WTA has to make decision now on WTA Finals venue

The WTA is supposed to have its year-end championship, the WTA Finals, in Shenzhen, China, this year after canceling it in 2020 and moving it in 2021 and 2022. But once again, there isn’t a calendar for any event after the US Open.

(Note: This was originally written for longform journalism class at Texas Tech. Since then, the WTA has decided to go back to China, including for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.)

Even when you drape curtains over the upper section, Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, still seats around 8,000 people.

To walk into the arena for the WTA Finals, the biggest women’s tennis event that’s not a Grand Slam, and see a lot of empty seats was disappointing, to put it lightly.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek is about to serve to Caroline Garcia (off-screen) in a WTA Finals round-robin match Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, at Dickies Arena in front of a sparse crowd. Even for the final Nov. 7 or any of the matches with an American, the crowd wasn’t full. (Nathan Boles)

The tournament got better crowds throughout the week, and the first day was an anomaly, but the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) cannot continue to push off exactly where their year-end championship, their crown jewel, will be held each season.

The problem started with something that has affected everyone: the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as the WTA started their tour again in 2020, they were forced to cancel all events in China, including the WTA Finals that were planned to be in Shenzhen through 2028.

Shenzhen started hosting the WTA Finals in 2019, but they haven’t hosted it since. COVID restrictions in China caused a second delay and forced the WTA to move the event to Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2021.

When former doubles No. 1 Peng Shuai accused a high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault Nov. 2, 2021, the Chinese government never gave a good enough answer about her safety. The next month, the WTA canceled all 2022 events in China and the WTA Finals were eventually placed in Fort Worth.

However, in both 2021 and 2022, the announcement wasn’t officially made until September of that year, about two months before the event, and the crowds were not as big as they have been before.

Players like Victoria Azarenka are thinking the same thing. She talked to reporters in Dubai on Feb. 20 about the situation.

“We need something that is deserving of the Finals,” Azarenka said. “In the last couple years with such short announcements, absolutely no time for marketing – in my opinion – it’s been undervalued.

“However, I think the crowd in Guadalajara was unreal,” she added. “Every player I’ve asked, they said it was amazing. I think that part is also very important for us, that we have a great crowd. We need definitely a place that we have time to promote, players are excited and don’t find out in the last minute or two months before where you’re going.”

The last few matches in 2022 were a lot closer to full, at least the part of Dickies Arena that was open, making it comparable to Guadalajara’s showing in 2021. It took a price cut after day four of the tournament, though, and some people at the event told me they didn’t know about it until a few days before they came.

The bigger question is, now that we’re in 2023, why can’t the WTA just make a decision that allows them to properly market the event?

I can buy tickets right now for the 2023 ATP Finals, the men’s year-end championship in Turin, Italy. That event doesn’t start until Nov. 12.

Meanwhile, the 2023 WTA Finals still don’t have a set location. In a November 2022 interview with the Associated Press, WTA CEO Steve Simon said the plan is to be back in Shenzhen, but China has to be ready to host an international event again and the Peng Shuai situation has to be resolved.

“We’re hopeful that we will find solutions to that and we’ll get back,” Simon said, “but we won’t compromise our principles to do so.”

Standing by that is exactly what they should do, but the WTA is in a precarious position operating at a deficit because of the loss of money from China, which is probably why they don’t want to fully pull out of China if they don’t have to.

They have to make a decision soon, though, and whatever decision they make, they also need to use social media more effectively both before and during the tournament.

Not including retweets of other accounts, the WTA Twitter account had about 70 tweets during the last three days of the 2022 WTA Finals.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Twitter account had a little over 120 tweets during the last three days of the 2022 ATP Finals.

The pattern continues for Instagram as well, and none of this includes TennisTV, the ATP’s streaming service that has a well-run account with highlights of ATP tournaments.

For most days, there’s actually more of a disparity between the two tours’ social media accounts.

Tennis does not have gender equity, but it has a lot more than most sports. All four Grand Slams give equal prize money to men and women, and so do some of the biggest combined tournaments like the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, that starts this week.

Tennis players Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams were the only two women in the 50 highest-paid athletes list from Forbes in 2022, but Williams is retired and Osaka is pregnant.

Iga Swiatek is carrying the torch as the No. 1 WTA player last year by far. American Coco Gauff is still just 18 years old, at least until her 19th birthday Mar. 13.

The names might not be as big right now, but there are still marketable personalities on the tour and always have been; the WTA just needs to showcase them better than they have.

One of those steps? Give the biggest event you run the best chance and the most time to succeed.

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