When U.S. tennis pro Sloane Stephens defeated fellow countrywoman Madison Keys this past September to win the US Open tennis Grand Slam tournament, it concluded a remarkable three-week run that saw American women sweep the semifinal and finals rounds for the first ti.me in 32 years.
It also completed a remarkable run for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which served up a quality, exciting product featuring the best of a new, young class of tennis professionals under the oversight of USTA chair, president and CEO Katrina Adams.
Adams, a former professional tennis player who competed on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour for 12 years in the late 1980s through the 1990s, took over the USTA in 2015, becoming the first African-American woman and, at age 49, the youngest person to head the New York-based organization.
Adams oversaw the strong performance of American women at the US Open — without Serena Williams, arguably the sport’s top draw, who recently gave birth to her first child — which helped ESPN set ratings records for its tournament coverage.
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The Stephens-Keys final drew 968,000 viewers, up 8% from the tournament’s performance in 2016. “Our collective success at the US Open is a direct result of the tremendous collaborative relationship we have with Katrina and the USTA team,” said Burke Magnus, executive vice president of programming and scheduling for ESPN. “We are privileged to partner with the USTA extensively, highlighted by our exclusive presentation of the US Open each year.”
More importantly for the sport, the USTA through the US Open provided exposure for a new generation of U.S. tennis players as well as momentum going into 2018 as the tournament celebrates its 50th anniversary.
As for Adams, she isn’t just a star in the boardroom: Some sports fans will recognize her as a co-host of CBS Sports Network’s weekly talk show We Need to Talk, the first all-female sports series.
The USTA and Adams’s success in both tennis and television has earned the organization and its signature tournament honors as the Multichannel News Sports Brand of the Year. Adams recently spoke to MCN programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the USTA’s success and her plans to take the association to the next level as it celebrates the US Open’s 50th anniversary in 2018.
MCN: Could you have imagined a more successful US Open campaign than what transpired this year?
Katrina Adams: I think you could say all the chips fell in a row for us on this one. You know it was the 20th anniversary of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, and we set out this year to highlight that milestone as we approach our 50th anniversary next year the US Open. But of course, seeing the way that all the draws fell into place and how the women in particular had a strong a very strong and exciting finish, we couldn’t have asked for a better ending.
MCN: Going into the US Open, did you have any inkling that the tournament would end up with four American women in the semifinals?
KA: Well, you can never predict these things. A lot of it has to do with how to draw falls and how the big players fall out early — who takes out whom — so it’s all about matchups more than anything, because on any given day anyone can win. But, as I said I think the chips kind of fell in place for all of the competitors that came through — five of the eight quarterfinals were American and then obviously to all four (semifinals) to two (finals) to one as champion. We were very proud of their performances and we’re very happy for them. It shines a bright light on American tennis, which is something that is greatly needed. Any time you can you can showcase your best native players at their grand slam is very inspirational. With us kicking off our Net Generation brand at the US Open, which is our youth-based brand, and having so many kids around as well throughout the week, it was inspirational for them to see the success of the players.
MCN: Was the success of U.S. women players in the final rounds of the tournament the biggest reason for increased year-to-year ratings for the tournament on ESPN?
KA: I think [ESPN] has done a great job year after year. There were a lot of innovations that were in play as well to lure people in to watch more U.S. Open tennis. But it’s evident that when you have an American in a final more people will tune in. I think as the storyline unfolded in the last three or four days of the tournament, more and more people were tuning in because they wanted to see if we could get four Americans in the semifinals of the US Open for the first time since 1985, and then of course to see how it’s going to shape up with who would be in the finals, and then the ultimate winner. I’m sure a lot of that contributed to the growth of their numbers for viewership, and you know we’d love to duplicate that year in and year out.
MCN: Is the sport managing to reach its audience in a very crowded, multiplatform media marketplace, and what is the USTA doing to aid those efforts?
KA: I think the sport is reaching its audience. Not only do you have it on television but you’re also able to watch these matches from the palm of your hand or your tablet anywhere you are — if you are a tennis fan, you can access tennis. I think that’s the exciting part of our sport right now as is it continues to grow. Tennis Channel is on 24/7 so you can always access that; the [WTA] has been on beIN Sports, so it’s another network that is showing professional tennis. Then, of course, ESPN is doing what they’re doing with all the grand slams.
On the digital side, all the courts at the US Open were live-streamed so you could pick the court that you wanted to watch; you didn’t have to watch just what was on the television. We’ll continue to grow and learn from that and add even more TV quirks next year.
MCN: How did your time as a pro tennis player prepare you to lead the USTA?
KA: I’m a person that has come up through every level of the sport so I understand it. I get it, and I can relate to people and know their challenges as much as their successes. So I think I have brought a sense of comfort to many of our tennis players in the U.S. because of that background, and we’re doing everything that we can possible to make sure that we are providing the best product that we can for everyone at every level. So, I would have to say that my experience has definitely allowed me to be able to communicate better with people and understand them, not just looking from a business perspective but from a human-relations perspective.
MCN: Along with everything you do behind the scenes at the USTA you also have a high-profile presence as a co-host of We Need to Talk. How important is it for you to have an on-air presence?
KA: While I’ve actually been on the show for the last three years, I’ve been an analyst for Tennis Channel and other networks since 2003. For me, it’s a change of pace — it’s important to continue to have that presence because who knows where I’m going to go in the future. I love sports and I love talking about sports. I love learning about inspirational leaders through the stories that we cover. For me it’s fun.
MCN: Overall, how would you characterize the state of professional tennis today?
KA: I think tennis is becoming “hot again” because of storylines like we had at the US Open. It’s hot because Serena Williams had a baby and is anticipating coming back in January, so all eyes will be on tennis to see if she comes back and how she will do. That’s a whole new epic story for 2018 as she chases Margaret Court’s record for Grand Slams. So I’m really excited about where we’re going, and I’m excited about our youth here in America. Yes, the marketplace is saturated with so many other sports, but we are we’re hopeful that we are doing the right things to engage new youth into the sport and retaining those youth that we already have. We continue to be innovative and come up with some creative ideas for them as we increasingly move on the digital space.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.