He is hardly a household name and has no claim to greatness as a professional tennis player. But as part of the jet-setting, celebrity-fueled women's tour, Larry Scott has been a star on par with Venus, Serena and Maria.
As head of the St. Petersburg-based WTA Tour the past six years, Scott has shaped the direction of the women's game in fundamental ways:
• Equal prize money at all four Grand Slam events.
• A strategic plan for future growth that has ensured greater participation from top-drawing athletes at tournaments and streamlined the grueling schedule — not including Wimbledon, main draw withdrawals are down 28 percent compared with last year, and Top 10 players have met their commitment 86 percent of the time versus 78 a year ago, tour officials say.
• An $88 million sponsorship deal with Sony Ericsson that helped increase revenue by 75 percent.
• Orchestrating a diplomatic resolution in February to an international crisis at a tour event in Dubai, in which an Israeli player, Shahar Peer, was not allowed into the country.
Those are key elements of his legacy as Scott prepares for a new job as commissioner of the Pacific 10 Conference beginning Wednesday.
The WTA has not named a successor as president and CEO, but Stacey Allaster, tour president since 2006, is viewed as a strong candidate. Scott has been helping in the search and has agreed to assist in the hiring process in part-time capacity if needed.
When the onetime ATP Tour player and executive said in March that he was leaving the WTA, the news took colleagues and players by surprise and was widely greeted with regret.
But in the end, another bold proposal that didn't fly — one to unify the men's and women's tours under his leadership — led to Scott's decision to accept a challenge outside the game.
"I've been in professional tennis my whole life, and at the pro level as a player and executive for 20 years," Scott, 44, said before leaving for Wimbledon, his final tournament.
"I've been able to do a variety of things, and the last six years as head of the tour have been incredibly rewarding, in terms of the transformation of the organization. And I started reflecting at the end of last year and early this year on all that we had achieved on the one hand. I felt that much of the heavy lifting in terms of improving women's tennis I was able to do."
During that period, Scott began discussions with the men's tour, for which he had worked as second in command before joining the WTA in 2003. The ATP was searching for a new a boss and approached Scott.
"They asked if I'd leave the WTA and come back to the ATP, and I said, 'No, I'm happy with the WTA, and moreover, I don't think it's the right answer for the sport,' " he replied.
"What the sport really needs, I had concluded, is to merge the ATP and WTA. Because as an executive for 11 years with the ATP and six years with the WTA, I see all the same challenges. And the marketplace — fans, sponsors and TV — really want to see the best men together with the best women and there would be a lot of synergy and savings."
Scott presented a business case for the merger. The WTA board accepted it in principle, but the ATP brass passed. That put the ball back in Scott's court.
"While I was thrilled with what I was doing at the WTA, I realized at least for now the next quantum leap for tennis through an alignment of the tours isn't going to happen," he said. "So it got me thinking how I might recalibrate my own goals."
That mind-set coincided with Scott enjoying January off for the first time in more than two decades. He didn't have to travel to the Australian Open because the annual players' meetings were shifted to Miami. He loved the time at home with his wife, Cybille, and three young kids. "That really refocused me on how much I was giving up by traveling 140 nights a year, half of it international."
When a headhunter for the Pac-10 approached the Harvard-educated Scott in early January, he was ready to listen.
"At first I thought, college sports is completely at the opposite end of the spectrum from being the head of a global professional sport," he said. "But the more I started looking at it, the more parallels I saw — in terms of the role of commissioner of a sports league. And I saw an opportunity to bring my pro sports background to the intercollegiate sports space."
College sports are facing cutbacks like so many other businesses in tough economic times. But Scott's expertise in marketing and television appears a good fit for the Pac-10, which lags behind other conferences in revenue from TV deals (fifth behind the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Big 12) and hopes to increase its profile.
That challenge, along with the prestige of the Pac-10 universities academically, also factored in Scott's decision. He's a native New Yorker but his wife is from California, so the move to the San Francisco Bay area seemed like a good fit from a family perspective.
His successor will continue to work in downtown St. Petersburg — a new six-year lease has been signed to keep WTA offices housed on the 15th floor of the Bank of America building.
The incoming boss will need to renew the sponsorship deal with Sony Ericsson that expires in 2011, or find a new mega-sponsor. And new stars need to develop as the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova, hampered by a shoulder injury, will inevitably fade. But right now, the WTA is thriving, something Scott couldn't be prouder of on the eve of his departure.
"I feel like the tour is in the strongest condition it's ever been in," he said. "We have an unbelievable group of people who are dedicated and passionate. And that gives me as good a feeling as you can have about moving on."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.