Billie Jean King Cup Interview ITF

Meet the Member: “Our Advantage All programme, which began a couple of years ago, really lays out the foundation of equality for women and what they’re trying to achieve”

November 3, 2022

On the eve of the Billie Jean King Cup Finals and the Advantage All Global Forum in Glasgow this month, iSportConnect interviewed ITF President David Haggerty about the flagship women’s event and the ITF’s progress in achieving gender equality.

Q: This will be the second Billie Jean King Cup Finals following the tournament’s rebranding from the Fed Cup. The Covid pandemic, which interfered with the launch edition, is behind us now, so in a way this is really the new beginning. How has the rebranding been going? You have had an exciting development with a new partner.

The rebranding of the Billie Jean King Cup has been a very successful journey. Billie Jean is a true icon and having a competition named after her means so much. And through that and some of her relationships, she and Ilana Kloss and Billie Jean King Enterprises have helped us to grow our portfolio of sponsors and supporters. We just recently announced that Gainbridge has come on as the title sponsor. And the exciting thing about that is it has allowed us to increase the prize money. So that from this year we’ll have equivalent prize money for the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in 2022 compared to the men in the Davis Cup Finals. And that is a tremendous development and something that we believe in. 

In addition to Gainbridge, we’ve been able to bring on Tory Burch, Microsoft and Magellan as well. We have a nice portfolio of partners that are like-minded in what we’re trying to achieve in terms of women’s equality with our Advantage All programme, as well as supporting the Billie Jean King Cup. 

Q: Equivalent prize money is a big achievement. You’re really ‘walking the walk,’ as they say, when it comes to equality.

Having like-minded partners like Gainbridge is the key. They believe in parity. They believe in equivalent prize money. And they said that was one of the hooks that made them want to come on. But one of the important things for them, they said, is that they want to want to make sure that the funding is really going to the right places. And we said, well, we do too. So it’s a great partnership. 

Q: Tennis is played in every country in the world and not all countries have the same traditions or attitudes or necessarily have gone along on the trajectory of gender equality in quite the same way. So how does the ITF navigate that and how are you able to promote your vision to your global stakeholders? 

Our Advantage All programme, which began a couple of years ago, really lays out the foundation of equality for women and what we’re trying to achieve. But it goes beyond women. It’s about diversity and inclusion. Let me just focus for a minute since we’re talking about Billie Jean King Cup and our Advantage All programme on the women’s gender balance that we’re trying to achieve. Tennis is a great sport because we’ve got 50-50 on the court, we’ve got men and women, and the big events such as the Billie Jean King Cup, Davis Cup and Grand Slams tournaments now have equal prize money. 

But where we need to do more work is with officials, with coaches, to have more women involved in those aspects, and also to have more women in administration on the boards of directors of our member national associations and affiliated regional associations. I can give you a couple of examples. I was just in Ghana two weekends ago where we had the African Regional Annual General Meeting and they have now put into their constitution a minimum requirement for women to be on their executive committee, which is a body of seven people. And that’s a tremendous step. 

In Tunisia we have a female president, Salma Guizani, who is on the board of the International Tennis Federation. She’s also a member of our Advantage All Committee. We had a great opening of our new African Tennis Centre in Sousse in Tunisia, and Ons Jabeur, the number two player in the world, the first African and the first Arab woman to really break through, came and helped us. So we’re doing things like that. It shouldn’t be lost on people that Saudi Arabia, for example, has a woman, Arij Almutabagani, as the president of the federation. When many people think of Saudi Arabia, they don’t think of females in leadership roles. 

In our Advantage All programme we have mentoring. We have a couple of hundred women that are on a leadership programme who are coaches, officials, board members and administrators. But a lot of what we’re trying to do is to make a difference at the board level. So the ITF will be introducing new gender representation quotas at our AGM this year in Glasgow to be implemented for the next election in 2027 so that we ensure a minimum gender requirement. And all the nations and regions will be doing something in their own way so that over the next four years we can build and build and build. Having women available to fill the roles is not an issue, because we have a great selection of women who are available today. 

Q: Is this a top-down process for the ITF or it up to the national associations to deal with their own grassroots and their own internal policies around gender balance?

It’s a little bit of both. The ITF believes that we have to set an example and show leadership from the top of what we’re trying to do. It’s a bit like what the IOC has done, right? The IOC has just appointed their commission members with 50% women for the first time. We’ve got more than 30 per cent of women on our committees and commissions. At the same time our Advantage All programme goes down to the nations. We have toolkits that every nation receives and we have seminars and workshops that we put on with the nations and also with the Advantage All leadership programme participants. So the idea is we simultaneously build from the ground up through the national associations, and lead from the top down from an ITF perspective to demonstrate what needs to be done and provide these programmes and supporting materials to help nations and regions so that we go on this journey together to build gender diversity. 

Q: Are there big gaps in the way different national associations prioritize men’s and women’s tennis?

The gaps are narrowing. Our World Tennis Tour professional events offer prize money from $15,000 up to $100,000 for women, and from $15,000 to $25,000 for men. Our goal is to make sure that we have as many playing opportunities for women as we do the men. That’s on the professional side, but we’re following the same principle on the junior side and on the masters’ (35 years plus) side. As part of our Advantage All programme, the KPIs that we put in place to measure ourselves and our progress include getting to parity with events. We still have more men’s events than women’s events on the professional side, but that has really narrowed this year. We’ve had tremendous growth in the number of women’s events being held. 

Q: Are there countries where women’s tennis is actually prioritized ahead of men’s game? You mentioned Tunisia. Does it depend on the success of individual woman players? 

A lot of it is driven by the success of players. Sometimes it works in reverse, where there’s a long history of men’s events and you have more men coming through, but now you begin to see more women. In South America, where we talk to the 10 nations that compose that regional association, they have put more effort into hosting more women’s events and are now almost to the point of parity. And they’re seeing the results, with some of their top women beginning to make it up the ranks. Not just the junior ranks, but the professional ranks. If you take a well-developed country like the United States, today you’ve got two of the top 10 women in the world, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula. But their men’s programme is still also very strong. They’ve got three men in the top 20. So there can be balance. 

We’ve got to put more emphasis on having more women’s events because culturally, let’s face it, the world is not the same everywhere and sometimes there aren’t as many. Trying to get more women’s events in the Arab world, for example, and more in Asia has been one of the tasks that we have taken on for the next couple of years. 

Q: Looking at the women’s rankings, it’s really striking how many different countries there are with top players. They come from all over the world.

Yes, that’s now the case. And that shows how important it was for tennis to come back on the Olympic programme. It made such an enormous difference because by getting on the Olympic programme, you open up the opportunities for the national tennis federations to work with their NOCs, their sport ministers to get funding from those resources to grow tennis. When you’re not an Olympic sport, you’re not in that same conversation. If we look back to before we returned to the Games in 1988, we had 45 or 50 countries that had top players in the top 100. Now it’s about 65 to 70 different nations that are in the rankings because of tennis growing in more nations. 

Q: Let’s conclude in the spirit of gender equality by talking about men’s tennis. The ITF has undertaken an ambitious redirection of the Davis Cup in partnership with Kosmos Tennis. What have the key developments been and what’s going to happen next? 

We’ve been very excited about the 2022 competition. We made a change and modification this year. Last year we had three cities where we played the group stages in November, then immediately moved on to the Finals in Madrid. This year we split the event, so the group stage element of the Finals was held in September in four different cities. By doing that, we were able to bring tennis to more people around the world. Broadcast figures went up and attendance rose to 105,000 people compared to 65,000 last year. So we brought the group stage to a broader population. We’ll now be going to Malaga for the Finals at the end of November, where we’ll have the top eight nations competing. Ticket sales have gone very, very well there. 

We’ve wanted to keep the balance of tradition and innovation in what we do. And with Kosmos, we’ve been able to do that. The group stages have been extremely successful this year. We had many nations expressing an interest in hosting. We are now asking nations to express interest for 2023 and are getting a tremendous response. 

Q: You’ve just done the rebranding of the Billie Jean King Cup, so one step at a time. But eventually, do you think the Billie Jean King Cup will want to follow the same sort of plan?

Absolutely. I remember that when we announced in our annual general meeting, when the council approved the Davis Cup changes, I made the commitment on behalf of the board saying the next step is Billie Jean King Cup, and we’re now on that journey. So we now have 12 teams in the Finals versus 16 for the men. Over time we want to progress. It’s about equality in the number of nations. This year 151 nations entered Davis Cup and 127 nations entered Billie Jean King Cup. There’s a difference there of 24. The good news is that we’ve grown from 96 nations in 2018 to where we are now in Billie Jean King Cup, because of the format and thanks to the funding that the ITF has provided. The goal is to get up to the same number of teams as compete in Davis Cup, and then I would envision a similar format of 16 teams somewhere down the road when we’re ready. 

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Billie Jean King Cup Interview ITF