Q&A: Katie Haas, Western & Southern Open CEO, aims for 'bigger, better, bolder' event
This Women’s History Month, USTA.com is honoring female leaders in the tennis industry—women who are shaping the future of the game on and off the court as they build on the legacy of pioneers like Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Katrina Adams, and Serena and Venus Williams. This edition of our Q&A series spotlights Katie Haas.
When Katie Haas was named CEO of the Western & Southern Open in February, she became the only female chief executive among tennis' five joint ATP Masters 1000 and WTA 1000-level events.
Haas served as the COO of the Cincinnati tournament from July 2018, coming into the job just before that summer’s event. Prior to her time in tennis, she worked for the Boston Red Sox as vice president of Florida business operations, overseeing the team’s spring training home in Fort Myers.
During her time in Cincinnati, Haas recalls a post-midnight match featuring home favorite Caty McNally as one of her favorite on-court memories—though the rigors of her job means she rarely gets to see much of the action live.
Hass, who lives in Madeira, Ohio, with her husband and two children, recently joined USTA.com for a chat about the importance of her position as a high-ranking woman in the sports industry, her time at the Western & Southern Open, her transition from baseball and more.
Q: Your position as CEO is a pretty unique one in the scope of the sports world, as there are only so many top-level events that even exist worldwide that combine men's and women's competition. What are some of the more important responsibilities you’ll have in this new role?
Katie Haas: I think as it relates to being the CEO, it's not only being a good steward of the legacy of those that come before me… but also being the oldest tournament operating in its original city, over 100 years, there’s a lot of legacy in this tournament. I know that all of that history holds a special place in the hearts of fans and players alike.
So I just intend to build on that in terms of following in the footsteps of people that have come before me that have made this tournament what it is today, and look to the future to grow it collaboratively with the team we have here, along with the USTA, to be bigger, better, bolder in the future.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a trailblazer for women in the sports industry and especially in tennis, where we've had so many influential women fighting for progress on and off the court?
Katie Haas: Being the only female currently in this position for the ATP Masters 1000 and WTA 1000-level events, I don't take that lightly. It's something I take extremely seriously, and it's not lost on me, the magnitude of it.
Certainly I'm not going to be the last and I understand being that trailblazer… I hope the road that I can continue to pave—that people like Billie Jean King have been able to pave for me—I hope I can add even a wider lane of asphalt behind me.
It is great to see women are getting more and more of the quality roles. It's just that we need the quantity to equal the quality.
There are not enough women in the leadership roles in sports overall. So if I can continue to bring women along with me, it can only be better for all of sports.
Q: Can you take me through a little bit of what progress the event has made since you started as COO in 2018, and where you hope to take it in the years to come?
Katie Haas: I started basically the week of the tournament in 2018 coming from baseball, not having ever worked in tennis. I played as a kid, but haven't picked up a racquet since. I had no idea what I was really getting into, and I am very, very fortunate I did start the week of the tournament to really experience it and then be able to, at the time, be the COO under Andre Silva.
Through collaborative efforts with the team here, 2019, the next term, was our best ever. We had record sponsors, we had record attendance, we sold out 15 out of 16 sessions and it was so awesome and exhilarating and incredible. We were riding high and we had so many plans; in 2020, we were going to do this and that and everything in between… and then that came down to a crashing halt.
It was a huge honor for us to be the tournament that restarted tennis for the world, and one that we took very seriously. We obviously couldn't have done it at all without everyone at the USTA and the National Tennis Center
And of course there was the process of overseeing a wholesale move from Cincinnati, Ohio, to New York City.
Because of capacity limitations, even on staff, I had to stay back. So being in my basement in Cincinnati and letting 'my child' go off for the week to New York, that in and of itself was incredible.
And to be able to then in 2021 restart… I'll say 'normal' in air quotes because we were operating under the Delta variant but still had an extremely successful tournament, all things considered.
It was the first time in 21 years we did not have a player named Roger, Rafa or Novak in the draw. And to see that the fans still came out was great. They are loving the next generation on the ATP side. The women are incredible and so compelling on court, especially all the American women. And I think for us, that is the groundswell, the momentum we'll continue to push forward for '22 to continue to grow in the future.
Q: You touched on this in some of your answers, but what is your favorite part of your job at the Western Southern Open?
Katie Haas: For me, it's about the people and it starts internally with our team. We are a small family, as I like to call it. We work as a team, knowing that we're all working together for the greater good and to make this event the best it can be every summer. And then the ripple expands out from there.
So our partners, our ticket holders, our sponsors, our community stakeholders, people like that... being able to interact and collaborate. We have 1,200 volunteers every summer, and we couldn't pull this event off without their support.
So for me, it's really about how impactful this tournament is to so many different people and so many different lives for all different reasons. And it's been that way for generations, especially for people in the Midwest.
Q: And the opposite… What is the most challenging aspect to the job?
Katie Haas: When it rains (laughs). It's the worst thing, honestly. I love tournament week during the summer. It's crazy. It's pedal to the metal, right? It's 18-hour work days leading up to the event. And then during the event, it's basically no sleep for two weekends and a week in between.
But I will tell you, if that one raindrop hits the court, it just is such a buzz kill to the adrenaline rush that we're all on. And it's like, 'Well, add another two hours to the day.'
But I have never woken up in my career in sports and working in tennis, baseball and basketball, I've never woken up to say I don't want to go to work today. And I feel so lucky that I that I get to work in a job that's not a job. It's fun.
Q: I wanted to touch on your time with the Red Sox. Can you give us a little compare and contrast between your time there and your time at the Western & Southern Open?
Katie Haas: I think it's probably the easiest in terms of comparing and contrasting in terms of the sport itself. Obviously, team versus individual. But baseball is America's pastime, and tennis is global. I remember that was one thing that stuck out to me so much my first week on the job, walking around the food court at the tournament and hearing probably 10 different languages being spoken in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The world really does come to Cincinnati every year for this event and it is so global. And all the people who know of the Western & Southern Open around the world, it's so cool.
The tennis community is just like the Red Sox, right? Red Sox fans are extremely loyal and tennis fans are rabid, too. So that wasn't anything new for me.
But I think really, it's more about that tennis is such an international sport in every way. Not just the fact that 75% of our players need a passport to get to our event every summer. But in the fact that we've got global partnerships and we've got partners that don't necessarily even have offices or locations in the Midwest, but they understand how global we are and how many people around the world are tuning in to watch, and the benefit that comes with that.
Q: What led you to make the transition from the Red Sox to the Western & Southern Open?
Katie Haas: I was overseeing all business operations in Florida for the team. They had sent me down from Fenway 10 years prior to oversee the new ballpark that they were building—which I just saw in Sports Business Journal, recently celebrated their 10th anniversary of opening that ballpark. So that was kind of crazy to see, like, ‘Oh my gosh, it's already been 10 years.’
Honestly, I was kind of looking for the next step in my career. As a female in sports, it's something that I've always wanted to continue in terms of climbing that ladder of my professional career. The opportunity to interview for the COO role here came along through a headhunter and I thought, 'Why not?'
I think that the idea of being able to come here, knowing that this area of the country also was going to afford my family a lot more options for—not just seasons, coming out of Florida—but just different things that the kids would benefit from, was another big component to our move here.
The 2022 Western & Southern Open will be held in Cincinnati from Aug. 13-21. Learn more at the tournament’s official website.