John Learing: FANS FIRST

Learing picThe WTA didn’t just want to sell its rights it wanted to work on enhancing its connection with fans and just selling the rights wasn’t really moving the ball.


John Learing, managing director of WTA Media talks about a $500 million rights deal and a massive upscaling of coverage which, from 2017, will make it the best –ever time to be a fan of women’s tennis.

When all’s said and done the success of sports media comes down to the ability to engage an audience to the extent that they will pay for content or advertisers and sponsors will pay for access to them.

That’s the industry stripped to the bones and presented in its simplest – and probably over-simplified – form.

And from the outside it is easy to get the impression that some sports content doesn’t have to try too hard. The global fascination with the world’s major soccer leagues, the international appeal of the NBA and, increasingly, the NFL, might give the impression that there’s a huge audience waiting to devour whatever is served up.

That is, of course, doing a huge disservice to the people who spend their lives trying to make even those sporting mega-properties more appealing but there’s always a sneaking suspicion that sports which fall outside that top tier have to fight harder and be more creative in their approach to winning not only eyeballs but the hearts and minds of audiences which are not short of choice of what to watch or how to spend their money.

Women’s tennis is among the sports which slot into this category.  Despite its worldwide reach and event schedule and boasting the best-known female athletes on the planet, the WTA Tour has been at a perpetual crossroads for many years.

Last year was a milestone for the Women’s Tennis Association. Wimbledon marked the 50th anniversary of its  formation by the legendary Billie jean King who famously locked the players into a room in a London hotel and promised to let them out only after they had reached an agreement. The players were simply fed up that they constantly played second fiddle to the men, not only in terms of prize money but the quality of events and support they enjoyed.

The WTA has come a huge distance since then. Prize money parity at the Grand Slam events, the emergence of successive generations of  superstars and the development of a  more coherent, tiered playing calendar have all played a role in making the sport what it is today.

Yet despite all of the changes introduced by former CEO and President Stacey Allaster and her predecessor Larry Scott, the WTA Tour remains a work in progress.

Last year that work took a huge leap forward when the WTA and the digital media company Perform announced a long-term joint venture in the shape of WTA Media. The operation was fashioned following a massive $500 million deal in December last year for live production.

Under the deal WTA media will, from 2017,  produce all WTA matches worldwide and deliver a range of off-court content including news and magazine shows. Overall it promises a huge ramp-up in the volume of content available to fans and the man charged with making it all happen is John Learing, an American sports TV veteran who is bringing expertise honed at the NBA and PGA Tour among others, to focus on one of sport’s biggest puzzles – how to get women’s tennis to really achieve its full potential.

“In 2011, which was the final year if the previous rights agreement, the WTA produced around 200 games a year in total. That meant that there were 1,800 unproduced which nobody ever got to see,” he said.

“At the end of last year (2014) we got together and agreed that we were really falling short compared to what some other federations were doing and that there was too much content being wasted.”

At $500 million the current rights deal is the biggest in the history of women’s sport and the need to find new ways of making a return on the investment is clear.

The solution is to increase the level of production to ensure that every main draw singles match will be covered and made available to fans along with the doubles semi-finals and finals at every event.   Content will be available to fans around the world  across  the full range of television, digital, mobile and special platforms, giving fans the opportunity to follow their favourite players  throughout the season even if they  are outside the elite group at the top end of the game whose matches are generally first pick  to fill limited linear broadcast time.

“We were very happy with the deal with Perform. The WTA didn’t just want to sell its rights it wanted to work on enhancing its connection with fans and just selling the rights wasn’t really moving the ball,” John Learing explained.

“We at the WTA decided that the only way forward is to have a seat at the table and WTA media is the result.

“We understand that a lot of the appeal of sport is local and that everybody wants to root for their local hero. What we are doing makes it possible for fans to follow those heroes, whether or not they exit in the first round.”

With Perform having announced plans to launch its own OTT delivered sports channels at least one of the avenues for distributing this huge volume of WTA content becomes clear.

“We love the commitment that Perform is making to the partnership and to the tennis fan. We are effectively allowing them (fans) to programme their own tennis network,” Learing said.

Reflecting on his approach to rights deal-making, Learing confirms his commitment to maximising exposure of the sport’s content.

“The first and foremost, number one thing I ask people is how much are you going to show. How much will be warehoused?” he explained.

“Of course we understand that 2,000 matches is way too much for any linear network. That’s why they are looking for semi-finals and finals and games close to the weekends. We are probably looking at 110 games n linear and that’s just not enough. That simply doesn’t serve the tennis fan and we know we have to do more.”

The solution, Learing says, is to be ‘platform agnostic.’

“After all,” he says, “my daughter watches everything on her iPhone. The fact is people are watching the same product but in different ways.”

Given that the business equation for sports media is more or less the same for any other commercial enterprise – that  revenue has to exceed cost of production  to deliver profit – this move to produce 2,000  matches a year is clearly an act of faith in the notion that by providing more and better coverage the value of the property will rise.

But new technologies are playing a crucial role in ensuring that costs are kept in check while the quality of coverage remains consistently high.

“We want to guarantee to all parties that we will cover 800 matches to the traditional TV production level which has become expected. That means five to eight cameras, a minimum of a two person commentary team and deep data graphics,” Learing explained.

The question, therefore, is what happens to the rest. Surely the costs of delivering half-decent production from those less-watched outside court matches is likely to torpedo the business model?

That, says Learing, is simply not the case and the reason that they are able to deliver a quality viewing experience without pushing costs through the roof is the use of   an Intelligent Production Design system developed by Hawkeye and Sony.  That involves three cameras on court controlled by a single operator. With cameras automatically tracking the players  and the ability to go to replay at will the system delivers what Learing describes as ‘a smaller version’ of traditional coverage.’

That will be backed by at least one commentator for every match delivering English language commentary with a guide track for non-English delivery.

“We know that fans like the inside track. They want to hear a knowledgeable voice and our commitment to them is that we will have a WTA voice attached to all the coverage,” he said.

“This represents an incredible investment and we are still holding conversation about how much but the whole thing is in line with Perform’s  ethos. They want to run fast, run progressive and run hard.

“The WTA knows how important it is to control their own destiny. The fee of $ half a billion represents an immense vote of confidence in the future of women’s tennis. The fact is that perform see what ( former President and CEO)  Stacey Allaster saw and what her successor as CEO, Steve Simon also sees.

“We know that high quality output will ensure the buy-in, not only of the networks but, critically, the fans. WTA Media’s job is ensuring that we deliver that quality.

“In the time we have had rights in the marketplace the interest of our partners in retaining those rights been significant.  We are interested in what they want to do and what they are thinking about in terms of showcasing and cross-promoting those rights,” Learing said.

With over 20 years experience in sports media Learing has come to the conclusion that, ultimately, the fan gets to decide what’s works and what doesn’t.

“They will tell you when it is right,” he said.

“For too long the sport had been focused on supporting tournaments and sponsors but now that focus is on growing the next generation of fans.

And what fans want is players that they can relate to.

“Sport is about the growth of personal (player) brands and about communicating directly with the fans,” Learing said.

“We have some great stars in women’s tennis and there are others waiting to come to the fore.  The fact is that you can’t artificially grow superstars and fans seem to be able to smell it when you are trying to sell them something that doesn’t quite fit. The development of stars has to be natural.

“When I was in golf we learned that you need stars but you have to wait. We tried it (to force the process) a few times and there were some epic fails.

“It is important that, in growing tennis, we don’t do what the NBA did when they went looking for stars to be the next Michael Jordan. That meant that payers couldn’t just be themselves.

The WTA Tour is currently home to seven of the world’s Top 10 most marketable female athletes and, says Learing, the ambition is to make that 10 out of 10.

“We will let the process take care of that. The talent will move to the top,” he said.

The size of the rights fee and scale of subsequently investment indeed look like a declaration of faith in the WTA Tour and in the creativity and business acumen of WTA Media to create and deliver the right content to the right audiences in the most effective ways.

One thing is for sure. From 2017 fans of women’s tennis will never have more choice of what to watch and how to watch it. The acid test will be whether range of options and level of immersion made possible by digital media will significantly grow the audience and drive value for the WTA, Perform and an array of other stakeholders including sponsors.