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WTA’s Simon says China decision driven by women’s rights, principles despite any financial repercussions

By Bret McCormick
After Peng Shuai’s allegations were ignored by the Chinese goverment, the WTA suspended all 10 tournaments in the country. getty images

Steve Simon wants to make clear that what’s happening between the Women’s Tennis Association and China right now potentially could happen in any country.

 

In a statement from its CEO, Simon, on Dec. 1, the WTA announced the tour was indefinitely suspending its 10 tournaments in China and Hong Kong in reaction to China ignoring former world No. 1 doubles player Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking former Communist Party official. But Simon said the WTA’s stance is in support of taking women’s sexual assault claims seriously, not a macro ideological collision.

“Principle was going to drive this position, not finance or business or politics,” Simon told Sports Business Journal.

What comes next in the WTA-China standoff is unclear.

The tour recently released its schedule for the first six months of the 2022 season, and at some point will have to commit to a fall schedule. In 2019, 10 of the 11 Chinese events were played in the final months of the WTA season. And it’s unlikely that China will react publicly until after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, according to professor and Chinese sports expert Simon Chadwick, an effort to avoid negative public attention in the lead-up to the games, which begin on Feb. 4.

What that reaction will be is unknown. In the only response so far, WTA global partner iQiyi, China’s leading video streaming platform, asked the tour around Thanksgiving to have the company’s logo removed from the global partners portion of the WTA website.

It’s equally unclear how the WTA’s other sponsors view the move. Another global partner, Porsche, counts China as its No. 1 market. But Simon told SBJ that the WTA didn’t consult its partners on the suspension decision, only informed them of it before it was made public.

Regardless of the potential financial damage, it’s very likely the WTA has improved its image in the eyes of players, fans and certain sponsors, current or potential. An organization formed in the early 1970s on a foundation of supporting women’s rights felt it had very little option but to stand up to China when it batted away Peng’s allegations. Simon has said publicly that the WTA will pull out of the country if it’s not satisfied with China’s response.

Had the WTA backed down, it might have lost more than any financial repercussions.

“It was very easy to get to there, not a complicated position to take,” Simon said. “There was full support of our boards, our councils, and our members, and we felt very, very strong about the position that we took.”

Global world

The WTA has grown rapidly in China during the past two decades. Along with the 10 tournaments, including the $14 million prize money-WTA Finals in Shenzhen, the tour has 12 China-based employees scattered among offices in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

If the tour were to pull out of China completely, the financial impact would be significant, though Simon disputed the estimate reported in the media that the tour gets a third of its revenue from China. Simon made clear during an interview that the WTA wants to remain in China.

“We live in a global world, we operate in a global world,” said U.S. Open Tournament Director Stacey Allaster, who spearheaded the tour’s dramatic growth in southeast Asia when she was WTA CEO from 2009 to 2015. “We don’t live in an isolated world where it becomes so black and white.”

In recent years, China has reversed a more open attitude toward the West, which spurred its 21st century economic boom. President Xi Jinping’s grip on power has tightened, and Peng seems to have been caught up in his reassertion of Communist Party authority.

She first posted allegations on Nov. 2 that former Communist Party official Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her while his wife stood watch outside the room. Peng’s claims appeared on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, but her Weibo account was subsequently wiped clean and serious concerns for her well-being quickly grew. Simon said that the WTA has seen photos of Peng from the Chinese Tennis Association and a video chat between Peng and the International Olympic Committee, which appeared to show her unhurt. The images also seemed to confirm that she is in Beijing. Simon still doubts that Peng is unrestricted in her movements.

Just as China has changed in recent years, the West has, too. The #MeToo Movement undoubtedly inspired Peng to speak out, something she might not have had the courage to do if she hadn’t been exposed to the movement during the past few years. So, while countries like China and Western sports organizations are closer than ever in the sports world, the ideological and cultural divides between them feel even greater.

“We have a sporting environment in which there are juxtaposed ideologies,” said Chadwick. “Those ideologies are becoming increasingly binary, and there is no middle territory.”

Sponsors outlook

That’s equally true for sponsors. IQiyi signed a 10-year, $120 million deal with the WTA in 2017; the WTA said that deal is still in place despite the Chinese company’s logo disappearing from the tour’s website.

China is home to roughly a fifth of the world’s population and is a territory that sponsors, like Porsche, would expect to be included in any global sponsorship deal with a rights holder, according to Ricardo Fort, former vice president of global sports and entertainment partnerships for Coca-Cola. Fort doubts any WTA sponsors had clauses in their contracts stipulating that if the tour pulled out of certain countries, then the sponsorship was voided.

“The same deal without China probably has a different value, and I don’t know if it’s even considered global without China,” said Fort.

There are chastening examples for the WTA’s sponsors to study. Nike and Adidas stopped using cotton from the Xinjiang region in March because of China’s abuse of the Uyghur population, but both companies suffered major backlash from the Chinese public over their stances.

Simon said the tour is looking for new partners to brace itself for whatever comes. As Fort said, it’s possible that the tour has improved its image more than any repercussions it’s created by upsetting China. And if the WTA ultimately pulls out of the country, “It will take time to recover and rebuild,” said Allaster, “but they will bounce back from this. At the end of the day, the product is super, super strong.”

SBJ Spotlight: TikTok’s threat to traditional sports media

While tech companies are consumed with finding ways to compete with TikTok, almost no one in conventional media “spends any time talking about it,” said Recode senior correspondent Peter Kafka in an Spotlight interview with SBJ’s John Ourand. “To me, that’s just an obvious disconnect.” Kafka authored a recent column headlined, “It’s TikTok’s world. Can TV live in it?” He said the main response to TikTok’s growth from traditional media execs has been to “punt and hope it’s someone else’s problem a quarter from now or two years from now.” But Kafka said that ignores the trend of conventional broadcast audiences growing older while a billion younger consumers spend most of their media time watching short video after short video. “If you’re in the business of getting anyone under the age of 30 to look at what you’re putting on a screen, you have to think about the fact that you’re probably asking them to put down TikTok and watch your thing instead,” said Kafka. “That’s a very difficult ask. … [TikTok] is insanely addictive.”

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