The next generation of canadian leaders

Growing the Game - Stacey Allaster

Growing the Game - Stacey Allaster

March 8, 2021

By: Christopher Séguin

Thursday, January 20, 2021.

At first glance, you might think this was a day without much significance. Probably just another cold winter weekday during Canada’s darkest month of the year.

But for Stacey Allaster, a native of Welland, Ont., who now resides in Florida, that day is one she won’t soon forget. It was on that fateful Thursday that Allaster, the US Open’s first-ever female tournament director, felt compelled to pause our interview, as the clock ticked past noon, to share with me the big news.

“At this time, it’s 12:03, so we can now officially say Vice President Kamala Harris,” declared Allaster. “[Harris] said ‘I may be the first female vice president, but I won’t be the last’, and I will not be the last female US Open tournament director either.”

It was ironic that we were speaking on the same day that the United States was inaugurating its first-ever female vice president, because just like Kamala Harris, Allaster is undeniably a trailblazer. Better yet, she is a homegrown, Niagara-bred, 1989 Canada Games alumna who has gone on to shatter many glass ceilings over her career.

And surprisingly, even for Allaster, her journey to the largest tennis stage all started in the Rose City with a little help from the sport’s national governing body here in Canada.

Stacey Allaster (centre) poses for a photo with Ana Ivanovic (left) and Serena Williams (right) prior the first round robin match of the 2014 WTA Finals in Singapore. Allaster played an integral role in the creation of a five-year partnership with Singapore to host the WTA Finals from 2014-2018 (Credit: United States Tennis Association)

“I was one of those very lucky kids,” recalled Allaster, as she explained how she was introduced to the sport of tennis. “It was a program from Tennis Canada, and they were looking to bring more youth to the sport. They had scholarships for one boy and one girl in the eighth grade of elementary schools. So, I was selected by the St. Kevin’s teachers and received a membership at the community tennis club, six weeks of lessons, and a Fisher racket.

“Without question, it was that Tennis Canada program that changed my life forever and set me on this professional journey.”

That program was life-altering for Allaster because it’s what brought her to the Welland Tennis Club, a place that would become much like a second home to the aspiring tennis professional. It was there, under the tutelage and mentorship of Dutchy Doerr, the club’s head professional from 1969 to 1992, that Allaster discovered her passion.  

“It is the foundation,” declared Allaster about the Welland Tennis Club, which she joined at the age of 12 during the 1970s, and where she spent every summer over the next decade. “That’s where I learned the game, fell in love with the game, and I obviously had a great mentor and coach with Dutchy.”

It was also here, at the club affectionately known as ‘The House That Dutchy Built’, where Allaster netted her first job when she was 13, cleaning the red clay courts for a quarter or a pop, before later becoming a teaching pro and club manager, as a way to help pay for her own tennis lessons, equipment, and university expenses.

Allaster (back row, second from the left) poses with her Notre Dame College School soccer team in this yearbook photo from 1979. Her upbringing in Welland and Niagara was reportedly crammed full of tennis, soccer practices or hours spent skiing on a small hill in Niagara

“Dutchy would get me to do some of his work, and I was very happy to have the opportunities. Being that young, to be able to clean the red [clay courts], drag them, and sweep them. I always wanted to roll the courts, but he never let me get on the tractor and roll them. And in thinking back I thought I hit it big time when he let me water the courts,” laughed the 57-year-old.

“Then, when I was 16, I became a certified Tennis Canada instructor and I started teaching lessons. I still have my first check, which was 15 dollars, at five dollars an hour.

“Teaching tennis was my way to generate some income so I could pay for my own lessons, my racquets and shoes. And I learned how to be a businesswoman. Instead of flipping burgers, I was developing the junior programs, creating the marketing and selling products and services. Ultimately, these foundational years laid the foundation for my entrepreneurial and commercial success.”

That relentless work ethic, a trait that has typified Allaster throughout her career, wasn’t something she discovered on her own. Rather, having been raised by two supportive parents and living with her mother who sacrificed what she could to help her daughter pursue her dreams, she was influenced by both, and by the efforts of two hard-working grandmothers. Ultimately, Allaster was inspired by these heroes of hers to outwork the competition both on and off the court.

“My Mom provided all that she could,” recalled the Welland-native. “Seeing these hard-working role models who believed that I could achieve anything that I wanted. I watched them work hard and make sacrifices for their family. I was driven by that.”

Allaster (bottom row, first from the right) poses for a team photo with the rest of the Western University Mustangs 1985-86 women’s tennis team, which won Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Association team championship (Credit: John P. Metras Sports Museum)

With her mother’s support, Allaster eventually traveled a short distance to Western University in London, Ont., where she not only found success in the classroom, but also on the court. Playing in the number four position on the Mustangs’ tennis team, Allaster remained undefeated in singles action over the entirety of her collegiate career from 1982-86, and she also won an Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Association doubles championship with partner Vicky Bassett, the sister of Carling Bassett.

Yet, despite the triumph she experienced playing the game she loved at Western, Allaster always seemed destined to find a role for herself in tennis off the court — and thankfully for this ambitious Canadian, her second home back in Niagara helped her find a way to make that a reality.

Through the Welland Tennis Club, a then 20-year-old Allaster got an opportunity to meet IMG Canada president Elliott Kerr, and with Doerr’s support, she later earned a summer job working as a runner for IMG Canada at the Canadian Open (now the National Bank Open). Then, a few years down the road, with her university diploma now in hand, her long-time coach helped her land another gig. This time working at the Prince Hotel for Harry Fritz, a former Canadian-American tennis pro whose nephew is Taylor Fritz, the second-highest ranked American currently playing on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour.

Allaster receives an honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Western in June of 2014. The Welland-native originally earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Physical Education from Western, before later completing her MBA at Western’s Ivey Business School (Credit: Ivey Business School)

“I was teaching tennis for Harry, and then Harry got me into the Richmond Hill Country Club, which is a very large club, and I was a tennis director there,” explained Allaster. “At the same time, Barry Sharp, who was the head of the business program at Niagara College, provided me an opportunity to teach in the adult business program, where I was teaching business law.

“So I would go back and forth between Toronto and Welland, and teach. And once I got to the Richmond Hill Country Club, I was at the Canadian nationals as a private coach, and that’s where Bob Wood of the Ontario Tennis Association (OTA) spotted me, and said ‘we have a job for you’.”

With a chance to work a full-time job, that would also negate her constant travelling, Allaster took Wood up on his offer — officially making her entry into the administrative and governing body environment of tennis. And although she started in membership sales at the OTA, it wasn’t long before she was promoted to director of player development, the very role that would bring her to the 1989 Canada Summer Games in Saskatoon, Sask.

“I can remember the moment of the Opening Ceremony, just being blown away. That was a moment where I thought to myself that ‘wow, this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to an Olympic Games experience’,” recounted Allaster, who at 26 years of age served as the manager for Ontario’s tennis team at Saskatoon 1989. “It was an incredible experience, and it will forever be one of my memorable sporting experiences in my professional career.”

Allaster (centre) poses for a photo with the rest of the 2015 Welland Sports Wall of Fame class at the Seaway Mall, which included Wes Pierce (first from the left), Sandy Billyard (second from the left), Ken Breitenbach (second from the right) and Michele O'Keefe (first from the right) (Credit: Lev8 Low Level Aerial Photography and Digital Media)

Allaster’s Ontario squad at the 1989 Canada Games was also littered with plenty of talent. In the years that followed their participation in Saskatchewan, all nine of her players wound up playing tennis in the NCAA. Plus, a handful like Monica Mraz, Mandy Wilson and Roy Moscattini, earned All-American honours during their respective collegiate careers. At the same time, the competition in Saskatoon also featured the likes of Jennifer Bishop, Tennis Canada’s future Board Chair, who was making her second Canada Games appearance as a player for her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“That would have been their Olympic moment, because that is what it feels like,” said Allaster of her Ontario players who competed at the Games in 1989. “I’ve now been to several Olympic Games, and the Canada Games are everything like the Olympic Games but in our own country.”

For that reason and more, Allaster is beyond thrilled for the 28th edition of the Canada Games, which are set to be held in her hometown next summer. “I’m incredibly excited for the Niagara Region to host Canada’s best in 2022,” declared the Welland-native. “I think, after the pandemic, this will provide a lot of inspiration to people. They will not only enjoy watching the Games, or volunteering for the Games, but they will be awe of the Canadian athlete’s talent that’s before them.

“It will also inspire youth, and it will leave new and improved world-class facilities behind for the next generation. And again, you just can’t think of sport as just athletes, it’s a very large industry in Canada. There’ll be another Stacey Allaster that comes out of [the] Canada Games. We have so many top Canadian administrators that have come out of the Niagara Region. Everyone says to me ‘what’s in the water in the Niagara Region?’”

Allaster is inducted into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame in 2011 alongside former World No. 1 and eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi. Allaster, who worked at Tennis Canada for nearly 15 years, served as the tournament director of Toronto’s Canadian Open event (now the National Bank Open) from 2001-2005 (Credit: Tennis Canada/National Bank Open)

Allaster isn’t wrong about the latter. The list of Niagara-bred sport administrators seems endless, and features the likes of Paul Beeston (Toronto Blue Jays), Sandra Gage (Canada Soccer), Kelly Murumets (Tennis Canada/ParticipACTION), Peter Montopoli (Canada Soccer), and Michele O’Keefe (Canada Basketball). And just like this outfit of sport professionals, Allaster has made sure to leave her mark north of the border in the sport that she loves.

Specifically, after being turned down three times for positions at Tennis Canada, she finally got her foot in the door in 1991 as a special projects coordinator, and unfortunately, it was around that time that she was confronted by the challenges of working in the male-dominated sports industry.

“When I was at Tennis Canada, I can remember sitting in those offices at York University. I never thought of myself as a feminist, because I was naive,” explained the 57-year-old Allaster, who worked at Tennis Canada for nearly 15 years. “I thought I was just going to work really hard, I am going to get exceptional results, and it’s going to happen. Well, I hit that ceiling crashing at about age 32, and I started to understand the work for 100 years plus that women have been working to earn their right in society.”

Allaster didn’t quit though. Working with the same ferocity that has come to define her, she kept pushing despite the challenges she faced and the results showed. She soon began working as Tennis Canada’s vice president of corporate sales and marketing, before later being named tournament director of Toronto’s Canadian Open event (now the National Bank Open) in 2001 — which made her the only female tournament director of a Masters series event on the ATP Tour at that time.

Between 1995 and 2005, Allaster was able to double sponsorship at Tennis Canada, including replacing tobacco sponsorship by securing Rogers Communications as the title sponsor. She also helped revenues increase by more than 300 percent during her tenure as tournament director, saw attendance in Toronto grow in excess of 50 percent, setting world records for a single-week tournament, and she was a member of the team that helped build Toronto’s world-class Aviva Centre in 2004, which still stands to this day.

Allaster (right) poses for a photo with Bianca Andreescu (left) and her coach Sylvain Bruneau (centre) following Andreescu’s historic win at the 2019 US Open. Andreescu, who defeated Serena Williams in the final, became the first Canadian to ever win a Grand Slam singles title by claiming the US Open crown (Credit: United States Tennis Association)

There’s no doubt that when she left Tennis Canada in 2005, she left our nation’s governing body for tennis in a much better position financially, which has allowed the organization to grow the sport and help develop some of the most celebrated Canadian tennis players that we as fans get to enjoy today.

“It was always the dream that we would have Grand Slam champions,” said Allaster, who watched in 2019 as Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a singles Grand Slam title by taking home the US Open crown. “That’s now where Tennis Canada is at, with the depth and the aspirations that Bianca, Denis [Shapovalov], and Felix [Auger-Aliassime], and Vasek [Pospisil], and the host of the juniors coming up, there are so many talented Canadian players. And, ultimately, my passion is for the sport to grow and without question the current stars are inspiring Canadians to watch and play the sport. It’s no longer just ‘hockey, hockey, hockey’ with more Canadians picking up a racquet.”

Following her decade and a half working in those offices near York University, Allaster was handpicked by Larry Scott to join the Women Tennis Association (WTA) as their president in 2006. Within three short years, she would become just the second woman to serve as the organization’s Chairman and CEO, and in true Allaster fashion, the accomplishments of her team were staggering.

She played an integral role in securing equal prize money at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, oversaw the global growth of the women’s game to 54 events in 33 countries, secured a record number of new sponsors, and helped grow women’s tennis in the Asia-Pacific region — which was highlighted by a five-year partnership with Singapore to stage the WTA Finals from 2014-2018, the largest deal ever completed in the history of the WTA at that time.

Working as Chairman and CEO of the WTA, Stacey Allaster (centre) poses for a photo at the Gardens by the Bay in advance of the 2014 WTA Finals at Singapore Sports Hub in Singapore. Among the eight players at this event was Canadian Eugenie Bouchard (second from the right), who competed at the PEI 2009 Canada Summer Games (Credit: Tennis Leader)

“I was able to leave the organization in a stronger financial footing and optimize future growth of the number one professional sport for women,” declared Allaster, who was the second-longest serving Chairman and CEO in WTA history, a role she held from 2009 to 2015. “I was able to do a billion and a half in contracted deals from media, sponsorship and the rights of the WTA Finals, which at the time was very significant for a women’s sport. And it has provided the next management team to build on a strong foundation.

“To be on the team, on the one-yard line, [that was] able to secure equal prize money with Roland Garros and Wimbledon is definitely memorable. And prize money, overall in the WTA, increased a 100 percent. I’m very proud of that and the financial growth that we were able to achieve for the greatest female athletes in the world.”

The Western University grad would eventually step down from her position with the WTA in October 2015 to take a much deserved break away from the game. Traveling about 160 days a year while working for the women’s tour had taken its toll. However, the time she spent away from tennis was a blessing in disguise, as it gave Allaster an opportunity to spend more time with her family at their home in St.Petersburg, Florida. She and her husband John even vacationed in India and renewed their wedding vows.

It wouldn’t be long before Allaster was back in tennis though. Within six months of her departure from the WTA, Allaster joined the United States Tennis Association (USTA) as their new chief executive of professional tennis. A position she continues to hold along with being selected as the US Open’s tournament director in June of last year — making her the first woman to serve in that role in the tournament's 140-year history.

Allaster smiles for the cameras at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in June 2020 after being officially announced as the first female tournament director in the US Open’s 140-year history (Credit: United States Tennis Association)

“On June 17th, when I heard it for the first time, being introduced as the tournament director, at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, on Arthur Ashe Stadium, I was in awe, and I still sometimes to this day sort of pinch myself,” recalled Allaster, who always had in her OTA office, and similarly at Tennis Canada, a 1988 US Open poster hanging on her wall.

“This little kid from Welland, Ontario with limited tennis talent and no connections to the Canadian sporting establishment, went on to lead at Tennis Canada, went on to be the chairman and CEO of the number one professional sport for women, and then went on to oversee professional tennis for the largest national sport governing body in the world, including being the first woman [tournament director] of the US Open.

“If we all wrote that you’d say ‘yeah, yeah, sure, that’s crazy, that’s not happening’. It has happened!”

Better yet, if that wasn’t surreal enough for the Canadian, the announcement was made in a tennis centre that bears the name of Billie Jean King, who’s widely regarded as one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time and a pioneer for gender equality. “It’s such a privilege to stand on Billie Jean’s shoulders,” declared Allaster, who has long looked up to the former World No. 1. “The work that she has done for our sport, for women in sport has really paved the way to create opportunities for young Stacey Allasters, and for [me] to have the opportunities that I have had on the professional side of the business.

“She’s an incredible role model. I’m privileged to say that she is a friend, and when you need a little BJK inspiration, she’s just a text away, and you can’t imagine how powerful she is with her words, her advice and support, and being so sincere and genuine.”

Allaster (middle) celebrates the 40th anniversaries of the WTA and equal prize money at the US Open with Billie Jean King (left) and Victoria Azarenka (right) at the Empire State Building in New York City in 2013 (Credit: Billie Jean King)

That BJK inspiration might have been something that Allaster required during last year’s US Open, given the circumstances she faced. Having been tasked with overseeing the tournament for her first time during one of tennis’ most challenging seasons to date, the Canadian and the entire USTA team rose to the occasion. With no fans in the stands throughout the duration of the tournament, as a result of the pandemic, the USTA administered over 14,273 COVID-19 tests, with only six coming back positive (0.04% positivity). In their New York bubble, they also safely hosted 90 of the top 100 tennis players on the men’s side, and 81 on the women’s side, while putting over 4,000 people to work for this event — which stimulated the American tennis industry.

“We were the first international event of any sport to be staged since the global shutdown of events due to the pandemic. It was just uncharted territory,” said Allaster of her experience running the 2020 Western & Southern Open and US Open, which took place from August 20 to September 13. “It was an emotional rollercoaster every day. There was no playbook. Every day, you were given new challenges.

“And for me, personally, the heaviness was that there was the potential that someone might get really sick and die. Everyday I would wake up at six to turn on my phone, and that’s when we would find out if there was a positive test or not. And so, I didn’t sleep a lot, and I didn’t breathe till the last ball was hit in the finals, because on any given day we didn’t know if we would have to shut down the tournament(s).”

Although she might have been challenged like never before, Allaster continued to showcase why she is one of world’s top sports and entertainment leaders. In an industry that still has very few females in leadership positions, the Canada Games alumna remains an inspiration for many women who have ambitions of becoming leaders within this wide world of sport. But, in order to get there, she believes organizations need to be more deliberate and transparent about how they bring about more equal representation to those top-level jobs.

Allaster (right) and 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert (left) pose for photographers at the WTA booth during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California in March 2014 (Credit: WTA)

“You have to be intentional,” said Allaster. “You have to define your course and set measurable goals with accountability. We have to stop talking about equality, diversity and inclusion, and we actually have to do it, and we need to be transparent about our starting point and what we want to achieve. It’s time to stop the talk and let our actions confirm our commitment.

“Along with inspirational female role models and Dutchy, I also had three unbelievable male mentors and sponsors who believed in me. Jim Fleck, Bob Moffatt and Derek Strang. All within Tennis Canada,  they took a chance on me and provided the opportunities for me to garner the experiences you need to rise to the C-suite. Over ninety percent of men lead organizations and to develop more female leaders we need men to create the opportunities and invest in women. And collectively, we all need to work on our cultural biases, albeit unconscious bias, that all boys and all girls of all races and gender orientation are talented, competent and should be treated equally.

“We have a long way to go in sport, and I certainly am very passionate about supporting and inspiring the next generation of female leaders and the overall business of women’s sports. Everything I have in my professional life has come from the sport of tennis, and again, when you look at [it], this is someone from a small town, in a small country, who isn’t a tennis talent, playing on the world stage.

“Anything is possible.”

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