WTA leads with values

WTA leads with values

In 1970, Billie Jean King (BJK) led the 'Original 9' came together to create the first women's professional tournament. This was the start of the creation of women's professional tennis and three years later the WTA (women's tennis association) was formed. When BJK led the professionalization of women's tennis she did so on the basis of three clear principles - 1. That any girl born in this world would have a place to compete; 2. That we would be appreciated for our accomplishments not only our looks; 3. To be able to make a living playing to support we love.

Since 1970 tennis has continued to lead the way in equality in sports. The WTA has continually pushed for equal treatment of women and tennis is currently the only major sport with equal prize money for men and women. The WTA has contributed to build a sport where the women frequently have similar or higher viewing figures than the men. It is an organisation that is clear on its values and stays true to them. Today the WTA values are: Be Progressive, Collaborative, Passionate, and show Integrity.

It should come as no surprise then that the WTA is leading the way once again in a recent stand-off with China involved WTA player Peng Shuai.

Firstly, to understand the context, China has invested heavily in partnering with the WTA to bring tennis to China. In 2018, Shenzhen won a 10-year deal to host the WTA Tour finals with a big commitment to increasing the prize money pot. When Ash Barty won the finals in 2019 she took home the biggest single winner's cheque in tennis history of $4.42 million. In 2021 in comparison, Garbine Muguruza took home $1.6 million for winning the same tournament.

In 2019 there were 7 other major WTA events in China including the WTA Elite Trophy, the WTA Premier 5 Wuhan Open and the WTA Premier Mandatory Beijing Open.

So the WTA and the players have a lot to lose in China.

Back to Peng Shuai...

On November 2nd Peng Shuai accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. The post was quickly deleted and for two weeks no one heard anything from Shuai. WTA CEO Steve Simon was quick to act. Going beyond the usual platitudes of concern, he demanded access to Shuai and called on China to launch a full and formal investigation into the allegations of sexual assault that she made.

When Shuai started to appear on video and at tennis events in China, it would have been an easy way out for Simon. An opportunity for him to back down and make amends with his big-money partner. Simon did neither. Having still not been able to contact Shuai himself he was not appeased. He released further statements reinforcing that until he could speak to her himself and be sure she was able to speak and move freely he would not be satisfied. When questioned in an interview he said he would be prepared to pull out of China if he wasn't sure of Shuai's safety and following a full investigation.

Since then Shuai has had a conversation with the head of the IOC which was announced by China State Media. (The IOC are hosting the Winter Olympics in China in 2022 and have been sidestepping the Shaui issue, careful not to upset China). Shuai meanwhile has not made any contact with any WTA players, employees or CEO Steve Simon. After a month of uncertainty and concern over Shuai's safety, Simon followed through on his threats and suspended all tennis events in China. A huge move that will massively impact the financial health of the WTA. BY taking this move Simon has clearly shown what it means to put values over profit.

It is easy to live up to values when times are easy. It is when we are challenged that our values come to light. With this situation, Simon knew that two of the WTAs core values were to be progressive and act with integrity. He showed strong leadership and was prepared to take a financial hit to live up to these values. Where leaders, athletes and business leaders all too frequently follow the money in lei of values, this week I am proud to be a tennis fan and a big, big fan of Steve Simon.

Read Steve Simons full statement