Strong stance on China and Peng Shuai helps land WTA a new title sponsor

The New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Christopher Clarey © 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Mar 03, 2022, 09:39 PM IST
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Lawler, citing a confidentiality agreement with Hologic, declined to state the precise terms of the deal, but it is significantly larger on an annual basis than the tour’s previous title sponsorship with cellphone manufacturer Sony Ericsson, which ended in 2010

After more than a decade without a title sponsor, the Women’s Tennis Association confirmed that it has agreed to a multiyear deal with Hologic, a leading global medical device and diagnostics company focused on women’s health.

It is the first major sports sponsorship for Hologic, whose headquarters are in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and it comes at a crucial moment for the WTA, which has suspended all of its tournaments in China and faced significant financial headwinds during the coronavirus pandemic because of tournament cancellations and reduced attendance and revenue at many events.

“This comes at a very, very good time,” WTA President Micky Lawler said. “For us it’s the most important sponsorship of the WTA’s history and probably the biggest in women’s sports.”

Lawler, citing a confidentiality agreement with Hologic, declined to state the precise terms of the deal, but it is significantly larger on an annual basis than the tour’s previous title sponsorship with cellphone manufacturer Sony Ericsson, which ended in 2010. That six-year agreement, signed in 2005, was for $88 million — an average of $14.7 million annually.

“I think we’re all very grateful after the last couple of years, with the challenges with the pandemic and everything going on in the world right now, to be able to have this kind of support from a company that cares so much about women’s health, wellness and equality,” said Danielle Collins, a finalist at this year’s Australian Open.

Lisa Hellmann, a senior vice president for global human resources and corporate communication at Hologic, said the WTA’s strong stance in support of Chinese player Peng Shuai was a factor in sparking Hologic’s interest.

“I would consider it more a catalyst to the conversation than the deciding factor,” Hellmann said in a phone interview.

Peng disappeared from the public eye for more than two weeks in November after publishing a social media post in which she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of pressuring her into sex. That post was quickly deleted and online conversation about her and her allegations was censored. The WTA, unable to make contact with Peng, called on Chinese officials to make a “full and transparent” investigation into Peng’s allegations and end censorship on the subject.

When those demands were not met, the WTA suspended all its tournaments in China, which has become one of the financial pillars of the women’s tour with 10 events that accounted for approximately one-third of the WTA’s annual revenue in 2019. The most lucrative and prestigious of those events was the WTA Finals, the tour’s year-end championship in Shenzhen, China, which offered record prize money of $14 million in 2019, including $4.42 million to the winner, Ashleigh Barty.

The WTA has been an outlier in its approach to China. The ATP, which operates the men’s tennis tour, has not suspended its Chinese tournaments, and other professional leagues, including the NBA, have been reticent to confront Chinese authorities directly.

Peng has reappeared in recent weeks and given some controlled interviews, claiming that she deleted the social media post herself and that she had been misunderstood and had not made sexual assault allegations. But the WTA, still lacking direct contact with Peng, has maintained its position.

“We’ve been watching very closely some of the brave and really high-integrity moves that the WTA has made almost by themselves,” Hellmann said. “And that brought to our attention both the potential need they may have for title sponsorship, as well as really wanting to stand with and support the stance they are taking despite really negative impact on their business.”

Hellmann added: “It put their calendar at risk. It put a huge audience at risk, but they stood up for what they believed to be right and stood up for their players and therefore, by extension, the voice of women throughout the world.”

According to Lawler, the contact with Hologic began with a game of golf in December in San Diego, where Hologic has a major manufacturing facility, that involved Stephen MacMillan, Hologic’s chairman, and Kyle Filippelli, the boyfriend of American tennis player CoCo Vandeweghe.

Lawler said MacMillan mentioned the WTA’s “moral stance” on Peng and expressed interest to Filippelli in opening discussions with the WTA. MacMillan was put in contact with Alastair Garland, who is on the WTA’s board of directors, is the vice president at the management company Octagon and is married to Lawler’s daughter Charlotte.

“We had two calls, one before Christmas, one right after,” Lawler said. “And then we went out to San Diego and we met with them, and that’s how it started. It clicked right away.”

Hellmann said Hologic was, above all, interested in a partnership because of the WTA’s “global reach” and because her company’s goals matched up particularly well with the WTA’s.

“We’re committed to improving the lives of women, to improving issues of equity and health, so that sort of fundamental DNA, if you will, is so aligned,” she said. “It made it an easy place to start.”

Hellmann said that, as part of the sponsorship, current and former WTA players would share personal stories that underscore the importance of preventive testing and screening for diseases like breast and cervical cancer. The company also plans to work with the tour to create Hologic WTA Labs, which will be focused on research specific to female athletes.

Collins, who has risen to No. 11 in the rankings after recovering from endometriosis last year, said that partnership resonated with her.

“Having been someone that has dealt firsthand with women’s health issues, I really appreciate the research and them being a medical technology company that’s focused on creating things like mammogram machines and bone density and cervical cancer screening,” she said. “These are things that are so important to women’s health.”

Lawler said Hologic’s name will be featured on the nets at all WTA events, beginning with next week’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. The company’s name will also be used on virtual signs on courts outside the double alleys at WTA 1000 and 500 tournaments.

This is the longest the tour has gone without a title sponsor since its founding in 1973. Virginia Slims, the cigarette maker, was the first sponsor, making use of the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby,” before eventually being phased out because of health concerns. Kraft General Food, Corel, Sanex and Sony Ericsson followed as title sponsors.

“We’re working on a series called ‘You’ve come a long way,’” Lawler said.

She added: “We’ve learned a lot about the disastrous consequences of smoking, but at the time that was also a game changer,” she said of the Virginia Slims sponsorship. “With Hologic, it sort of is a full-circle story.”

Lawler said part of the challenge of securing a title sponsor since Sony Ericsson’s contract ended in 2010 has been finding a company whose brand does not conflict with other tour and individual event sponsors.

“You often find competing brands in the same industry,” she said. “This alignment is perfect, because there is no competition.”

Lawler said the title sponsorship revenue would allow the tour to keep prize money equal with the men at its top-tier premier mandatory events and boost prize money at other tournaments.

Shenzhen has not hosted the WTA Finals since 2019 because of pandemic restrictions, and with the suspension of Chinese tournaments, the tour is again exploring options elsewhere for this year’s event in November. It staged the tournament last year in Guadalajara, Mexico, albeit with much lower prize money of $5 million. Lawler said the tour hoped to have clarity on the finals by the end of March and would consult with Hologic and other sponsors if it does choose a new site.

Hellmann said that China was a “growing market” for Hologic but expressed confidence that sponsoring the WTA would not affect that business.

“In conversations with our international leadership, we do not anticipate there to be problems or conflicts with that,” she said.