WTA Finals’ China move: The lesson for Singapore

Shenzhen will host the WTA Finals from 2019 for 10 years

IAN DE COTTA

SO THE WTA Finals is set to leave Singapore. After this year’s edition, it will make its home in Shenzen, China, for at least 10 years from 2019. And it’s never coming back. In fact, it is unlikely any top-level tennis tournament will be staged here under the prevailing circumstances.

The facts are simple.

The premier year-end women’s tennis event has been ideal for the Indoor Stadium because all matches are played on the same court. The men’s equivalent, ATP Finals, follows the same format but it won’t have Singapore on its radar. After WTA Finals bid winner Gemdale Corp, a Chinese real-estate developer, doubled the total prize money for the event to US$14 million from next year, ATP is under pressure to get a similar deal. Its Finals hosted in London offer only US$8 million.

 

Why the Finals is going to Shenzhen

It’s really ONLY about money.

When Singapore won the bid five years ago to host the Finals from 2014 until 2018, increasing the prize money by US$500,000 to US$6.5 million, WTA gushed. Stacey Allaster, who at the time was its chairman and CEO, said: “This is the largest and most significant WTA Championships partnership in our history. It’s a record-breaker. Singapore is exciting. It’s state-of-the-art and we love the people.”

And she told the BBC: “We want to enhance and grow our strategy in the region, with a focus on South-east Asia.”

China, as we all know, is not in South-east Asia. But players fell in line, with Maria Sharapova saying Singapore is “a fantastic sporting city ” and a “great way to continue growing the sport”. Serena Williams added her voice to the overwhelming chorus of praise: “I’ve been fortunate to qualify for WTA Championships in five different cities during my career, and I know that our new partners in Singapore and the fans of Singapore will help take our WTA Championships to new heights.”

Three years on in 2016, WTA’s sitting chairman and CEO, Steve Simon, reinforced Singapore’s importance to the tournament. “I would certainly like, at some point, for this WTA Finals to find a more permanent home … and Singapore is certainly a dynamic, vibrant and beautiful city. It’s somewhere we’d be very proud to call home.”

And last October in highlighting the pros and cons of cities vying to host the Finals from 2019, the organisation’s president, Mickey Lawler, was unwavering that Singapore is “good for business … offers a lot of what we are looking for to continue – (it) is a global capital, cosmopolitan, very international”.

The truth is that when the WTA rank and file heap praises on Singapore, they were just being polite, as they would to any host city. There was a lot of PR spin in their words – or what we in media circles call “a lot of bull”. They are to be taken with a pinch of salt because viewpoints make a U-turn when it comes to money.

This was the case last week when Simon announced that Shenzhen had won the bid, saying: “This will easily be the largest and most significant WTA Finals deal in the 45 years since the WTA was founded and promises to take the event to a spectacular new level.”

Not to be outdone, Lawler chimed in: “Shenzhen is an exciting, fast-evolving metropolis of 68 million people and staging the WTA Finals there will ensure the WTA’s global fan base goes from strength to strength.”

Added WTA world No 1 Simona Halep: “It’s a fascinating and friendly place, with some of the best tennis fans in the world. I know the WTA’s partners in Shenzhen will deliver a wonderful and memorable experience for the players, fans and sponsors.”

If, in 2028, some alien from Mars offered to host the Finals with increased prize money of US$25 million, we’ll hear the same gushes – “This is the WTA’s largest and most significant deal ever. It will be good for women’s tennis in the solar system” and “Mars is an exciting and vibrant planet and it’s an opportunity to grow our fan base among Martians”.

Pardon the sarcasm, but the words come from the same template. Just substitute the old with new information and the next host city is celebrated with fireworks to boot.

 

The China muscle

But no one can fault the WTA hierarchy. The job for Simon and his team is to get the best deal for women’s tennis and be gracious to their hosting partners. That’s the way it is in the entertainment and sports event marketing business. Singapore ticks all the right boxes in terms of its strategic position to reach all of Asia, especially in contract law, organisation, marketing and more importantly protection of intellectual property. But when there is a powerful giant flushed with money in the vicinity, all these plus points become insignificant.

In fact, China flexing its financial muscle is increasingly felt globally in the sports industry. Five years ago, it lured Thailand’s ATP 250 tennis tournament to Shenzhen, which is now an annual series. In football, Chinese clubs broke the bank to buy a host of international stars in 2016 such as Brazilian Oscar, Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi, Italian Graziano Pellé and Belgian Axel Witsel to play in their domestic league.

Even so, how did a real estate developer feature in China’s prized tennis grab?

It has to do with politics and economics. In 2012 Chinese President Xi Jinping said the country had reach a “new normal” and can no longer maintain the double-digit economic growth it once enjoyed. His officials identified sports as a business that could be developed into a US$815 billion industry for China.

And as the Chinese communist government controls much of everything in the country, their hand is in sports, too. Asking the likes of Gemdale Corp to back the WTA Finals project and Jack Ma’s Alibaba to sponsor six Olympics from 2016 for more than half a billion dollars is a small do.

But whether China’s aggressive moves in sport at the expense of other countries result in a windfall for its people is irrelevant to Singapore. The stark reality is this – when promoting an event like the WTA Finals that belongs to a third party, it can easily be taken away no matter how successful the work a host city has put into it.

 

The key for Singapore

The only sure way of keeping a sports property is to create one, which means building it from scratch. Tennis, for Singapore, is not something that can be pursued with the kind of success as the WTA Finals. After watching the likes of Williams, Halep and Sharapova, hosting another premier event that features such star players is now out of reach. The city-state just does not have the facilities to do so.

The top-three tiers in the men and women’s games require between two and eight match courts for indoor and outdoor tournaments. This does not include practice courts. And with costs, space, relevance and optimal use always key factors in building public infrastructures in Singapore, there is no compelling reason to construct a tennis competition complex. There is simply no critical mass of competitive players like Stefanie Tan (ranked 540 in the world!) to warrant it.

So the way forward is to make better use of the type of US$14 million money that went into hosting the WTA Finals, half of which came from sponsors SG Global. It could go into a project to seed a boxing, cycling or maybe basketball or netball championship until the event reaches international prominence and has the pull to attract athletes and overseas visitors. Singapore may not have the financial muscle of countries like China, but it is definitely not short on brain power.

Again, the point and big lesson for Singapore is this – when you don’t own something, it can be taken away from you.

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