global and regional. (Companies) are not sponsors anymore. That term is obsolete. They are partners. We provide a vehicle that speaks directly to women who have buying power of more than $23 trillion. We need to show partners that every dollar invested will turn into $2 dollars.
"This is an opportunity we have never seen," Lawler said. "We want to move WTA from the back pages to front pages. The more relevant we can make the sport and the closer we can get to fans, the more relevant we will be."
The plan comes as tennis is facing some challenges in marketing and sponsorship growth.
Sponsorship spend on the sport is projected to reach a record $801 million in 2016, up 4.2% from the $769 million spend in 2015. However, that figure lags behind the projected 4.7% rise in overall global sponsorship spend this year, according to the Tennis Sponsorship Report from research and consulting firm IEG, Chicago.
The reason for tennis not keeping pace is "due to a mixed bag of activity at the world's major tennis organizations," according to IEG.
"This is an opportunity we have never seen. The more relevant we can make the sport and the closer we can get to fans, the more relevant we will be."
ATP, the men’s governing body, landed several major deals over the past year, including its largest ever partnership, a five-year alliance with Emirates valued at $50 million, as official airline partner of ATP World Tour.
ATP World Tour also signed deals that included Peugeot, Infosys and LeSports.
The WTA has not been as successful, according to IEG.
"Pressured by lackluster TV viewership and on-court action, the women’s tennis organization has not secured any significant new partners over the past year," IEG said.
"Worldwide spending in tennis is a mixed bag. The ATP continues to secure significant new deals, while the WTA has seen limited growth," William Chipps, IEG Sponsorship Report senior editor, said in a statement.
WTA's biggest deal was a five-year alliance with beIN Media Group, giving beIN broadcast rights for all WTA tournaments, including the 21 Premier events and the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
WTA's global premier partners also include SAP, USANA and Dubai Duty Free.
The WTA has also taken a hit due to situations involving some of its most high-profile stars. Maria Sharapova is currently under suspension until April 2017 due to her use of a banned substance. Victoria Azarenka is off the tour due to pregnancy.
Serena Williams garners worldwide interest as she continues on her quest to win the most Grand Slams in women’s tennis history, but has been bumped from the No. 1 spot in the world by Angelique Kerber.
Williams, who withdrew from the WTA Finals due to injury, earns more than $20 million from endorsements, the most among all women athletes worldwide, followed by Sharapova, whose marketing took a hit this year due to her suspension. The other women on the WTA tour, though top athletes with strong fan support — such as Madison Keys, Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbiñe Muguruza — are not near this level of endorsements.
"Our aim is to revolutionize the way women's tennis is consumed, distributed and monetized and, through this relationship with the WTA, we are sure we will do just that," said Mike McGraw, co-CEO for The Social Channel. "Our deep understanding of the content that builds audiences for major U.S. networks and having worked with some of the biggest names in tennis, we know the sport, the business of tennis, the fans and how brands benefit from leveraging tennis.
"We are thrilled to be working with the WTA and are certain WTA Networks will be the go-to digital channel for women's tennis and an ideal partner for brands looking to engage the same target," said McGraw.
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