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Scott’s non-stop motor energizes, enriches WTA

Charles Bricker South Florida Sun-Sentinel

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was 6:30 a.m. Much of the population was rolling over in bed to slap the snooze alarm button, but Larry Scott, who might be the most powerful figure in women’s sports, was stepping briskly into the workout center at the Vinoy Hotel.

Within 10 minutes, rivulets of sweat were trickling down both sides of his face as he raced through his usual half-hour session on the stationary bike, rifling through the sports section of the morning paper and checking phone messages without slowing his pace on the pedals.

It was going to be a short day, a mere 12 hours, for the chief executive officer of the Women’s Tennis Association because he had a flight to Dubai the next day for a major news announcement.

But there are days when he camps past midnight in his nearby office on the 15th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown St. Petersburg, going home only briefly to catch up on the day with his wife, Cybille, and to kiss his three small children goodnight.

“Some things are sacrosanct,” Scott said. “Like taking my kids to school in the morning and being home when they go to bed. If it means coming back to the office and working until 2 or 3 in the morning, fine. But I’d rather put some ritual into seeing them every night than work straight through and get home at 9.”

Women’s basketball is surviving. Women’s golf is doing well. But no women’s professional organization has been as wildly successful as the WTA, and under Scott’s frenetically paced leadership in the past two years, the sport has never been as powerful.

Two months ago, Scott negotiated the largest sponsorship deal in the history of women’s athletics, a six-year, $88 million agreement with Sony Ericsson that staggered the other alphabet organizations in the game — the ATP, ITF and USTA.

Suddenly, it’s women’s tennis and not men’s that has the taller stack of blue chips. So it wasn’t surprising when Scott flew to Dubai to announce that the women’s event there would now be paid equal $1 million prize money with the men’s event, which is played the preceding week.

It’s also a good bet that within a year, because of the WTA’s major infusion of money, the Nasdaq-100 Open on Key Biscayne, as well as Wimbledon and the French Open, will make similar declarations, giving women equal prize money at all four Grand Slams.

“The deal with Sony Ericsson means we could reach that goal very quickly,” said Butch Buchholz, tournament chairman of the Nasdaq. “Equal prize money was never a philosophical issue for us. It was economic. The men had always put more money into our tournament than the women.”

What Scott has done in two years on the job is what you might expect from hard-boiled international corporate tough guys skilled in calling in chits and bleeding dollars from tight-fisted sponsors.

Scott can drive a hard negotiation. But it would be closer to the truth to describe him as a man of many paradoxes — high-energy but low-profile, hard-driven but soft-spoken, a man totally consumed with his job when he’s at the office yet no less consumed with his family.

When he was hired in March 2003, the WTA’s chief assets were Serena and Venus Williams and a few regional sponsors, but it was strapped for funds to expand or to hire top assistants and couldn’t find a new global sugar daddy.

The tour had just slogged through a year and a half with CEO Kevin Wulff, a Nike clothing executive from Oregon who was invisible to players and press and never exhibited the leadership to move the tour forward.

Of course, there were some furrowed brows when the committee seeking his successor settled on Scott, who was second-in-command at the ATP men’s tour.

“There might have been a bit of an inferiority complex, like, ‘Why do we need to reach out to the men’s tour for someone?’ There was anxiety,” Scott said. “‘My God, is Larry going to turn this into the women’s version of the men’s tour and sell us out?’ I knew I needed to build relationships. I was a known entity on the men’s side, but I didn’t know a lot of the women players or women-only tournament chairmen.”

It was Scott’s credentials at the ATP, his gregarious personality and his passion for the game that helped sell his skeptics, including Lindsay Davenport, who is perhaps the most important player, politically, on the WTA Tour.

But it was circumstance that solidified Scott as his own man, only three months after he took the post.

At Wimbledon in June 2003, ATP CEO Mark Miles threatened a boycott the next year unless the Grand Slams increased their revenue sharing with the men’s tour. Scott quickly made it clear his players would not join his old friend on any picket lines.

“I thought that was a defining moment for me,” Scott said. “Mark wanted us to line up and present a joint face, but we weren’t in the same place. Maybe I frayed some relationships on the men’s side, but it was a position that sent a signal to our players, in the clearest possible way, that I’m 100 percent focused on the WTA and completely independent.”

A half-hour after completing his morning workout, Scott was showered and shaved, had kissed Cybille goodbye and was loading his eldest child, Alexander, 4, into the car for the drive to school.

The rest of the day would be spent in meetings, poring over reports and talking, it seems, endlessly into a telephone headset, sometimes while meandering about his office to stretch his legs during conversation.

This is a man not with one big job, but three — CEO, husband and father of three children that require a lot of attention.

“I don’t know many people who can handle the things he does,” said Cybille, who met her husband in Monte Carlo 10 years ago when Larry was sent there by Miles to improve the ATP’s European connections.

She liked tennis, but her love of the game was not close to that of Scott, who had pretty good junior years, four years on the Harvard team and three undistinguished seasons on the pro circuit. He won one doubles title and was 1-18 in singles.

He was never a political animal at Harvard. But tennis politics was different, and he found himself on the players council and, eventually, on a search committee in 1990 to find a new CEO.

“I hired Mark and then Mark hired me,” Scott said, smiling. They became great personal friends as well as colleagues, and when Miles announced he would be retiring in 2005, the ATP tried to lure Scott as a candidate.

He told them he was committed to women’s tennis. In fact, this week at the Nasdaq he’ll sit down with key figures on his board to unveil a new five-year financial plan to move the WTA further forward.

Is he indeed the most powerful person in women’s sports?

“If he isn’t, I don’t know who is,” said Buchholz, who has admired Scott for a long time. “He sees tennis’ big picture. He’s one of those people who gets things lined up and does them.”

Said Scott: “There’s always been something entrepreneurial about me, that wants to take on the big challenges.”

Scott said he thinks he has found the best possible balance to his three jobs.

“You can’t take on all three and do them as well as you’d like to,” he said. “But I want all three things — job, husband and father. I’ve had to make adjustments and I will continue to make adjustments, even though there could be more travel demands. Look at my desk. It’s a constant challenge to prioritize things.

“Ann Worcester (a former WTA CEO) once cautioned me that your job will never be done,” he said. “There will always be someone pulling at you with problems and crises, and the travel is endless.”

But after two years and with Sony Ericsson on the team, the WTA looks to be in much better order. Scott has hired or promoted five people to key jobs, all reporting directly to him and relieving him of micro-managing work.

There will still be post-midnight work at the office, but the workload is lightened.

“The pressures are greater with three kids,” Scott said. “But now that my parents live in South Florida, we can leave the kids with them, and Cybille and I can take long weekends. That’s a priority.

“We’ve climbed the toughest part of the peak. I don’t think it could ever be tougher than the last two years.”

Outwardly, he always looks relaxed. Inwardly, he probably is more relaxed than he has been since he changed jobs, but Monday is the start of a new week and he’ll have calls waiting, maybe a half-dozen meetings and last-minute preparation for the Nasdaq.

He’ll also have three kids and a wife to kiss goodnight before he goes back to the office late.

But he’ll be there.

Like the man says, some things are sacrosanct.

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