2014 Indian Wells: Why the WTA Should Worry About All the Empty Seats

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

New stadium at Indian Wells
New stadium at Indian WellsStephen Dunn/Getty Images

Indian Wells is a premier event for the WTA. Premier events, second only to Grand Slams, are meant to showcase the tour's top talent. 

So why are there so many empty seats? 

Anyone watching WTA matches at Indian Wells can see that attendance at the women's matches does not match that of the men. 

In the days leading up to the tournament, media painted a picture of Indian Wells as a strong, growing event. The new Stadium 2  received rave reviews. Despite the ongoing boycott of Serena and Venus Williams, the tournament is supposedly better than ever. 

Yet, there are so many empty seats. 

Even headliners like Maria Sharapova could not fill the seats. Sharapova, the WTA's queen of endorsements, played her first match in front of a stadium less-than-half full. This was her first match since returning from the Olympics in Sochi. 

Meanwhile, an opening-round doubles match featuring Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka drew a capacity crowd

Even Maria Sharapova, one of the WTA's biggest stars, couldn't pack them in at Indian Wells.
Even Maria Sharapova, one of the WTA's biggest stars, couldn't pack them in at Indian Wells.Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
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Sloane Stephens played her opening-round match in front of a near-empty stadium too. Her match followed Rafael Nadal's win over Radek Stepanek. The stadium was packed for Nadal. When his match was over, fans fled, leaving Stephens to play under dark desert skies with a handful of people watching.

The WTA has to be concerned about all these empty seats.

They are the strongest argument against what the WTA has worked so hard to earn: equal prize money. The complaints about women playing three sets versus five are weak. With the exception of Grand Slams, men play best of three sets most of the time.  

Television viewership appears OK. Serena Williams' win over Victoria Azarenka in the 2013 U.S. Open final drew higher television ratings than the men's final.

But the empty seats impact the venue's bottom line. Even if corporate sponsors buy up all available tickets, the absence of people in the seats usually translates to fewer concession and retail sells. 

It also makes for bland television coverage. It's far more exciting when the crowd roars after a winner. Too many WTA matches feature great shots greeted with pithy applause and scattered cheers. 

Indian Wells is not the only tournament that sees a sea of empty seats at WTA events. At tournaments from Madrid to Dubai, players compete with few watching.

The empty-seat phenomenon is most glaring at tournaments that include ATP matches. It becomes harder to blame it on weather or the economy when ATP matches are well attended at the same tournament.  

Of course not all ATP matches are viewed by capacity crowds. However, this appears to be more of a WTA problem. 

Last year at the Roger's Cup in Canada, upper-tier seats were removed from the main court to "create a more intimate feel" for WTA events. Attendance was down and many matches were played in front of sparse crowds. 

The New Haven tournament also reduced the size of its main stadium. As noted in the Connecticut Post , tournament director Anne Worcester "didn't want to apologize for the empty seats anymore." The tournament regularly had about 5,000 people in the 13,000-seat stadium. 

The empty seats may have something to do with corporate sponsors buying up tickets. Last year, Wimbledon officials came under fire for the amount of empty seats, despite boasting "sellouts." The All England Club received similar criticism in 2012 when it hosted tennis events for the summer Olympics. 

Whether it's corporate apathy, disenchanted fans or a sluggish economy, it doesn't matter. The empty seats seem at odds with the ever-rising prize money for women's tournaments. Empty seats send a "who cares?" message to television viewers. 

The WTA should care. It's an unsettling sight that's becoming far too common.