St Petersburg, Fl. | The WTA Finals moves to Saudi Arabia as expected

It comes as very little surprise that the WTA announced on Thursday that it its season-ending championships will be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for at least the next 3 years, in what is seen by many as a money-spinning deal for the WTA Tour.

We don't plan to do any persuading. The players need to make their own choices, and we do believe that everyone who qualifies is going to want to play. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO

The 2024 edition will take place from 2-9 November, and features the Top 8 singles players and doubles teams in the Race to the WTA Finals.

The WTA states that it has selected Riyadh following a comprehensive evaluation process over several months, which has included assessment of multiple bids from different regions and engagement with players.

All prospective hosts were considered against a clear set of criteria:

  • The ability to deliver and fund a world-class event for players and fans
  • Support for the WTA’s ambition for significant prize money growth
  • The strength of their commitment to growing the WTA Finals and the sport over time

The agreement with the Saudi Tennis Federation offers record prize money of $15.25 million this year, which is a 70% increase from 2023, with further rises in 2025 and 2026, while the partnership will also support broader investment in the future development and growth of women’s tennis, including the WTA’s plans to grow the global fanbase through increased investment in marketing, digital and fan engagement.

The Saudi Tennis Federation hosted the country’s first official professional tennis tournament in November 2023 with the Next Gen ATP Finals taking place in Jeddah, while there have been a number of exhibition tournaments and matches held in recent years, including the Diriyah Tennis Cup in 2019 and 2022, and the Riyadh Season Tennis Cup 2023 featuring the WTA World No 2 and No 6, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur.

At a grassroots level, tennis is undergoing rapid development in Saudi Arabia, where the number of clubs has more than doubled in the last 5 years, and the sport is played equally by girls and boys in schools.

In 2023, an estimated 30,000 school children took their first steps in tennis and plans are in place to introduce the game to nearly 60,000 girls and boys in 2024.

“Bringing the WTA Finals to Riyadh is an exciting new opportunity for us, and a positive step for the long-term growth of women’s tennis as a global and inclusive sport,” Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO, said. “We’ve been impressed by the commitment shown by the Saudi Tennis Federation to grow the sport at all levels, and we have no doubt that players and fans can look forward to a world-class event in Riyadh as the finale to the 2024, 2025 and 2026 seasons.”


WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon believes the deal with Saudi Arabia's Private Investment Fund (PIF) will help to develop women's tennis over the coming years

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the deal has raised questions about LGBTQ+ and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and others vocally opposing it over the past few months.

“We’re going into this eyes wide open that the investment in sport by Saudi certainly provokes strong views from people,” WTA Tour Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said. “We’ve met with Chris and Martina and listened to their concerns, and we have shared their concerns through our stakeholders as well, without prejudice.

“We’ve also shared the concerns around women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights within the Kingdom of Saudi.

“Our focus is on how we develop women’s tennis for the benefit of everybody involved in the game. The reality of it is… we are truly a global tour, a global business.”

As for any concerns about Saudi Arabia that current players might have, Simon added: “We don’t plan to do any persuading. The players need to make their own choices, and we do believe that everyone who qualifies is going to want to play.”

So far, the majority of top players have indicated that they would be open to playing in Saudi Arabia, including Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, amongst others.

The cities that hosted in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2022, and Cancun, Mexico, in 2023, were not revealed until September each year, and last November’s event was strongly criticised by players.

“This partnership will build on our exposure to a market and a region whose impact on the sports industry is certainly growing rapidly,” Simon said.

“We certainly expect that you’ll see more events coming there in the future. So at the end, we believe that the WTA should be a part of this development, versus being on the outside.”

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has enacted wide-ranging social reforms, including granting women the right to drive and largely dismantling male guardianship laws that had allowed husbands and male relatives to control many aspects of women’s lives.

Men and women are still required to dress modestly, but the rules have been loosened and the once-feared religious police have been sidelined, but, still, same-sex relations are punishable by death or flogging, although prosecutions are rare.

Saudi Arabia’s Private Investment Fund (PIF) formed the LIV Golf tour and put money into soccer, for example, and the kingdom’s role in tennis has been rising.

There have been discussions about placing a top-tier Masters 1000 tournament in Saudi Arabia, too, as part of a possible larger restructuring involving the WTA, ATP and the country.


Marina Storti, CEO of WTA Ventures, says the multi-year PIF partnership expands the WTA’s presence in the Middle East

WTA

Marina Storti, CEO of WTA Ventures, the WTA’s commercial division, states: “This multi-year partnership expands the WTA’s presence in the Middle East and brings us to a country with huge potential for growth, as well as supporting our ambitious plans to accelerate the global development and progress of women’s tennis.

“We’re looking forward to working with the Saudi Tennis Federation over the coming years to grow the WTA Finals, create more fans, and inspire more people to play our brilliant sport.”

Arij Mutabagani, President of the Saudi Tennis Federation and the first elected female president of any Saudi Arabian sports federation, added: “Hosting the WTA Finals is absolutely huge for the future of tennis in Saudi Arabia and growing sport in general, especially amongst our young girls. And that’s entirely our focus, to inspire future generations of players and celebrate women’s tennis.

“We want to help them to believe that they too belong on centre court, as seeing is believing. Through the tournament we have the potential to power the dreams of millions of young people who are looking to a bright future and a world of new opportunities.

“Everyone will be made to feel extremely welcome. Our country is moving forward. Much has been achieved already and many historic steps taken by women in all sectors in recent years, with sport driving much of the progress across our entire society.

“So, we have real momentum and hosting the world’s best tennis players in Riyadh will only accelerate our transformation and help grow the game further.”

At the very least, the WTA Finals now has a home for the next few years, which has been lacking since the 10-year deal in Shenzhen, China, bit the dust after 2019, but reaction to this new move surely will be mixed despite many seeing it coming for months as the WTA sought to replenish its coffers after the loss of its lucrative Chinese arrangements.




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