WTA chief executive threatens to remove China’s events from the schedule over the disappearance of Peng Shuai

WTA chief executive Steve Simon has threatened to pull the tour out of the country following the disappearance of Peng Shuai.

Nothing in Steve Simon’s career as a tennis promoter prepared him for the crisis he is suddenly faced with this month: a player’s disappearance that has forced his organisation, the Women’s Tennis Association, into a standoff with the Chinese government.

But the string of events since a post on the social media account of a Chinese player named Peng Shuai accused one the country’s most senior retired officials of sexual assault has placed Simon, the head of the WTA, in an unexpected role. He is the rare sports executive willing to quit one of the most lucrative foreign markets on the planet.

Simon has accused China of lying to him about Peng’s safety amid mounting international outrage, and he has indicated that he understands the stakes.

“We’re at a crossroads with our relationship, obviously, with China,” Simon said in a televised interview with CNN on Thursday. “We’re definitely willing to pull our business, and deal with all the complications that come with it, because this is bigger than the business.”

Peng has been unheard from since a Nov. 2 post on her verified account on the Twitter -like Weibo platform that accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. The post disappeared after roughly 20 minutes, and searches for her name on popular Chinese social-media platforms have been blocked ever since. Zhang has not addressed the allegation publicly and cannot be reached.

Peng Shuai of China serves during 2020 WTA Shenzhen Open. Peng has been missing since she publicly accused a former Chinese bureaucrat of sexual assault. Picture: Zhong Zhi/Getty Images
Peng Shuai of China serves during 2020 WTA Shenzhen Open. Peng has been missing since she publicly accused a former Chinese bureaucrat of sexual assault. Picture: Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Simon received an email saying that the accusation was untrue and that Peng was safe. China’s state broadcaster, which posted a screenshot of the email, said Peng had written it. Simon told CNN that he doubted that and now believes it was not written by her, or that she may have been coerced into writing it. He had earlier received assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association that she wasn’t in danger, but said he couldn’t corroborate them.

China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Simon’s remarks.

Peng, 35, is a two-time winner of Grand Slam doubles titles and rose as high as No. 14 in the world singles rankings in 2014. Chinese state media in those days called her one of the country’s “golden flowers” in tennis.

This week, her name became the foundation of the hashtag #whereispengshuai, which is being used by athletes and officials around the world, including the head of the Paris Olympics organising committee, Tony Estanguet, as it prepares to host the Games after Beijing. Within tennis, the most prominent message yet came from Serena Williams on Thursday afternoon, though she didn’t make any direct mention of China.

“I am devastated and shocked to hear about the news of my peer, Peng Shuai,” she wrote on Twitter. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

Peng Shuai and her doubles partner Zhang Shuai at the 2020 Australian Open. Peng has won doubles titles at Wimbledon, at the duo peaked at No.1 in 2014. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Peng Shuai and her doubles partner Zhang Shuai at the 2020 Australian Open. Peng has won doubles titles at Wimbledon, at the duo peaked at No.1 in 2014. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Other sports organisations have run afoul of China in recent years, but none has said it was prepared to abandon the market altogether. In 2019, the National Basketball Association lost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the league’s commissioner, following a firestorm caused by a tweet by then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Games were pulled from streaming services and sponsors fled and the league has moved cautiously in China ever since.

The English Premier League also saw a handful of Arsenal games pulled from the Chinese internet and television after midfielder Mesut Özil criticised China over its treatment of ethnic minority Muslims. Coverage quietly resumed, but Özil is no longer an Arsenal player.

With revenues that hover around $100 million a year, according to financial filings, the Florida-based WTA doesn’t rival either organisation—the NBA or the Premier League—for size or wealth. And yet, women’s tennis could become the first to sever ties entirely, despite China’s becoming one of the WTA’s favourite and most profitable destinations.

In 2018, Simon helped the tour sign a 10-year deal that was due to put the WTA Finals in China every year until 2028 and double the prize purse to $14 million, making it one of the rare women’s sporting events to pay players more than its counterpart on the men’s side. And until Covid postponements wreaked havoc on the schedule, there were 11 Chinese tournaments on the calendar—although the tour didn’t visit any of them this year due to border closures. In 2019, the tour’s most recent complete season, the WTA went to China nine times, making up roughly one-seventh of all tour-level events.

Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon is the rare sports executive willing to quit one of the most lucrative foreign markets on the planet. Picture: Roslan Rahman/Getty Images
Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon is the rare sports executive willing to quit one of the most lucrative foreign markets on the planet. Picture: Roslan Rahman/Getty Images

The organisation also relies on support from Chinese sponsors, counting the Beijing-based streaming service iQiyi as one of its four global partners, alongside the likes of Porsche and the German software company SAP.

Yet Simon and the tour’s players have been unequivocal in their support of Peng.

“The circuit survived this year without a swing through Asia, even if there’s a lot of money there,” the veteran player Alizé Cornet said in an interview with the French sports daily L’Equipe. “That might reassure us that we could survive without the Chinese part of the tour. If we had to split from it at some point because it doesn’t match our values, then we still have to do it, even if we lose something financially.”

The choice facing the WTA now is a stark one, since Simon’s entire career was geared to helping women’s tennis make money. He joined the Indian Wells tournament in California’s Coachella Valley in 1989 to sell tickets and ads. And after he became tournament director in 2004, he was credited with growing its prize money and reputation enough to make it the most prestigious women’s tennis event outside of the four majors. Indian Wells was sold to billionaire Larry Ellison in 2009 and is now known as the BNP Paribas Open.

Simon’s greatest moment of highwire diplomacy during his 11 years in charge came in 2015, when he negotiated Serena Williams’s first appearance at Indian Wells after a 14-year boycott due to racist taunts she had heard from crowds there early in her career.

“When I returned to Indian Wells this year,” Williams said at the time, “Steve could not have been more helpful, professional and supportive. I know how much he cares about the opinions of the players. He’s a good listener and he has our best interests in mind.”

In dealing with China, Simon has kept his focus on Peng’s wellbeing and avoided straying into politics. But the political conversation has come to him, as China hawks in the U.S. Congress stepped up their attacks on Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in February. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, on Thursday called for a total U.S. boycott of the Games, citing among his reasons his fears that the U.S. couldn’t keep them safe from Chinese surveillance “or even hostage-taking.”

Cotton’s aides later issued a statement tying the call to Peng Shuai. “If the Chinese Communists disappear their own athletes, just think how much less they’ll care for the safety of ours,” his statement said.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 31: Shuai Peng of China plays a backhand during her ladies singles second round match against Caroline Garcia of France during day five of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by XIN LI/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 31: Shuai Peng of China plays a backhand during her ladies singles second round match against Caroline Garcia of France during day five of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by XIN LI/Getty Images)

Aides to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said she was preparing to send a letter about Peng’s case to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. They said the letter will state that, in light of Peng’s disappearance, it is impossible to feel confident that athletes will be protected if they attend the Olympics in Beijing.

On Friday, the White House also weighed, saying it was “deeply concerned by reports of Peng’s disappearance from public view.

“We join in the calls for PRC authorities to provide independent, verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

—Louise Radnofsky and Tarini Parti contributed to this article.

The Wall Street Journal

Tilly Werner
Tilly WernerContent producer

Tilly Werner is an emerging talent in the sports journalism world with a particular focus on AFL, Football (Soccer), Basketball and Disability Sports. With a Graduate Diploma in Sports Management (UTS) and a Bachelor of International Studies (UNSW), Tilly’s writing pursuits extend beyond just the game, exploring the stories behind the athletes and their connection to the world around them. Tilly also has a distinguished career in Athletics and currently sits as Executive Director on the Board of NSW Goalball. Influencing her writing style is an extensive career writing for NFP charities, sporting organisations, and the NSW Parliament. Tilly is currently writing and producing for CODE Sports at News Corp Australia.