The venerable women's tennis tour endured flagging popularity and criticism from anti-tobacco forces when it was known as the Virginia Slims Series, and was marooned without a title sponsor for 10 months last year.
But it has turned over a new leaf with a new title sponsorship by marketing-savvy Canadian software marketer Corel Corp. Corel's arrival comes amid other reinvigorating factors including the worldwide appeal of tennis, the rising interest in female athletes and a batch of interesting new players.
MOVE INTO LICENSING
On the tennis marketing front, several new official product sponsorships are in the works, along with the first-ever WTA licensing program that will include a wide range of WTA-theme merchandise and an affinity credit card. Anne Person Worcester, who took over as CEO of the tour in 1994, has played a key role in lining up a new title sponsor and surrounding marketing programs.
"We've been through some ups and downs, but women's tennis is really starting to take off, thanks to a variety of new factors," Ms. Worcester said.
Playing in its favor is the universal appeal of the sport in various cultures and the fact that, lately, more countries are able to follow it thanks to better TV deals negotiated by the WTA.
More than 60 tournaments in its 11-month season are now held in at least 20 countries a year; players in the tour come from 45 nations.
"Our players come from all over the world, and people can relate to tennis on a number of different levels, and interest in female athletes is on the rise," Ms. Worcester said.
Always a personality-driven sport, women's tennis has also gained a raft of intriguing new players who are grabbing interest on and off the court.
"The recovery of Monica Seles [after she was stabbed in the back during a match] and the return of Jennifer Capriati have intrigued a lot of people," Ms. Worcester said. "Many people follow popular players like Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf, and interesting new players like Chanda Rubin and Anke Huber are heightening interest."
There is no doubt that "rivalries, colorful personalities and the off-court lifestyles of these players" are a major factor in the public's interest, she admitted.
Attendance at the Ford Australia Open in January was up 25% over the previous year; attendance at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., earlier this year was up 9%; and ratings of telecasts worldwide are up significantly, the Corel WTA Tour says.
"Tennis is the No. 1 women's sport worldwide, and it has a good image everywhere, which makes it a good match for us," said Patrick Reid, Corel's director of sponsorship and promotion.
It was the international appeal of tennis that clinched Corel's multimillion-dollar WTA sponsorship, he said, and the fact that the company's target customer demographics closely matched women's tennis fans-highly educated, higher-income women and men in global economies.
The Ottawa-based software maker has gotten attention recently for its diverse sponsorships, which it tends to leverage in non-traditional channels. The Corel WTA Tour is being touted in its software catalogs.
Corel is best known for Corel Draw! graphics sofware, and last winter added the word processing program WordPerfect. The tour sponsorship will be used to help market Corel's enhanced new versions to customers.