Stacey Allaster walks through a long hall at the Rexall Centre, sharing warm hellos and hugs with familiar faces of Rogers Cup staff and volunteers along the way.
In a bright print dress and sharp dark blazer, she steers into the luxurious players’ lounge and is similarly greeted by the tennis players relaxing on couches or playing pool.
The 48-year-old native of Welland, Ont., has held posts in every realm of tennis, starting as a girl who loved to play and cleaned the courts at her local club for pocket change, to one who has made Forbes’ list of the most powerful women in sports. For four years, she has served as chairman and chief operating officer of the WTA, this year marking the 40th anniversary of its founding by Billie Jean King and the Original 9.
Today, with stars such as Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and 54 tournaments in 33 countries that award some $118-million (U.S.) a year in prize money, the WTA is the most global and lucrative female sports association in the world.
While there are high-ranking female executives with professional sports teams, none are CEO of a world-wide sporting association with the profile of the WTA. Allaster draws on a lifetime of tennis experiences to run the show.
“It’s critically important for me to be successful in this role as the only female CEO sports leader of an association in the global realm,” said Allaster, who is away from her home in St. Petersburg, Fla., for 180 days a year. “I know people are watching to see if a woman – a wife and mother of two kids – can be successful as a CEO in the male-dominated sports and entertainment industry, so it’s really important that I hit it out of the park.”
She was first introduced to the sport at 6, but she found tennis lessons boring since she could hit the ball over the net and the child on the other side couldn’t hit it back. She rediscovered the game at 12, through an Ontario Tennis Association program for which schools chose two student athletes to receive a racquet, lessons and a club membership. She was selected, and thus began her long and beloved membership at the Welland Tennis Club.
“Really, it was there that I learned to play the game, fell in love with the game and even learned how to be a manager,” Allaster said.
“My very first job was cleaning the tennis courts. I got 25 cents, or my coach, Dutchy Doerr, would give me a pop.”
By 16, Doerr had urged Allaster to get her Tennis Canada coaching certification. Over the years at the Welland club, she also managed leagues and programs and enlisted sponsors. Even while at the University of Western Ontario, she came home to work there every summer. The go-getter wanted to add more business experience to her résumé, so, one summer, she also managed a painting franchise.
“I had a van and I had eight guys working for me, and I had to jump to get my 40-foot ladder onto my van,” Allaster recalled. “I went door to door to get painting business. That gave me some early sales experience.”
After university, she worked as a tennis pro in Toronto, then the OTA hired her as its director of player development. She worked with players, ran provincial championships and worked hard to enlist sponsors. A job with Tennis Canada became the dream, but they turned her down three times before hiring the persistent tennis lover in 1991, on a three-month contract.
The promising young businesswoman had student loans to pay and was ready to jump when a head hunter offered her a full-time job as a sponsorship manager, working on a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce deal with baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays. She nearly accepted the job, which may have steered her down an entirely different avenue of sports business. Tennis Canada didn’t want to lose her, so within an hour, they found a way to hire Allaster full-time.
She took on more responsibilities, such as corporate sales, and negotiated Tennis Canada’s interests internationally with the WTA and ATP. For five years, she worked under Canadian Open tournament director John Beddington, renowned for growing the Canadian tournament into a world-class event. He had great relationships in tennis, attracted big-name players to compete and successfully courted corporate sponsors.
When Beddington left Tennis Canada, Allaster was asked to fill his shoes.
“They believed that this 32-year-old woman would be able to take this Canadian Open and drive the revenues in the future – it was a massive leap on their part,” Allaster said. “They gave me the chance and I delivered.”