Where are the Female Stars? By Dominic Bliss

The WTA tour may be geographically diverse, but with only two instantly recognisable global stars it will struggle to find fans. What’s the solution? 

Ten different nationalities in the women’s world top 10. Even in a sport as culturally diverse as tennis, this is a rarity. And it’s sure to increase the global popularity of women’s tennis, right?

Or is it? Most of those top 10-ranked players are completely unknown outside of tennis’s hard-core fan base. Okay, so Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova would turn heads on the streets of any capital city. But Azarenka? Radwanska, Kvitova? Kerber? Errani? Hardly household names. In fact, outside of tournament venues or their home nations they are rarely troubled for autographs. Even hard-core tennis fans struggle to spell their names correctly.

That’s the trouble with having so many players vying for success at the top of the sport. Without the dominance of a recognisable few, fans find it difficult to relate. Indeed, in just the last three years there have been eight different women’s Grand Slam champions. Some, such as Francesca Schiavone, Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur, are highly likely to go down in history as one-hit wonders.

The ATP tour, on the other hand, is in a much better position when it comes to marketing their players. The Big Four – Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal – have shared every Grand Slam between them bar one since the spring of 2005. An even more surprising statistic is that these four men have won 84 per cent of all the ATP Masters tournaments staged since 2005. Thanks to this dominance they have managed to build up a loyal fan base all over the entire planet. Whether they’re in Asia, America, Australia or Europe, all four are regularly mobbed by autograph-hunters. (And few misspell their names.)

The bigwigs at the WTA tour must be a little bit jealous. A female equivalent of the Big Four would make their jobs a lot easier. Not that they aren’t doing their utmost to promote women’s tennis worldwide.

Fortunately they realise that the likes of Radwanska, Kvitova, Kerber and Errani simply aren’t going to get tennis fans chomping at the bit. So instead of trying to use the ten different nationalities in the world top 10 as global ambassadors, they are instead using each separate player as an ambassador in her own country.

The governing body recently sold the media rights for their major tournaments to the digital media company PERFORM. The agreement runs from 2013 to 2016 and covers the 22 Premier WTA events and the season-ending WTA Championships. PERFORM will develop these tournaments outside of North America, broadcasting live and on demand through their digital TV channels. It’s expected there will be a 42 per cent increase in the amount of live WTA tennis available to view. It was reported PERFORM coughed up a staggering US$18 million for these rights.

WTA spokesman Andrew Walker said PERFORM would be broadcasting twice as many women’s matches as the WTA’s previous broadcaster, Eurosport, had done. “There is going to be significant editorial reach around the world through 24,000 news outlets,” he told SportBusiness International magazine.

It’s actually quite a canny move by both the WTA and PERFORM. They know full well that your average tennis fan in London or New York isn’t going to watch a Pole play a Czech in the quarter-finals of an obscure event in Azerbaijan. But if they sell matches on a market-by-market basis they are likely to attract many more viewers, thereby growing the sport in the long run.

The growth of social media can help the WTA, too. So it matters not that Agnieszka Radwanska has relatively few Twitter followers worldwide since within Poland she is a national hero. Likewise, when it comes to Chinese player Li Na, few Americans or Europeans will click ‘like’ on her Facebook page, but in her native China she is a major social media phenomenon.

“We work directly with players and their agents to promote themselves on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” the WTA said. “We provide this free-of-charge as individual brands can help to attract new fans.”

Nevertheless it’s always dangerous to spread yourself too thinly. The two biggest draws by far on the WTA tour are Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. The former is now the wrong side of 30, and often troubled by both illness and injury. The latter – well, if her career hasn’t already peaked, it surely will soon. So which of Serena and Maria’s top 10 peers might feasibly join them as household names in the near future? Which players could realistically become global ambassadors?

Certain key factors will determine this. Unfortunately it’s not enough nowadays for female players simply to “let their tennis do the talking”, as so many of them are wont to say. First off they need to win multiple Grand Slams. Aside from Williams or Sharapova, no one in the WTA top 10 has won more than one.

Secondly there’s the language barrier. It’s a sad fact of life that if players want to promote their sport worldwide, they need to conduct interviews in fluent and witty English. This could cause slight problems for Li Na and Sara Errani, for example.

And finally there are looks and personality. Sexist though it sounds, it’s rare for female players to become successful global ambassadors if they’re not pretty and affable. The WTA would never be so un-PC as to admit that their plain-looking players can’t be as popular as their pretty ones. Yet their marketing campaign called Strong is Beautiful – which challenges the concept that female sport is unfeminine – is proof that they are fully aware of the need for attractive players. And they’ve spared no expense on it: featuring short films of WTA players in stunning action, with voiceovers often in their various native languages, the campaign is endorsed by the likes of entrepreneurs Donald Trump and Richard Branson, singer Aretha Franklin and actress Susan Sarandon.

The trouble is, the WTA can provide fans with any number of photos and film clips but if the players featured aren’t great-looking, gregarious, fluent in English and winning Grand Slams, then, outside of their home nations, no one really cares.

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