ST. PETERSBURG — From her office on the 15th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown St. Petersburg, Women's Tennis Association chairwoman and CEO Stacey Allaster has one of the best views in town. To the east is a sparkling Tampa Bay. To the west are the trees and houses that dot the landscape leading to the Gulf of Mexico.
From this perch, Allaster runs an organization that oversees 52 tournaments in 32 countries. She took over for Larry Scott in July 2009 after more than three years as the WTA's president.
Since then she has been busy increasing prize money, retaining sponsors in a weak economy, expanding women's tennis and increasing digital marketing. As the tennis world prepares for its last Grand Slam of the year, the U.S. Open, Allaster likes what she sees so far.
"I keep saying to everyone, the world economy has shrunk, but women's tennis is going full bore," Allaster said. "We're not immune to the economic challenges, but we have weathered the storm incredibly well."
A tennis 'lifer'
Allaster, 47, was 12 years old when she discovered tennis. She started playing in central Ontario and got hooked. Her first job was cleaning clay courts, and she has worked in tennis ever since.
After earning a bachelor's degree in economics and physical education from the University of Western Ontario, Allaster held jobs with the Ontario Provincial Association and Tennis Canada.
In her 15 years with Tennis Canada, she rose through the ranks to become the director. In January 2006, Allaster took over as president of the WTA and moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, John Milkovich, and children Jack and Alexandra.
When Scott left to become commissioner of the Pac-10, Allaster took over as CEO.
"I've been a lifer in tennis," said Allaster, who retains her Canadian accent. "It's quite a political sport. I think any outsider coming in would have a tough time understanding the political landscape of professional tennis. You have the WTA governing women's tennis. You have the ATP governing men's tennis. You have the International Tennis Federation, the Olympics and international team competition. Then you have the four Grand Slams (Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). Then you have agents. I have a really good understanding of everyone's interest and what we're trying to achieve."
What the WTA is trying to achieve more than anything is a global presence. Allaster points out there are players from 35 nations represented in the WTA's top 100. There are players from eight countries in the top 10.
To reach those countries, Allaster is beefing up digital media and trying to make matches more available through the website (WTAtour.com). And she is trying to introduce the game to more parts of the world.
"The No. 1 priority for us is the development of the sport in China," Allaster said. "We opened an office in Beijing in May of 2008. We've put one of our top four events in Beijing. (NBA commissioner) David Stern has been the leader in this. He was in China 23 years ago. Now the NBA is huge. We're just planting seeds. If we can get 8-10 percent of 1.3 billion people as our fan base, then obviously that will be significant. It won't happen overnight."
Star power helps. Serena and Venus Williams have been the face of the tour for more than 10 years. Both are still in the top 10, but they are not getting younger.
There are some emerging young players, such as Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and part-time Tampa resident Samantha Stosur of Australia. And keeping those players happy is key for Allaster. She was able to build prize money from $71 million in 2008 to an estimated $88 million in 2011.
Allaster also knows she can't overlook those who follow her sport. "We need to stay focused on what the fans and the sponsors need," she said. "One player said to me, 'You care more about the fans.' I said, 'You want me to take care for the fans. We take care of the fans then we'll have events, we'll have increased prize money and we'll have sponsors.' We're a very traditional sport. We don't like to change that often. I think we're a sport that needs to look externally. We need to look at what our competition is doing."
It is not lost on Allaster that she runs the world's largest women's tennis organization from a city that doesn't even have a WTA event. She spends 150 days on the road, and Allaster said that wouldn't change if the tour were in a major city.
"We're growing, and we're not in New York, so it hasn't hurt us," she said. "You don't need to be in the big metropolitan cities. Every CEO that has come here has thought about moving. I have no reason to move. Business is doing well. It's a great place to live."
While it seems unlikely St. Petersburg will get a WTA event, Allaster said she is working with Mayor Bill Foster to bring in some kind of tennis event.
"For tennis, we'll find our way, whether it be junior championships or Davis Cup team competition or exhibitions," Allaster said. "The challenge that we have is this global circuit that follows the Grand Slams. And then also having the facilities. The investment for WTA events is multiple, multiple millions."
Allaster's contract runs out after 2012. As long as things are going well, she plans to stay with the WTA for years to come. But it might not be the last job she ever has.
"I think there is going to come a time when I don't want to be away from the family as much," Allaster said. "I would ultimately like to teach in the university system. I'd like to do some consulting work. And I'd like to work for children's not-for-profit groups that provide sport opportunities for youth. If someone hadn't given me my foray into sports, I wouldn't be here today. Hopefully I can use my skills to help the next generation."
Allaster is in no hurry. She already has her dream job: "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be chairman and CEO for the No. 1 professional sport for women, the organization Billie Jean King founded."