Competing in her 31st major singles final, the conversation surrounding Serena Williams entering the U.S. Open centered more around her on-court apparel than her athletic prowess, when the French Open announced it would ban players from wearing full body suits, like the one Williams wore to compete in this year.
While the French Open’s decision drew incensed reactions from tennis fans, especially given Williams wore the full body suit to promote blood circulation after suffering blood clots during childbirth, the Women’s Tennis Association is taking its own approach to change the narrative surrounding women’s tennis players from their apparel to their athleticism.
Earlier this year at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, the WTA organized a unique photoshoot for all women’s tennis players under its umbrella to move the needle on how women’s tennis is marketed and viewed. “With the new energy we have in women’s tennis and the WTA, we are looking to modernize our brand,” said the WTA’s senior vice president of communications, Heather Bowler.
The WTA is moving away from strategies like sexualization and high-fashion imagery, which have historically been used to market women’s sport and female athletes, and betting on fans wanting to buy into what has made WTA athletes stars: their athleticism.
“For the campaign, we are shooting the photographs in a very different manner than we’ve done before,” Bowler noted. “The players’ photos are being taken in action shots while they’re wearing their tennis gear. This is very much about showcasing the supreme athleticism and physicality of the game, players and athletes on the tour featuring the best female athletes in the world.”
Bowler notes that the WTA’s last branded photoshoot featured players in fashion-led themes and angles. So, why is the WTA now changing its marketing approach to focus more on the athleticism of women’s tennis players?
Noting that a conversation began at the end of 2016 regarding shifting the WTA’s marketing strategy, Bowler explains, “The WTA is a major sport league in a global sport and we would like to be positioned as a major sport league. We want to highlight the credentials of the game and how strong it is as a sport. Seeing the athletes in their athletic attire and in action to get to know who they are is about raising the profile of the game and its players.”
Some may be surprised that an impetus for the marketing shift was a man–the WTA’s new CEO, Steve Simon, the former CEO of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
“Steve is really a change agent,” Bowler remarked. “He believes very strongly if you’re still doing this year what you were doing last year, you’re moving backwards. That’s quite a new concept for the WTA. We’ve been very much about the governance of women’s tennis. Now, we are really drilling into the growth of women’s tennis.”
For the WTA, this growth not only begins in reshaping the narrative around its players, but providing players tools to share their stories. Beginning this year at Indian Wells and continuing at the Miami Open, the WTA provided exclusive social media instruction, training and conversations for players, featuring opportunities to meet with leaders from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and more.
“The WTA launched a lot of new divisions last year, including WTA Networks, which is a new digital and social platform,” Bowler noted. “Through WTA Networks, we have become content creators and media owners on our own. We wanted to take our digital destiny into our own hands. Most of our players are very active on social, but the thing is they may not understand which platforms are right for them to build their brands. We want to help them do that, while linking back to the WTA.”
Launching WTA Networks came as the WTA recognized the growing popularity of women’s tennis amongst younger generations.
“We’re getting younger audiences,” Bowler said. “We have to move with the times and meet the audience. We are producing three-times more content than before. We are making triple the amount of matches available. We are seeing organically that by producing and offering more content, our audience is growing. They’re consuming it on digital and social—platforms that have been so potent for our growth.”
As the WTA works to reshape its brand image and provide its athletes tools to grow their own brands, there is a star they’ll turn to for support: Serena Williams.
Discussing Williams’ popularity on social media and the possibility of her mentoring younger players on brand building, Bowler said, “Serena and Venus are seen as role models not just by the younger generation, but their peers. The concept of mentoring is something very important to us that we’d very much like to foster. We are having a lot of talk about mentoring in the WTA. We believe that women are better together, collectively.”