Hello, is anyone there? Anyone? Hello? This is not just a question about fans attending the 2019 WTA Finals for Monday night’s match in Shenzhen between Bianca Andreescu and Simona Halep; it is a question about the WTA’s leadership.
Really: Is anyone there? Is any leadership emerging from those who run women’s tennis?
This was an absolute disaster on many fronts, but this particular examination will focus on attendance.
You might recall that at the 2019 U.S. Open, the second set of the Bianca Andreescu-Belinda Bencic women’s semifinal (a high-quality match) was witnessed by a very sparse crowd in New York:
Not even half 🙁 pic.twitter.com/lQdbNUctWz
— Saša Ozmo (@ozmo_sasa) September 6, 2019
After looking at that photo, it might be jarring to realize that a much smaller crowd — much smaller — took in the third and final set of the Halep-Andreescu match at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
First things first: This is not a negative commentary on tennis fans or sports consumers in Shenzhen. I am not going to turn this into a verdict on Chinese citizens whose life experience is very different from mine.
It could be that transportation is limited late at night in Shenzhen. I don’t know.
It could be that other logistical and market-based forces are at work here, in ways the WTA failed to appreciate.
I can say with confidence and clarity that what happened on Monday in Shenzhen is different from what happened at the U.S. Open women’s semifinals.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was packed for the first semifinal in early September. Why? Serena Williams was playing in it. Celebrities and other customers who could easily afford the ticket price wanted to be there. They didn’t really care about sticking around for the second semifinal, which was played later.
Television wanted Serena up first, in the sweet spot for prime time, just before 7:30 p.m. Eastern time and also just before the first NFL (American football) game of the season, which began that night near 8:20 p.m. Eastern time.
Television (ESPN) promoted the Serena semifinal at the expense of the Bencic-Andreescu semifinal, and since there are transportation-based complications late at night in Flushing Meadows, I can understand why people could not stay for a THIRD set of Bencic-Andreescu.
Just one problem: That match didn’t go three. It ended in straight sets.
Fans stick around at New York Yankees playoff baseball games past 11 p.m. Fans stick around for New York Knicks playoff basketball games past 11 p.m. NO, there haven’t been many Knicks playoff games in the past 15 years, but 20 years ago, when the Knicks were good, they did play playoff games which went very deep into the night… and fans stayed.
Somehow, fans at tennis tournaments don’t.
In New York, it is more of a commentary on the appetite for superstars (and the lack of appetite for non-superstars).
In Shenzhen, I don’t — and won’t — claim to know what this is all about.
However: The WTA ought to have done its homework. Clearly, it didn’t… or at least, it if DID, it didn’t care about its findings.
Yes, I realize that television rights fees and the deals struck with the tours provide the gusher of money which gets passed on to the players at these year-end championships. Television inventory matters a lot more to various sports properties these days than ticket sales do.
Making money matters more than optics. I get it. I know this has been true for quite a while.
However, this is where the Shenzhen reality runs into a problem: The WTA could certainly have made a lot of money and struck a relatively lucrative deal in other global cities which would — and could — support tennis a lot more than Shenzhen did for Halep-Andreescu.
This was a blockbuster match between the last two women’s major champions, in the year-end championship tournament! Stop for a second and absorb that!
Great players, prestigious event, high stakes… and practically no one was there in the third set?
Tell me what other sport has this problem.
Basketball, baseball, American football, international football, hockey — this reality does not exist for the various team sports. It doesn’t exist for golf. Tennis is conspicuous in having sparse crowds during hugely important events.
This is where I am coming from when I ask if anybody is home.
Hello? WTA? Are you trying to force tennis upon China, or sincerely trying to grow tennis in China and then reward China after demonstrating its commitment to a product? It certainly feels a lot more like the former, not the latter. This doesn’t even include or mention larger questions about whether China should be the long-term home of the WTA Finals.
Shenzhen as a one-year experiment — let’s see if it works out — isn’t the worst idea in the world, but this was not intended to be a one-year experiment. A world-class match between world-class players received a minor-league crowd.
Do people in positions of leadership care? Sadly, I don’t think they do…
and that is part of the very big deficit in “tennis leadership,” which is one of the world’s great oxymoronic expressions.
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