Left to Right: Hans D’Orville (Assistant Director-General for Strategic Planning, UNESCO), Larry Scott (then CEO for the WTA), Billie Jean King, Vera Zvonareva (athlete ambassador).

Professional tennis, like every other “good” sporting organization, does its part to “give back” to the communities with which it interacts. If you’re a fan of women’s tennis you may have noticed that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) donates money for every ace that a player hits during a season. Some of the aficionados may know that former World #1 and teenage phenom, Martina Hingis, was an ambassador for polio eradication. You might even know that the WTA has worked with Habitat for Humanity International and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. But I’m willing to bet that even the most ardent tennis fan doesn’t know that ten yeas ago, the WTA started a partnership with UNESCO in the hopes of achieving Global Gender Equality.

In 2006, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) formed a partnership with the WTA to “raise awareness of gender equality issues and advance opportunities for women’s leadership in all spheres of society.” Like many other girls empowerment programs, this partnership was premised on the notion that women and girls are the necessary foundation for global advancement:

Through this partnership with UNESCO, our goal is to let women and girls throughout the world know that there are no glass ceilings, and to do our part to support programs that provide real opportunities for women to succeed in whatever they set their minds to. ~ Venus Williams

This “landmark” partnership was the first time that UNESCO partnered with a professional sports league. ESPN reported, “[i]t was [Venus] Williams’ personal sense of outrage that triggered the WTA Tour’s engagement with UNESCO.” Citing the fact that the WTA Tour has been persistent in its fight for equality, UNESCO and the WTA Tour announced its partnership in November 2006 naming Venus Williams as the inaugural UNESCO Promoter of Gender Equality. The partnership consisted of five key elements:

  • Sony Ericsson WTA Tour/UNESCO fund for women and leadership (original endowment of €200,000)
  • Promoter of Gender Equality player program that uses WTA Tour players as role models to create awareness about gender equality globally and nationally
  • Mentoring, fellowship and scholarship programs to support women’s individual leadership opportunities (hosted through the Women’s Sports Foundation)
  • Advertising campaigns
  • Using existing UNESCO and WTA Tour events as fundraising platforms
Venus Williams at the partnership announcement.

In 2007, the partnership announced that it selected five women’s leadership initiatives out of a possible 65 projects from 27 countries. The programs to receive initial funding were hosted in Liberia, Jordan, Cameroon, China and the Dominican Republic. In Liberia, partnership funds contributed to the creation of a women’s-only night school for 1000 girls, and provided training for disadvantaged women to staff the program. In Cameroon, initiatives were implemented to foster successful female politicians, businesswomen and athletes to organize gender equality events. In Jordan, a program was implemented to teach women about their legal rights through 24 awareness workshops hosted throughout the country. In China, with approximately 57% of its population living in rural areas, a program was designed to increase the percentage of rural women involved in local affairs. Lastly, in the Dominican Republic an initiative to advocate for women’s political and social leadership through capacity building and training activities was created with the hopes that some women would rise up the ranks of civil society and politics. Additional funds were also set aside for a program in India; however, little information about this program was ever released. It is interesting to note that none of the original projects involved tennis as the driver of social change.

The Promoters of Gender Equality program selected Venus Williams (United States), Zheng Jie (China), Vera Zvonareva (Russia), and Tatiana Golovin (France) as player role models to represent this partnership. Additionally, in 2008 WTA Tour founder and former player Billie Jean King, was named the ‘Global Mentor for Gender Equality’ for achieving her goal of “using sports as a means for social change.”

It sounded like a legitimate partnership poised to make a real difference on the ground; however, around 2010 the initiative quietly faded away. So what happened to the partnership and its initiatives? No one knows! This so-called landmark partnership isn’t even listed on this timeline of notable WTA achievements. Well, I’m sure some people at the WTA and UNESCO know what happened, but no one was willing to tell me whether the partnership dissolved, had an exit plan, achieved its objectives, or was simply no longer interesting.screen-shot-2014-12-01-at-3-22-56-pm

Over the past two decades, sport has become increasingly involved with international development projects, with organizations like Right to Play at the forefront of the sport for development and peace movement. Because sports organizations often require buy-in from many different stakeholders (i.e., fans, players, sponsors, and government) it has become expected practice that sports teams and organizations “give back” in a number of ways. This broad popularity is also used to promote the idea that sport itself serves as a vital platform to initiate social change.  Nonetheless, it is important that we question the intent, suitability, and impacts of these initiatives.

There is fair criticism that corporations involved in international development either use social responsibility programs as “window dressing” or lack the necessary skills to properly tackle development issues. When initiatives like the UNESCO-WTA partnership quietly disappear, they don’t do much to counter this perspective. You might be thinking that technically the WTA is a non-profit entity, and you would be correct. But it is a non-profit in the same way that the NCAA is a ($10 billion) non-profit entity.  The WTA operates under a corporate structure, engages in the buying/selling of labour, and is held to the legal regulations of a corporation.

Left to Right: Hans d’Orville (UNESCO), Gulser Corat (UNESCO), Vera Zvonareva (WTA), Eleonora Mitrofanova (Ambassador), Stacey Allastar (WTA). Photo from Zimbio.

Peter Newell and Jedrzej Frynas (2007) underline that “CSR [corporate social responsibility] as a business tool is distinct from CSR as a development tool” (p.670), which has yet to be fully understood.  Moreover, business scholar, Michael Blowfield, (2005) argues that we need to question not only how CSR affects a firm’s behaviour but also critically question how CSR has affected the meaning of development. He contends that the largest impact business thinking has made on international development is its ability to “dominate the way we view the world, and to become the norm against which everything is tested for true and false value” (p.516). For example, the Program Implementation Plan used for the UNESCO-WTA initiative in Cameroon, as an example, highlighted very tangible objectives, such as:

provision of technical assistance to women’s group and or unions of groups ($2000), leadership training workshops ($5000), celebration of International Women’s Day in several communities ($3750), organization of a female marathon, scholarships for female athletes ($3750 in combination with the marathon), and capitalization of project experiences. (Szto, 2015, p.6)

Yet, we know little of how these activities helped to “increase awareness about the role of women in society”.  In other words, it is easy to put on a celebration event, host workshops, and organize a marathon because those are one-time events with public relations appeal, but what is often missing from these types of public-private partnerships is the real gritty work of reconfiguring power relations. There is no causal relationship between the implementation of Event A and Outcome A. Thus, while I had high hopes for this partnership when it was first announced, the way it was conducted and its stealthy exit should really make us question the ability and role of sport in corporate sponsored social justice projects.  If the expectation is simply fundraising and visibility, that is one thing, but whenever we see these types of initiatives we should be questioning:

  • Are more business interventions beneficial to development outcomes?
  • Is a lack of money truly the problem or is the root cause more systemic?
  • Which causes are deemed “marketable” enough for corporate intervention and which causes (e.g., abortion, drug addiction) are too “controversial” for corporations to touch?
  • Are corporations/sports teams/organizations appropriately equipped to deal with issues of social justice?
  • What makes these kinds of partnerships possible in the first place?

Courtney Szto is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.  Her doctoral research explores the intersections of race, hockey, and citizenship in Canada.  She is the Assistant Editor of Hockey in Society and writes for her own blog The Rabbit Hole. Learn more about Courtney here and follow her on Twitter @courtneyszto.

Works Cited

Blowfield, M. (2005). Corporate social responsibility: Reinventing the meaning of development? International Affairs, 81(3), 515-524.

Newell, P., & Frynas, J. G. (2007). Beyond CSR? Business, poverty and social justice an introduction. Third World Quarterly, 28(4), 669-681.

Szto, C.  (2015). Serving up change? Gender mainstreaming and the UNESCO-WTA partnership for global gender equality.  Sport in Society, 18(8), 895-908.

To read the full thesis, “Serving Up Change? Corporate Social Responsibility as a Tool for Social Change: A case analysis of the UNESCO-WTA Tour partnership for global gender equality.”