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CNBC Transcript: Billie Jean King, Founder and Steve Simon, Chairman and CEO, WTA

Below is the transcript of an interview with WTA's Founder, Billie Jean King and Chairman and CEO, Steve Simon. The interview will play out in CNBC's latest episode of Managing Asia on 9 November 2018, 5.30PM SG/HK (in APAC) and 11.00PM BST time (in EMEA). If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Christine Tan.


Christine Tan: Everyone is talking about Shenzhen and what they're doing to bring WTA finals to China. They're throwing in a brand new tennis arena for you, they're giving you 14 million dollars in prize money, Are you excited the WTA final is going to be in China for the next 10 years?

Billie Jean King: I'm very excited that we're in Asia and Asia-Pacific here with Singapore, but I think it's just amazing what has evolved. It's interesting because even from the day we started the WTA back in 1973, actually 1970 with the Original 9 and the birth of professional women's tennis, one of our dreams was to be global. And we knew Asia would be a huge part of that in the future, because Asia has such potential: potential from a player point of view, a business point of view, audience point of view, I mean, I just see it's unlimited, the possibilities. And next year, moving to China and Shenzhen, having US$14 million dollars and of course, the winner will get a little over US$4 million. I was thinking back in the amateur days when I made $14 a day and I'm so glad we got pro tennis...

Christine Tan: You've come a long way.

Billie Jean King: We have. It's too bad the older players aren't getting a percentage of the gross or something. That would have been great. No, I just think it's amazing what's happened. I think Li Na helped a lot with the popularity when she won the French, being the first Asian ever to win a major and she's been very good on the WTA tour as well.

Christine Tan: Do you think the next big tennis champion; the next big tennis legend is going to come from China?

Billie Jean King: Well, you don't know right away whether it will come from China, we definitely will have more great champions from China but it takes about ten years to make a champion at least. We do have the Chan sisters, we do have players… but you have to let it mature because it takes at least ten years to be a champion. So what's going to happen, because this is a 10 year contract, I imagine near the last few years of having the tournament there, you'll start to see a lot more Chinese women playing and also you're going to have a lot of new fan base which is really exciting. Because we want to grow the popularity but we also want to help the young people to take up our sport. I have this saying that if you can see it, you can be it. So if they go to a live and watch these WTA finals, I hope that it will inspire at least one girl out of that audience to say, "I'm going to do that, I want to be out there just like them." And I think that's what's so wonderful in spreading our sport throughout the world.

Christine Tan: Well, you've led the way in the fight for equitable prize money. It has been 45 years since you founded WTA. Looking back at your journey, what's been the most challenging changing that mindset?

Billie Jean King: Well, Plan A was to have one association, men and women together. The men rejected us, and I went back a few times and they rejected us. I still think we should be one association. They don't think so, the men. So we did plan B, which I think we've done amazingly well, thanks to the leadership. You know, Steve Simon's done a great job, Larry Scott, Stacey Allaster and all the different ones through the years. Jerry Diamond in the beginning made a huge difference. Choosing really the right people to lead, and then also the players doing their job, not just playing tennis, but doing the media, doing the things that you have to do. We're in the entertainment business. That's one thing I always tell the players, "we are entertainers". It's our job to make the people happy not their job to come and watch us. And I think once a player understands that. She can do a much better job because it's not just hitting tennis balls and winning matches, it is way beyond that. This is our profession.

Christine Tan: Well, the last U.S. Open was pretty controversial because everyone was talking about whether Serena Williams was treated differently than a male player. How do you see it?

Billie Jean King: I think there should be coaching in tennis. I think that if they want a coach from the stands, it is fine, I don't care. I believe in coaching. I think it hurts our sport that we don't make the coaches a bigger part of it because they get more column inches as we say in newspapers. We get more attention when you have one more aspect of the sport have a lot of focus on it. I mean in America we talk about the coaches as much as some of the players. Especially like American football or basketball. And as coaching goes, people are very interested in coaching. It's about leadership. It's about what makes a player better, what's their relationship. Those are all kinds of things we're not getting enough of that in our sport.

Christine Tan: So just to be clear, you're saying coaching should be allowed?

Billie Jean King: Absolutely. It should be allowed and it should be free and easy. But on the other hand, right now the rule is no coaching from the stands. But guess what? As a player I have no control over my coach. He or she, whoever is coaching me, I have no control, so why should I get penalized? So most of the time, the umpire will give what they call a "soft warning". Because here's how it works, if you get a warning, you get a warning. The next time, you lose a point, and the next time, a whole game. So I know Serena because I've talked to her. She didn't realize she got a warning the very first time, she thought she got a soft warning. So that's where it started in the first place. So when she broke her racquet, she actually lost a point. She was confused and got really upset. And then, she thought the umpire was calling her dishonest. And if you know Venus and Serena, I've known them since 9 and 10 years old, the one thing they are is honest and you do not attack their honesty. You just don't. If you're an umpire you should know I'm not going here, because and she said "Well I want you to apologize". Well, umpire can't apologize and Serena knows she was out of line. She was totally out of line. It wasn't fair to Osaka. But once you see red and once you've just gone, and I knew with the honesty issue, she'd be gone and she was gone… crazed. So all he had to say to her is "Serena, I'm not attacking your honesty". That was all he had to say. The whole time this was going on I was going, "Just tell her you're not attacking her honesty". That's not apologizing but yes it is but in a different way. It would have been so easy. But he just kept looking at her. And I don't know what he was saying. Anyway, it was a mess. It wasn't fair to Osaka who's one of our obviously our new up and coming player, exciting and she played better than Serena.

CHRISTINE TAN: So any words, any personal words of advice for Naomi Osaka who was visibly upset at the way the match turned out?

Billie Jean King: She was upset but she knew she was playing better. And she was very focused. And I noticed throughout, she went away and let them go at it. She didn't get involved, she really handled it well. Naomi Osaka is here to stay. She's going to be a great champion. She already is a champion but she's got such amazing future. She's consistent. She's quick. Hope her serve gets better. But oh my gosh. She's a wonderful player and she's a really nice person. Her future is very, very bright.

Christine Tan: CEO of WTA Steve Simon is advocating a couple of changes. One of them is that he wants to reduce the time it takes to play a match from 3-4 hours, to 60-90 minutes, because media consumption habits are changing. Do you agree with him? Are you giving him your full support?

Billie Jean King: I've been talking about this for over 40 years. So, of course I'm going to agree with him because I thought this 40, 45 years ago. So yes of course I would.

Christine Tan: But more importantly, you do think shortening the matches will actually increase viewership?

Billie Jean King: Yes because I think people just can't concentrate that long anymore especially with social media. And you know you look at people looking at their phones, every seven seconds something new is coming out there. No, that's why you have highlights; you have just little snippets, which is why you have tweeting or Instagram or whatever. That's why people just want one or two sentences. So, Steve Simon, I totally agree with him that matches have to get shorter I've been saying that for my whole lifetime. And our job is to please the fans. Our job is to please the fans. We're entertainers. And that's the most important thing.

Christine Tan: So when is it going to happen?

Billie Jean King: Tennis is very slow in changing. I think we've been way too slow over the years. I think we could have done it much faster. But we haven't. People who are traditionalist want to hold onto it. And I totally appreciate that. I love history. And I think the more you know about history the more you know about yourself and understand your sport. But guess what, what do you learn from history: how to shape the future. If you analyze the changes that are going on, and how rapid the changes are going on, we need to be more rapid in our change and responding and reacting to people what they want.

Christine Tan: As someone who has fought hard for equal prize money and equality. What more do you want to add to your legacy?

Billie Jean King: Well, I'm not finished yet. That's the main thing with as far as legacy goes. I also have a Billie Jean King leadership initiative now, which is very important to me, to try to get equal pay in the workplace, by gender, by culture, obviously by race. So all that's very important, I want people to be their authentic self. I just I'm having fun. I'm going to be 75 in 2018, November 22nd so, I'm having a great time. I love to see how well our sport's doing. You know, our goals were that any girls born in this world would have a place to compete. We were losing tournaments a lot, so a place to compete. Number two, that we'd be finally appreciated for our accomplishments not just our looks, and also to be able to make a living. Because money provides mobility, it provides opportunity and hopefully the players who make a lot of money, will have foundations and give back to the world and make this world a better place.

Christine Tan: And finally, where do you see the WTA and the future of women's tennis?

Billie Jean King: The future of women's tennis is so bright. With the young people coming up, you think of the generations that built us to this point. I would like to do a shout out to Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova. They were the second generation that came after my generation. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova took us just like a huge step forward and up. And those two were responsible for that. And because of that we had Seles, Steffi Graf. We had Hingis, we had the different players that followed them. But that second generation was so important to the foundation and the continuance of growth. And they just took it beyond all measures.

Christine Tan: What's going to drive the sport forward from here?

Billie Jean King: The young players today. They have to step up to go sell it. First of all, they're great performers, they're great players, great athletes. But now that we're going to Asia I think that's huge, we're going to have a whole new population to inspire. Someone's going to be dreaming, "I want to be out there, I want to be number one in the world, I can do this." And that's just what happened with all the past champions. Chris and Martina did, Seles, Graf all of them and they did it. They had something exceptional. Everyone does have a blessing or a gift they just have to find it. You know what are your strengths in life? But they certainly were right to play tennis and tennis was really lucky to have them as well.

STEVE SIMON, Chairman and CEO, WTA

Christine Tan: So for a few years WTA in terms of financials was kind of flat, as CEO of the WTA, what steps did you take to increase revenue, to really turn WTA around?

Steve Simon: One of the things when I came on in and it's the foundation for everything that I'm going to do is that I believe you have to evolve. Business has to evolve, if you don't evolve, you're going backwards. And when I came on in, what was real clear, what was happening was that the business was evolving from what we used to call the linear world, to the digital world. And that creates a fundamental change in your business approach. Because when you go to the digital world, you've gone from business- to- business, to now, business direct to the consumer. So, that's a full change and so the whole focus...

Christine Tan: Requires a whole new business model.

Steve Simon: Whole new business model. So, the whole focus has been on driving audience. The first goal is audience, the second goal is audience and the third goal is audience, because audience is the key that unlocks the value. Now, we've got almost 600 million viewers that will be coming in this year which is great. This past year on the digital side, we've had over 300 million video views, almost up 20% and what that has done has translated now back into revenue streams.

Christine Tan: Well you're going to be in Shenzhen for the next 10 years, it's a huge commitment on your part to move everything there for the next decade or so, what impact do you think China is going to have on WTA or vice versa, what impact do you think the WTA is going to have on women's tennis in China?

Steve Simon: Well, I think it is what you just said - it is going to be vice versa. It has to be a trade-off or it doesn't work, and I think that we have seen right now. Through the investments we've made, this has solidified the investment we've made into China, and I think it's showing the market place we're here to stay. We weren't here just to see what we could extract, we're here to invest back into to you and we're serious, we've already seen the tremendous growth in China since we've started working there. We now have, with the Finals going there, we have 8 events in mainland China which is a large number, and most of the year-end circuit is going to be in Asia. In 2000, if my memory is correct, we had 1 player from China in the top 100, and since that time when we began investing into it, you've now had a Grand Slam champion in Li Na, and a role model which is huge. China now has I believe four players in the Top 100, another 15-16 players in the Top 300, well you can see the growth. I think that's absolutely wonderful and I think that's showing that there is a pathway in this great sport for young women.

Christine Tan: The Shenzhen bid is giving you a $500 million indoor tennis venue, plus a record prize money of 14 million dollars. Has Shenzhen made this whole debate about equal prize money go away?

Steve Simon: Unfortunately, the argument over equal will never go away. I think, definitely, it was a huge statement. It's a huge statement of the value of women's tennis, and of the value within the marketplace of these athletes. And I think it truly shows that we can be competitive with anybody in the world. This is about, I think, showing what investment does. We have invested significantly into Asia-Pacific region as a sport, especially women's sport, and the region has reinvested back into us. I think what this showed was that when you make a commitment, and we were willing to make a commitment on a long term basis to the region and say "This is going to be the foundation", these are the type of results you get.

Christine Tan: Do you think Shenzhen is going to be a big attractive draw to bring in new sponsors for you?

Steve Simon: Well I hope so, I mean everybody tries to do that and I do think we are going to...

Christine Tan: You talking to anyone?

Steve Simon: We talk to a lot of people every day. But I believe that the platform we're going to put there, the world will want to be a part of this great event and that great city.

Christine Tan: What's the status of the tennis venue being built now? Can you give us an update? And whether it will be completed in time?

Steve Simon: Yeah, so it's scheduled to be completed for the 2020 event, the first year we're going to have the event hosted in the Shenzhen Bay arena, so it's an established venue, but we're excited about the new venue which will be in the heart of downtown Shenzhen.

Christine Tan: Did you have any input in the design of the venue?

Steve Simon: Yes, we are having input into the design, it's obviously going to be a multi-purpose stadium, they're definitely building specific to a lot of our specs to host this event, and it's a very, very exciting project and something we're going to be very proud of.

Christine Tan: One of the things you're also advocating is to reduce the time it takes to play a match, from three to four hours, to 60 to 90 minutes. How's it going so far, are you meeting with a lot of resistance?

Steve Simon: Yeah, that's not one of the more popular topics in our sport because the tradition of it. And with it, and I'm going to continue to take the position that I do, is that I think we have to look at this. If you look at how much the game has changed, you don't play in long pants, long dresses, wood racquets, white tennis balls, things evolve. The game has evolved. It's become so much more physical and so much more athletic. I do think we have to look at the duration of the athletes on court because in our sport which is unique: they play every day, they don't get the days off. How do we keep the players healthy by protecting the integrity of the competition? Getting the match times down to 90 minutes, two hour matches versus three and four hours matches. As well as for the consumer, I think that the consumer is consuming product, entertainment, sports differently. And I'm not sure that our future fans want to sit there for four to five hours to watch something.

Christine Tan: Whether it's changing the tour calendar or trying to reduce the time it takes to play a match, it's always controversial and challenging to try to make these changes, something the players and sponsors are used to. What sort of leadership are you providing behind the scenes to get people to embrace these changes?

Steve Simon: Well I think when you're going to them to talk about change, if your track record has shown that the recommendations you make have moved the needle forward, and you have more wins than losses, they have a tendency to accept your ideas a little bit more. But it is always about the selling process and the vision, and being able to go in and say, "Look, here's where we are today, I think this is where we need to get to, which we can all agree to, and here are the steps we need to get there and there's going to be all these changes." It's being able to have those honest conversations with everybody. It's important to have relationships so that they trust you and they know you're not trying to have a certain angle or try to get away with something. And I think that throughout the organization we have a lot of trust, a lot of confidence and people are willing to engage in conversation and talk and get comfortable with things that maybe aren't in their comfort zone all the time.

Christine Tan: What do you do with people who don't buy into your idea?

Steve Simon: Well if they don't buy into them, we obviously respect their position, but we're not going to let that stop us from moving where we need to go to. You need to get on the train and join us, or well, it was nice visiting with you, I hope we can work with you down the road but we're going to keep on going.

Christine Tan: How does it feel like to be the man heading the all-women's tour?

Steve Simon: When I came on in, I said it was a very humbling thing to be asked to do it. I was very happy doing what I was doing, I wasn't looking for a new job, but it was humbling to be asked to be provided a platform like this to get off the area of being in the cheap seat and always saying what you think they should do and actually be in a position to maybe affect it and move the sport and make it better than when you got there. So this one's unique because it's not only tennis, as you said, it's also women's sport. And one of the things that I think has to happen in this world is that people such as myself, as the male gender, we have to step up and truly show equality and begin making changes because they're the right thing to do. Not try to justify it; it's simply the right thing to do. And hopefully through example, we can show that that's what's happening here, and more of us need to do that.

Christine Tan: What did you learn that you never knew before?

Steve Simon: Well, you never stop learning for sure. I think it might be just the passion that's there for the sport. I've been in it all my life, I've been lucky, but when you think of the different relationship especially with the athlete today, these are amazing women and I don't say that lightly. They're great athletes, but what's unique to me is how much they want to learn, how much they want to understand, how much they want this to be their business. And I think that's one of the best parts of it.

Christine Tan: As CEO of the WTA, what's your number one on your priority list for 2019?

Steve Simon: Well, I never have just one because there's a list. But it is to continue pushing everything forward. It isn't one specific issue. It's the entire agenda of moving forward. I want this property, the WTA property to be considered on the equal of other world class properties. It's not the number one women's sport property; it's a property, irrespective of the gender. And for us to be able to walk into that board room and we're being looked at on an equal basis with the Super Bowls and the Olympics and the World Cups and everything else which is a brand. Not a male or female brand, it's a brand.


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D: +65 6326 1123
M: +65 9852 8630

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