Darrelle Eng is the marketing director (Asia-Pacific) for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Based in Singapore, she has been in this role for the past five years. In this interview, we discuss how her team promotes women’s tennis across Asia-Pacific, what it took to move a flagship event to China and the WTA’s approach to growing the popularity of women’s tennis in new markets.
The career path that led to her role at the WTA
I was very lucky because I graduated early from university in 2007 instead of 2008 when it was difficult to find a job because of the recession. My first job was at a PR agency that I found out about from an article in the newspaper. They were selected to work on the first edition of the Singapore Grand Prix. Being a sports fan, I decided to try my luck and sent my resume to the agency. They offered me a three-month internship which turned into a full-time role two weeks into the job. I stayed there for close to two years where I got to work on many sports events. I had gone into PR without really knowing what it was so while I had really enjoyed the experience, I was also keen to explore more.
For my second job, I joined an old friend who was working for a consumer electronics start-up in Singapore called X-mini that specialised in portable speakers. I was still quite young at the time so I thought it would be interesting to venture into a completely new industry. I joined their small team where I got to do in-house work for the first time in multiple areas such as brand strategy, product development and marketing, and because it was a small company, I was able to take a leadership role. During my five years there, the company’s revenue grew exponentially, and I had learned so much, but I was also ready for a new challenge.
I was looking to take a short break but came across an opportunity in a completely different industry through one of my connections. One of Singapore’s top beauty distributors, Luxasia, had a subsidiary called Escentials that brought in some of the world’s most premium brands in luxury perfume, cosmetics and skincare. While the role was still in marketing, this was a steep learning curve for me as I had to transition from traditionally more male-dominated industries – sports and consumer electronics – to the beauty industry, which is more female-oriented. At Escentials, I had to pick up new skills as I managed almost 30 brands and also had to get involved in the sales aspect. I had really great colleagues and I learned so much but I was missing the energy and excitement I felt when I was working in sports.
I had a chat with an ex-colleague from my first job who was still in sports, and she put me in touch with SRI, which is one of the leading sports recruitment agencies. At the time, they were looking to replace someone who had left the APAC Marketing Director role at the WTA. After several rounds of interviews, I was fortunate enough to get the job in time to prepare for the second edition of the WTA’s crown jewel event, the WTA Finals, in Singapore in 2015.
A tournament played annually at the end of the season for the top-ranked professional players. It was held in Singapore between 2014 and 2018 before moving to Shenzhen, China.
Looking back, I feel that I got very lucky with timing in my career. Every time I was looking at making a career switch, a great opportunity would come up, and I have always been very grateful for every one of them. I have always tried to stay open-minded and willing to push myself out of my comfort zone to move into new roles and even new industries. When I got my position with the WTA, it was a dream job for me, and I felt that in some way, my past experiences had led me to it. I’ve always been a big fan of sports and I grew up playing and watching tennis. Even though it might have seemed like a detour, my experience working in beauty actually provided me with the unique experience of promoting female empowerment, which then was very much aligned with the WTA’s core values. I am very thankful for all the lessons I learned throughout my various jobs and I hope to keep growing and improving in my career.
I have always tried to stay open-minded and willing to push myself out of my comfort zone to move into new roles and even new industries.
The role and structure of the WTA APAC marketing team
The team in Singapore was relatively small when I joined in 2015. There were five of us including the vice president (APAC), four of us on the marketing and partnerships team, and two in operations. Amongst them, two members were within the marketing team – one supported me with the day-to-day tasks in branding and communications, and the other managed our digital initiatives across our social media accounts.
In my role, I oversee the efforts across our branding, marketing, communications and digital strategies, and report to the respective marketing and communications heads of departments based in the US.
The role of the APAC team is twofold. Firstly, we have to promote the WTA brand, events and players in the APAC region throughout the year by working with our local partners such as the organisers of tournaments. Secondly, we are also tasked with building awareness for the WTA Finals which is the grand finale of the season. The WTA Finals features the best of each season so even though it is played over eight days, it is actually a year-long campaign to build up the excitement and anticipation among the fans.
As part of my role, I work with our local partners to find a balance of developing a strategy that showcases the host city, the event and the sponsors, while maintaining the global brand integrity of the WTA.
In each host city, whether it is Beijing, Seoul or Tokyo, we work closely with local partners that we rely on heavily to market, operate and commercialise our tournaments. We depend on them to provide the local expertise and knowledge of their home markets to develop the right strategies for the target audience. Each location would have its unique culture, and each tournament would have its own branding and sponsors as well. At the same time, as these tournaments are still WTA events, they also have to adhere to our tour guidelines and be respectful to our tour sponsors. As part of my role, I work with our local partners to find a balance of developing a strategy that showcases the host city, the event and the sponsors, while maintaining the global brand integrity of the WTA. A big part of my role consists of reviewing branding, messaging, marketing collaterals and press materials to make sure that the WTA brand is represented appropriately. We need to work closely to ensure that we are able to appeal to the local market, but still stay aligned with the WTA’s global brand guidelines.
In parallel, what I like to call my ‘pet project’ is the Porsche Race to Shenzhen which is how we build awareness for the WTA Finals throughout the year. It’s the culmination of the tennis season where we showcase the very best of our sport. Players have to compete consistently to earn enough points to be among the top eight, and when they get there every match is like a final because you are playing against champions. It is an exclusive and prestigious group for the players to be in not just for the honour, but also for one of the biggest prize purses in tennis.
The Porsche Race to Shenzhen is a key campaign for the WTA as it runs throughout the season to develop the narrative towards the WTA Finals. My role is to fan the flames as the race travels around the world and to build the momentum along each and every tournament. We have to work all season as the points accumulate and the race heats up towards the grand finale.
Moving the WTA Finals to Shenzhen, China
In 2019, after five years in Singapore, the WTA Finals moved to Shenzhen, China.
When the WTA Finals’ five-year tenure in Singapore was up, the bids from potential new host cities started to come in. Shenzhen had put up a really strong bid which most importantly showed their enthusiasm to promote and support women’s tennis. Their offer included a 10-year commitment to host the tournament (Singapore hosted the event for five years and other cities before that hosted it for three years). They also presented a significant increase in the prize money for the players, as well as the building of a new facility to become the home of the WTA Finals. At the end of the day, their dedication and passion showed and we were excited to have the WTA Finals for the first time in China.
Prize money at the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen
The total prize money is of $14m – more than any other tennis event. The winner can potentially earn up to $4.7m.
It was also a question of timing. Asia-Pacific has always been an important region for the WTA with Singapore being the first city in the region to hold the WTA Finals between 2014 and 2018. With Shenzhen willing to commit for ten years, it was an opportunity for us to really sink our teeth to not just build the tournament over the years, but also to further promote tennis in a market that is so significant to the WTA.
The most significant difference now is that there is a lot more focus on developing initiatives that resonate with our Chinese fans, and it has been an interesting experience to learn about the idiosyncrasies of this market – from the channels of communication they use to the style of messaging that engages them.
With the WTA Finals moving to China, it required some adaptation from a marketing perspective. I have to continue to amplify the local promotional efforts while making sure that every tournament during the season feeds into the Porsche Race to Shenzhen. The most significant difference now is that there is a lot more focus on developing initiatives that resonate with our Chinese fans, and it has been an interesting experience to learn about the idiosyncrasies of this market – from the channels of communication they use to the style of messaging that engages them. I depend a lot on my teammates in China who support me on developing appropriate messaging as well as managing the Chinese social media platforms which they are very familiar with.
One of the interesting things I have come to learn is that in China, people hardly visit websites and find their information mostly through apps like WeChat and Weibo. This therefore affects our digital strategy as we then direct more attention to these platforms and focus on building relationships with their respective Sports departments in order to get their support to promote our content to the right audience. As part of growing awareness in China, our digital team also supports some of the players by managing their Chinese social media accounts as well.
In terms of messaging, we adapt our communications so that it relates to Chinese fans. I find it very endearing because in China, the fans give really cute nicknames to their favourite players based on the phonetic translation of their names in Mandarin. For example, Garbiñe Muguruza is often called ‘Mugu’ for short and phonetically in Mandarin, it sounds like the name for mushroom. Therefore, when Garbiñe comes to China to play tournaments, she receives mushroom plush toys from her fans. Almost every player has a nickname with a special story by their fans behind it, and it’s the only place I have seen this so far. At first, I was confused because I couldn’t recognise any of the players’ names when I was listening to the Chinese fans so I didn’t know who they were referring to. However, my team has now put together a whole list of these nicknames and the corresponding players so that we are aware of how the fans address them and we do the same accordingly when engaging with fans on social media. Of course, we still stick to their actual names in official communications like press releases and match scores.
Growing the popularity of women’s tennis in China
Our work in China started way before the WTA Finals moved to Shenzhen in 2019. It actually started almost more than a decade ago. We realised that there was a lot of potential in China so we opened an office in Beijing and have been steadily expanding our footprint since. We saw a population that had a huge pool to tap on and a strong work ethic which could produce a lot of talent. They have been so successful in so many sports like gymnastics, volleyball and table tennis, so we wanted to grow the awareness of tennis being a professional career path as well.
At the WTA, we work closely with the players because we realise the impact that role models can have on developing interest in a sport in future generations.
At the time Li Na was emerging as one of the best and most successful tennis players to ever come out of Asia, and in particular, China. There is nothing more effective to develop a sport in a country than having a national hero. The same thing is happening now with Naomi Osaka in Japan and more broadly in the region. Young girls and their parents see an Asian name that they can connect with and look up to, and this inspires them to pick up a racquet, then to consider a career in tennis. At the WTA, we work closely with the players because we realise the impact that role models can have on developing interest in a sport in future generations.
Li Na’s career and influence
Li Na is a Chinese tennis player who achieved a career-high WTA ranking of world No.2 in February 2014. She has won nine singles titles on the tour including two Grand Slams titles at the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open. In 2019, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Despite retiring from professional tennis in 2014, she remains very influential.
But having a national hero is not enough. You also have to lay a strong foundation and a pathway for players to pursue a career in tennis to emulate the success of their heroes. You have to set up a whole ecosystem and over the years, we have worked closely with national associations throughout the region in order to achieve that.
Through watching the best in the sport play in real life, aspiring players will hopefully get inspired to believe that they can also make it too and this emotional connection is so valuable and impactful.
In China, one of the first steps we took was to bring more tournaments there. We started with I think two tournaments and now we have 10, which is a significant proportion of our tour which consists of 53 events and four Grand Slams throughout the season We have a very strong China swing that takes place right after the US Open with tournaments in Wuhan, Guangzhou, Beijing, Zhengzhou, Nanchang, Hong Kong, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and Tianjin. Having these tournaments in their own backyard makes the sport seem more accessible to Chinese tennis fans as they are able to witness the top players in action, and not just on TV. Through watching the best in the sport play in real life, aspiring players will hopefully get inspired to believe that they can also make it too and this emotional connection is so valuable and impactful.
List of tournaments in China
Shenzhen Open, Jiangxi Open, Zhengzhou Open, Guangzhou Open, Wuhan Open, China Open, Tianjin Open, Hong Kong Open, WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, WTA Finals Shenzhen
Alongside bringing more tournaments to the fans, it was also essential to set up programmes that would encourage potential talents to pursue a career in tennis. Those who have been inspired by their local heroes to pick up a racquet will then need to have a pipeline in place for them to continue to pursue their passion. In support of this, the WTA works with our tournaments to organize workshops and clinics with legends of the sport, current players and their coaches, to speak with junior players to share their experience, advice and tips on what it takes to turn pro. Within the WTA, we also have mentorship programmes and educational resources that up-and-coming young talent can turn to if they are interested in a career as a professional player on tour.
At the moment, we have seen some great results coming out of our efforts, and today, we have five Chinese players in the top 100, and some very promising young talent that is emerging as well, so it is a very exciting time for us in China!
WTA ranking of Chinese players (as of October 2020)
Top 50 – Wang Qiang, Zheng Saisai, Zhang Shuai
Top 100 – Zhu Lin, Wang Yafan
Top 200 – Peng Shuai, Wang Xiyu, Wang Xinyu, You Xiaodi, Fang Yingxun, Lu Jia-Jing, Han Xinyun
Top 20 – Xu Yifan, Duan Yingying
Top 50 – Zhang Shuai, Zheng Saisai, Yang Zhaoxuan
Top 100 – Peng Shuai, Han Xinyun, Wang Yafan
What’s next in the region for the WTA
Starting with China, it takes time to build what we’re trying to achieve. Our goal in China for the foreseeable future is to have more players on the tour and to have more fans on board.
We’ve laid the groundwork by developing a strong relationship with the Chinese Tennis Association, by hosting a number of tournaments in China and by having a good crop of players coming on the tour. All this will only help to encourage more young girls to pick up tennis because they know that there is an opportunity to pursue a livelihood in the sport. We’re starting to see the fruits of our labour and look forward to see more professional women tennis players coming out of China.
We also want the popularity of tennis to grow with more people watching and enjoying the sport, so that women’s tennis can hopefully be at the forefront of sports fans in China.
Our goal in China for the foreseeable future is to have more players on the tour and to have more fans on board.
Given its population, China was an obvious market for us to start expanding our footprint in Asia-Pacific. There’s a certain recipe that worked for us there that can be applied to other countries in the region. It consists of having a local hero who can inspire the young ones to pick tennis, bringing more tournaments in the country to provide the local population with an opportunity to develop a personal connection with the sport, and finally, providing a developmental pathway to those who would like to pursue a professional tennis career. To achieve this, the support and investment of the country and its tennis association is a vital and significant component.
As for the rest of the region, we are fortunate to have a strong following in several markets that we continue to build on. For example, with the success of Naomi Osaka, and several other Japanese players who are doing well on tour such as Nao Hibino, Kurumi Nara, as well as legends like Ai Sugiyama and Kimiko Date, Japan is a key market where women’s tennis is among the most popular sports. Together with the support of Japanese skincare brand Shiseido as the title sponsor for the WTA Finals, we are hoping to see the support for our sport grow from strength to strength.
As for India, it is and has always been an important market for us. Like China, it is a huge market with a lot of potential for growth and we’ve always tried to encourage the development of talents there. Sania Mirza has been very successful on the tour and serves as an outstanding role model for young players across the country. She has also opened a tennis academy in Hyderabad, and with her strong influence in India, we have also started to see a good crop of young players who have been inspired by her success and who are now doing well on the junior circuit.
We’re always open to new opportunities when cities/countries in the region approach us with an interest in hosting an event. China, who has heavily invested in sports events, can serve as an example of how hosting tennis tournaments lead to more professional players coming out of the country. We hope that it will motivate other countries to invest more in creating the ecosystem of having events, building the infrastructure for players and fans, and in developing local talent, so that women’s tennis will continue to flourish around the world.