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Thu 21 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Power player

Former world number one Venus Williams is as talented at taking opportunities off the court as on it.

In an exclusive report, Andrew White asks former world number one Venus Williams how she has managed to balance her business responsibilities with a top-level tennis career, and explores the remarkable financial resurgence of the women's tour, now the leading female sport in the world.

I think all athletes should look at what they're doing as a business," smiles Venus Williams, current Wimbledon champion; former world number one; Olympic gold medallist; CEO and entrepreneur.

I stay busy but I like being busy. I like reaching my goals and achieving my targets, on the court and off of it.

"It's especially important in the more high-profile sports," she adds quickly. "We only get to do what we do for a little while compared to how long we expect to live, so you do have to take it as a business, and that means taking your opportunities while you're there.

Since her explosion onto the professional women's tennis tour 11 years ago, Venus has proved as talented at taking her opportunities off the court as she is on it. Sitting proudly alongside 36 career singles titles, including four Wimbledon and two US Open titles, is a business career that will ensure Venus stays busy long after she hangs up her tennis shoes.

"I enjoy my life off the court and I enjoy exploring my options and horizons," she explains. "I think I'm ambitious and driven also, so it has a lot to do with my personality - I stay busy but I like being busy. I like reaching my goals and achieving my targets, on the court and off of it.

Venus' business masterplan was devised a decade ago, when it became swiftly apparent that Venus and younger sister Serena were sporting icons in the making. Today, each sister has a clothing line and Venus is the CEO of interior design firm V Starr Interiors located in Jupiter, Florida.

Among other projects, Venus' company has designed the Olympic athletes' apartments as part of the US bid package for New York City to host the 2012 Olympic Games, and a host of residences and businesses in the Palm Beach, Florida area.

The clothing line, EleVen, came first. Back in 1998, Venus launched herself into an associate degree in Fashion Design from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Texas, as part of a masterplan she hoped would pave the way for a fledgling business empire. While tennis took Venus around the world, her studies took her closer to her goal of launching her own fashion range.

"I've always wanted to have a degree and our parents have always taught us that education comes first," she explains. "Obviously I was on tour being a professional so that kind of interrupts at times, and it's hard work, but I think once you get to college if you need to be sat down [to study] you don't really make the cut.

Williams finally completed her degree in December 2007, just months after teaming with retailer Steve & Barry's to launch EleVen. While she admits that the original plan had been to launch her first collection after graduation, her new qualifications have given her greater confidence to act on her instincts.

"I definitely understand fashion, I'm fully educated, and my style is expressed in my line and it just gets better as spring and summer and fall come through this year," she enthuses.

"You have to trust who you work with, you have to feel like you can get along with them, and you have to realise that it's going to be a long-term relationship," Venus continues. "In my situation I trust who I work with, and we work well together like a family.

Although Venus will not be in town this week for the 2008 Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships - she is defending the Cellular South Cup she won in Memphis last year, after her appearance in the Qatar Total Open last week - the other nine of the world's top 10 women will be on court fighting for the US$1.5m prize money.

That the tour is able to offer such incentives to its players is down to a revolution that has transformed the face of women's tennis over the last few years - and made the tour one of the most attractive prizes in sport for advertisers keen to align themselves with the beautiful athletes of centre court.

"I think that tennis is generally seen as a premium sport because of the demographics that the sport attracts," Larry Scott, CEO of the WTA Tour, tells Arabian Business. "It's very much a business-to-business type of entertaining environment, and attracts a high quality of viewer from an advertiser's standpoint.

When Scott was appointed CEO of the tour in 2003, the WTA was running at a loss, and was projected to end the year in negative reserves. The stark financial situation meant that while women's tennis appeared in rude health on the court, the business side of the operation was close to collapse.
Since then, however, the turnaround has been remarkable: in 2007, more than 1400 players representing 75 nations competed for over US$62m in prize money at 62 events in 35 countries all over the world. 2008 revenues are predicted to break the US$50m barrier - representing a 138% increase on 2003 figures. Yet despite this success, Scott is determined not to take his eye off the ball.

"There's so much competition from other sports competing for eyeballs and attention, that we are determined to make sure that women's tennis keeps its momentum," he enthuses. To have a hope of achieving this goal, the tour must turn to its most valuable assets: the players. The future of the sport lies firmly in the hands of superstars such as Venus Williams, and their appeal both on and off the court.

Establishing a long-term partnership is key to the future of both the tour and its sponsors.

"We are blessed with amazing athletes and personalities that have a lot of crossover appeal," says Scott. "You'll regularly see our players featuring in the Vogues of the world, and in glamour magazines, just as much as the major sports magazines. We've got a lot of very compelling, exciting personalities that are attracting interest, and we know we have to do a better job of marketing it.

"It's particularly strategically important for women's tournaments because the unique stage that we occupy is that intersection between amazing sports and athleticism on the one hand, and glamour and fashion on the other," he explains. "That duality is what attracts the likes of Sony Ericsson, which isn't just selling its phones based on amazing technology - because a lot of mobile phone companies have amazing technology - but because it is trying to position itself as a lifestyle brand as well.

Tennis fans around the world will notice a difference on the court too. Last March, the tour's board unanimously approved the Roadmap 2010 plan, which features the most sweeping reforms in the history of the women's game. In fact, many of the Roadmap reforms will be implemented a year early, in 2009, and the restructuring of the tour is designed to guarantee more premium events over the calendar year.

"There's always going to be a temptation towards ‘more is better', but I learned a long time ago that more isn't necessarily better if it dilutes the product, spreads the players too thin, and leads to burnout and injury," explains Scott. "We've reduced the number of top tournaments rather than expanding, because we believe our next level of growth is going to come from increasing the quality, not increasing the quantity.

The season will become two weeks shorter, and the number of top events will be streamlined from 26 to 20. These 20 premium events will be anchored by four mandatory events awarding equal prize money - the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, and new events in Madrid and Beijing - and total prize money will be up 30% on 2007 levels, to US$72m.

"Without healthy players being able to compete at their best when they do play, we had not been presenting our product in the best way possible," Scott insists. "Reducing the number of tournaments at the very top of the tour, and making sure we've got a heavier concentration of top players at those tournaments, is going to allow us to simplify the promotion of the tour, make it easier for fans to follow.

The players would appear to be doing pretty well from the arrangement. After all, they will enjoy plenty of rest between tournaments, as well as lucrative prize monies, endorsements and spin-off opportunities such as EleVen. However, this represents just one aspect of the multibillion-dollar money machine that is modern day professional tennis.

The Roadmap 2010 is essentially a business strategy: ask not just what the tour can do for players' fitness, but also what fit players can do for the tour.

"When Sony Ericsson's name is splashed all over the place, we have to make sure that the product that is being delivered is also first class, because the product of tennis needs to resonate with the our product," Dee Dutta, corporate vice president and head of marketing at Sony Ericsson, tells Arabian Business, echoing Scott's earlier comments.

Therefore to keep our quality, everything we do must be about delivering quality and a quality experience, whether it's through our phones or through tennis."

It was this mantra that prompted Dutta to seal a US$88m deal in 2005 to become the title sponsor of the women's tour for five years. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour was born, and the sponsors have since played a significant role in pushing through key reforms.

"When we got involved, I think that the primary attraction was basically the fact that we wanted to have a global reach," recalls Dutta. "The tour reaches so many parts of the world and that traditional methods of communication don't reach, and I think we also wanted to talk about the passion and innovation that is inherent in tennis, and we wanted to link that to our brand which is about the same things.
I think that these days sponsors have more of a duty of care - the modern idea of sponsoring is not just to hand over a cheque," he continues. "They're in the business of selling tennis, we're in the business of selling phones, and those mutual businesses come together into creating not just brand visibility for us, but also helping them establish their brand.

The idea of establishing a long-term partnership is key to the future of both the tour and its sponsors. Back in 2005, Dutta addressed tournament directors in Miami - "the crucible of the revolution," according to the marketing man - and told them that tennis had to evolve or it would wither and die.

"Tennis had to change, and the key word was entertainment, because an 18 year-old nowadays has the choice of staying at home watching a movie, playing on their Playstation, or even going and watching another sport," he recalls. "There are so many options now, and tennis couldn't work in isolation so they had to improve the product.

The Roadmap 2010 is the result of this consultation: of the WTA Tour's sports business experience, and Sony Ericsson's considerable marketing savvy. The two parties are convinced that although there is still some way to go, success has been achieved in three key directions: improving the viewers' experience, improving the fans' experience, and improving the players' experience.

"Larry Scott and I had a very clear vision that Sony Ericsson wasn't going to be a silent partner, and they encouraged us to help ourselves by helping them drive through the reforms," says Dutta. "As a manufacturing brand, we could bring our marketing expertise to help them get their product right in the marketplace.

Moreover, Dutta is convinced that Sony Ericsson's sponsorship of the tour has proved an "extremely good" investment.

"By the time we're finished in tennis we will have spent significantly more than the US$88m, which was just to buy the rights," he reveals. "Our investment in tennis is in fact well over US$100m, and by 2011 [when the current deal comes to an end], I think we will have spent something in the region of another US$40m. I think in this industry we have to be very critical when it comes to getting a return on investment," Dutta continues.

We have three fundamental measures: sales, that we measure through in-activity sales that we generate; the impact on our brand, through tracking the impact of tennis on our brand awareness; and the hospitality platform that tennis gives, the business-to-business part of customer relationship building."

Does this auditing process place unwanted pressure on the players? Aren't the (recent) history books littered with examples of players who have found that the pressures of sponsorship and endorsement responsibilities impacted upon their careers? "The players are critical to delivering the success of this deal - without them it would have died a long time ago, and it is the players who have made this work," insists Dutta.

It is their commitment, it is their willingness to turn out on a grey and rainy day to support us, and it is their speaking out for the brand.

"The players' first commitment is to win trophies and to excel, but I think that more and more of the top players understand that it is not just about winning trophies," he continues. "It is about being an ambassador for the sport, as well as being an ambassador for the sponsor. What I want players to do is to go out there, win trophies and do well by becoming the best at what they do. That way, my return on investment will be better, simply because the game of tennis will be better.

Throughout her time in the spotlight, Venus Williams has taken care to maintain the right balance between on- and off-court responsibilities. As well as surrounding herself with people she trusts, her experience means that she is acutely aware of the pitfalls that await players who suffer a loss of focus on the court.

"I've definitely heard the stories," she laughs. "It's not a concern for me though: I love playing tennis also so I'll always put that first, and then everything else comes second. Sometimes [sponsorship duties] can be very demanding and that's sometimes stressful," she admits. "However, I never say yes to anything that I don't think I can complete, and if I say ‘yes' it means I've really thought it through and I know what my commitment is.

"Obviously both sides, the tour and the players, want different things sometimes, but my view is that it has to be a win-win situation for both," she adds. "One party can't walk away from the table as though they just got beaten.

Naturally, defeat is not something Venus is used to - on or off the court. Yet if the partnership of players, tournament organisers, and sponsors can keep up the momentum, then it could prove a case of game, set and perfect match for women's tennis.

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