WTA CEO Steve Simon sat down with WTA Insider to discuss the major 2020 Rule Changes that impact the tour's circuit structure, bonus pool, and player commitments. The new rules support player health and a restructuring of the year-end bonus pool to reward participation and success on the WTA Tour. For a full explanation of the new rules, click here.
Most notably, all players, regardless of ranking, are now subject to the same tournament commitment rules, which outline a minimum tournament commitment in a season. Prior to the 2020 changes, commitment rules only applied to the "Top 10", defined by the year-end Top 10 of the previous year.
The year-end Bonus Pool has also been restructured. While the Bonus Pool used to be paid to the previous year’s year-end Top 10, provided the players met their commitment obligations the following year, the bonus will now be paid to ten singles players who finish in the Top 10 of the "Bonus Pool Standings". The Bonus Pool Standings are based on a player's singles performance in Main Draw or qualifying at 12 WTA Tour events:
- 4 Premier Mandatory Tournaments
- 4 Premier 5 Tournaments
- 2 Premier 700 Tournaments
- Best 2 other WTA Premier or WTA International result
Finally, the WTA adjusted its withdrawal rules to support player health. Under the new rule, players are now allowed two "Excused Withdrawals", which she may use for any reason without any supporting documents unless the basis for the withdrawal will keep the player from competing in the next additional event she is scheduled to play.
WTA Insider: What motivated the tour to make the changes to the commitment rule, withdrawal rules, and the bonus pool?
Simon: I've always had a position that we need to evolve. When you listen - and I believe listen is a key word - to the issues, concerns, and challenges that are brought up by the players, tournaments, agents, and our staff running operations, it was clear that the system that we had in place needed some refinement.
I think that the basis we worked on here was to look at a system whereby all players would be treated the same, versus having different sets of rules or criteria for different players. And we wanted to make sure that we aligned our player delivery system with the use of current rankings, versus using rankings that were at times dated and maybe less representative of the quality of field that we were delivering. And then we wanted to align the incentives that we provide with the actual support and results being directed to the players that do support the tour events and play well at the tour events.
So when you look at the entry system now, all players are treated the same, no player has preference over another player because of a year-end ranking and the player delivery to the events is now based upon current rankings versus something that could be six to nine months old. I think that's really positive.
When you look at a bonus pool situation, now it is about rewarding the players that played WTA events and the players that play well at the WTA events that they participate in. So it is a true reward system that is aligned with commitment and performance.
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And when we get into rules like the withdrawal rules, this is again about addressing and mitigating the damage that can come from withdrawals to both players, tournaments, and the fans through trying to put a system in place in which we can reduce the number of withdrawals we see.
We won't eliminate them, because players do need to plan their schedules in advance and things do happen. But nothing positive comes from when a player has to withdraw from an event and we're working on ways in which we can limit the number of those that happen, as well as dealing with the timing as to when and how they are announced so we can better manage when a withdrawal does occur, and not unduly punish a player due to having to withdraw based upon the rules.
So that was really the basis behind it. There's a lot of change that's coming through but I do think it is a very positive change.
WTA Insider: Players always want to have more flexibility in how they design their schedules, while tournaments want to be able to lock down their fields as early as possible so they can begin their marketing efforts and ticket sales. How were those two interests balanced?
Simon: Actually, the players, both the general player population as well as the Players’ Council, deserve a lot of kudos for this process because they were very much along the lines of how do we fix this?
Player comments such as -- We understand that we need to be credible and we need to deliver our product to the tournaments and the fans. We don't want to be withdrawing, but sometimes I have to. How can we work the system so that I have the ability to withdraw on a timely basis so it creates the least amount of damage as possible when I do have to. How do we adjust the system or change the system so that we can make better decisions and later decisions so that we're not withdrawing.
With this we're looking at how can we change the system as well. We may be trying a few different things with entry deadlines over the course of the year and testing it to see what the results are.
Again, the players deserve a lot of credit because this rule, while it does provide more flexibility when they can announce their withdrawal and the timing of it, also restricts them from the number of times they can withdraw much greater than what was previously in place and they embraced it.
We're going to monitor it and see how it works this year, but they recognize that this is an issue. It was a very collaborative effort between the players and tournaments to get these rules in place.
WTA Insider: On the change of the bonus pool no longer being tied to the previous year's Top 10 but to the season-ending Top 10, is that a reflection of the parity that we're seeing on tour?
Simon: I don't know if I would use the word parity. I think it is about using what is the current status of performance and aligning the incentives and rewards that we provide to true commitment and quality of performance over the course of the year.
In the prior system we basically based everything off of the year-end Top 10 list, the challenge with that is, as you know and follow, the rankings of these players change dramatically from November to June. So you have all of your tournaments in June through the end of the year that are promoting they have Top 10 player commitments but you may have several of those players that aren't even Top 10 players anymore, and we have new ones that have come into the Top 10 and they're not being recognized as Top 10.
So I think this system provides the fans better transparency in the actual quality of the product that they're being delivered at the time. And it allows us to also promote and celebrate the players that are playing well and have entered this circle of Top 10, Top 20 players, whereas before they might not have been recognized because everything was based upon a system that was six to nine months old and it just wasn't current.
WTA Insider: With Slam performance no longer being taken into account for the bonus pool, that seems like quite a philosophical change.
Simon: Where we came to was two-fold on this one. The old bonus pool was actually paid out a year in arrears. So a player would earn it and then they had to do a lot of different things in the subsequent year to actually earn their bonus pool. I think a bonus should be based upon your current year activities. You did all of this and as a result, there's a reward.
This is money that's being put up by the WTA Tour events and through the central fund of the WTA. This is not to take away anything from the Grand Slams. They're great partners and what they contribute to the game speaks for itself. But this is an incentive and this is about committing and playing well at WTA events.
The old system was based upon the rankings, which did include their Grand Slam results. We could be paying out bonus pool money which was meant to incentivize players to play the WTA that maybe played very few WTA events or the ones they did they didn't play well. But because they achieve greatly at the Grand Slams, their ranking got them into a bonus pool position.
With this new system, what we're trying to do is truly align the commitment and support to the WTA and rewarding a player who plays well at those WTA events. Now, we truly have an aligned system so that it is based upon the players that play their 12 WTA events and how well they did at those will determine who qualifies for the bonus pool. We want to reward the players that play the WTA tournaments and play well, not just somebody who's done well at the Grand Slams, but hasn't done well at the WTA.
The Grand Slams are supportive of this. They understand and respect what we have done.
WTA Insider: Do you see this as a move to re-center the WTA within the whole of professional women's tennis?
Simon: I don't see it necessarily as centering the product. I do understand the confusion that's out there between Grand Slams, WTA, ITF, ATP, US Open, all these acronyms are very difficult for the fan to separate. They see it as professional tennis and when is Coco going to play? When's Bianca going to play? When's Simona going to play? When's Ashleigh going to play? That's what they really care about.
What I hope comes from this is that this inspires and incentivizes our athletes to make sure that they focus on the WTA events when they're not in the Grand Slams so that they do play well. It also builds the importance of these events and the players now recognize the importance of these events because it's not only the points and prize money that they're gaining, but there's also this incentive that rewards them for this.
I think that as we begin this it will build the importance of these events, which hopefully allows the fans to get more excited and follow the tour on a regular basis, such as the Porsche Race to Shenzhen. This should help provide the entertainment and storylines that our fans can follow, and continue to build the value of our WTA events. We have that obligation to do that and it's something that I think is very important. The tour is 57 tournaments a year. That's 53 WTA and four Grand Slams. So those 53 tournaments need to mean something.