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.”
Hefty jobs awaited – finding new sponsors and getting a better stadium in Toronto, which had an old facility with wooden bleachers, a far cry from those being renovated for tournaments in Miami, Madrid and Montreal. She helped work with now-Rogers Communications Inc. CEO Nadir Mohamed to enlist Rogers as a national sponsor and, along with Tennis Canada chief operating officer Derek Strang, made the new stadium at York University a reality, despite criticism that perhaps they should move the tournament and all Tennis Canada operations to Montreal.
“She has a great marketing sense for selling and is very sensitive about every detail of the fan experience,” Strang said. “She was, at one period of time, the only female tournament director, and she earned incredible respect from around the table. If there were 10,000 people coming onto the grounds at a given time, she always thought of it like 10,000 people coming into her home for dinner. Everything had to be perfect.”
In 2005, the WTA hired her as its COO and in 2009, she was promoted to CEO and chair when Larry Scott left the position to become commissioner of the U.S. NCAA Pacific-10 Conference (now the Pac-12). The WTA interviewed 21 international candidates before giving her the job, as a group of Canadian business people helped coach her on the skills needed to be a CEO.
She also got, as she calls it, “the Billie Jean rocket juice,” a boost of confidence from King, who told Allaster she was the right one for the job.
Tough economic times presented immediate challenges.
“Sony [Corp.] was up for renewal, we had issues with our championships in Turkey, had issues with our broadcast partner Eurosport, it was 2009, and 50 per cent of our net operating revenues were unsecured for 2012,” Allaster said. “They said to me, ‘Why do you want this job?’”
Under her watch, the WTA renewed Sony as a sponsor, signed broadcast partner Perform to a record TV deal, and got a record deal to take the WTA Championships to Singapore for 2014-18. They have enlisted six new sponsors in the past three years, most recently Xerox Corp., with more than $200-million in new contracted revenues.
She has implemented a plan to bump up prize money for women. She has introduced fan-friendly innovations such as electronic line-calling and on-court coaching, and is working on a plan, through coaching young players, to gradually get the grunting out of women’s tennis, due to growing criticism by fans and media.
Each time she meets with players, she shows them photos of King and the early days of the WTA, when there was little money, respect or media attention.
“Stacey has a great sense of history, and a lot of people don’t have that, but she’s focused on continuing the legacy of what we started but growing it substantially,” King said. “She’s a terrific businesswoman, she can secure dollars, and people listen to her. The tennis business is tough work, and this is a tough economic landscape. She knows the future is Asia, and I agree. We had no money and now they are playing for millions. It’s a very big, very global job and there is still a lot of work to be done.”
The WTA will open an office in Singapore and hire a CEO of Asia Pacific to help capitalize on the growth opportunities in the area. In 2014, eight WTA events will be in China, up from two in 2008, when the WTA opened an office in Beijing.
“The growth of the business in Asia Pacific will be part of my legacy – it’s a huge opportunity for a quantum level of growth,” Allaster said. “I feel we need to be more fan-centric. Working at Tennis Canada, I know what it is to sell one ticket. Every ticket matters and I’m always thinking what the fans would want. I want the WTA to be the most inspiring sports and entertainment property on earth.”
In the future, she plans to teach sports marketing in universities, work with charities who give sporting opportunities to children in need and spend lots more time with her husband, John, and children, Jack, 11, and Alexandra, 9. Her work with the WTA is far from over.
“I’m hitting my stride now and I absolutely love this opportunity,” Allaster said, before she dashed off to host a panel of top female business leaders at the Rogers Cup. “Everything in my life has come from tennis. I now lead the organization that my hero founded and I get to give back to the sport that has given me everything.”