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Tennis : Having Already Come a Long Way, Women Decide to Change Sponsor

March 05, 1989|Thomas Bonk

Women's professional tennis will enter the next decade with a new sponsor . . . sort of. There will be a change from Virginia Slims to General Foods--or from cigarettes to cereal. Although both are Philip Morris companies, 1990 will be the first year since 1970 that Virginia Slims has not sponsored the women's tour.

Along the way, General Foods' five-year, $28-million contract with the Women's International Professional Tennis Council (WIPTC) to serve as the worldwide sponsor of the women's game may have elevated politics to a new level in the most political of pro sports.

General Foods won the right to sponsor women's tennis over Procter & Gamble, which withdrew its four-year, $31-million bid from consideration when it sensed a lack of support from the players.

As soon as Merrett Stierheim became the chief executive officer of the Women's International Tennis Assn. (WITA) in 1985, he began pressing for a change in sponsors, partly because of the image drawn between cigarettes and women athletes. For years, there had been a growing uneasiness that women's tennis was sponsored by a product that is believed to be a cause of lung cancer. However, there was also a feeling of loyalty to Philip Morris and this was especially keen in the veteran players.

"When we first started out, Virginia Slims was the only people that would help us out," said Martina Navratilova of the WITA executive board. "They really put women's tennis on the map. But now, it's time to diversify."

As a result of the agreement, General Foods, will become the overall series sponsor, and Virginia Slims will keep its season-ending Virginia Slims Championships, the bonus pool and title sponsorship of an undetermined number of events.

Ellen Merlo, vice president of marketing services at Philip Morris, said that Virginia Slims will announce, just before Wimbledon, details and format of its named events in 1990. Merlo said she is confident that the female players welcomed the continued involvement of Philip Morris.

As president of the WITA, Chris Evert said she was part of discussions with Philip Morris as long as two years ago when the corporation was told that the women's players did not want a cigarette company as an umbrella sponsor.

"The general feeling is to try to gradually get away from the cigarette sponsorship, to put it bluntly," she said. "There has been a lot of negative press about athletes being associated (with cigarettes). But quite honestly, they're the only ones that really have been able to put up a lot of money for these sports. It's like, 'Hey, where are the other sponsors knocking on the door?' " she said.

WITA Vice President Pam Shriver said the public may notice the change in sponsorship and it will "take a little bit of the controversial sting off the cigarette focus."

She said there are many who believe that women's tennis should not have any involvement with a tobacco product, but she does not agree.

"I am not a smoking advocate in any way, but I am an advocate of people's Constitutional rights to advertise and to promote a product that's a legal product," she said. "It's not like there's a lack of information about it. People make decisions on whether or not they're going to do things that aren't necessarily good for the body.

"You could do a bunch of things," Shriver said. "You could over-eat yourself to death. That's the way I'm going to go."

Spurned suitor Procter & Gamble got in the last word anyway. The company recently withdrew its $500,000 sponsorship of the WITA, saying the program didn't mean much without the overall sponsorship of the women's tour.

Evert is top seeded for the $250,000 Virginia Slims of Indian Wells begining Monday at Hyatt Grand Champions. She has a first-round bye, then plays the winner of Hana Mandlikova's match against a qualifier.

Evert will be playing her first tournament as the No. 4 ranked player in the world, which she became last week when Gabriela Sabatini moved up to No. 3.

Also receiving first-round byes are second-seeded Helena Sukova, third-seeded Shriver and fourth-seeded Manuela Maleeva. Lori McNeil, seeded fifth, plays Terry Phelps in a first-round match.

Tracy Austin, playing her first tournament singles in five years, meets seventh-seeded Nicole Provis in the first round. Austin and Kathy Rinaldi are wild-card entries. Maleeva got into the 28-player draw as a special exemption when Amy Frazier, who earned a straight entry into the draw after winning the Virginia Slims of Kansas, decided not to use it.

Claudia Kohde-Kilsch withdrew from singles because of an injury. Patty Fendick also withdrew from singles but will play doubles.

It was bound to happen: The International Tennis Federation, reigning monolith of world tennis, is at odds with the Assn. of Tennis Professionals, who want to govern themselves in 1990.

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