If you weren’t sleeping or TiVo-ing during the past two weeks, you might have noticed something extraordinary about the coverage of the 2006 U.S. Open. No, it wasn’t the little bald man who went buh-bye, nor that the venue was renamed into the acronym that everyone now loves: USTABJKNTC. What I’m referring to here is the fact that advertisers around the Open were actually using tennis in their creative content. Who woulda thunk it? Five sponsors of the Open created tennis-specific ads this year, and were joined by two other companies, Canon and Nike, for some great ads that had fans watching.
So why all the hubbub this year? There’s a variety of reasons for this, including aggressive marketing efforts by the USTA, who were giving plenty of incentives to sponsors. Chief among these was the use of the USTABJKNTC grounds for filming purposes, which simply begs the creation of tennis-themed content. And what better way to get tennis nuts dialed-in than to seize upon our interests?
Add to this that if you were at the Open this year, you might have noticed that some of the ads in the stadium that were shown during matches were longer than others. A new rule was adopted this year that sponsors that used tennis in their ads were allowed to have full 30-second spots shown instead of having the 10 seconds normally allocated. These modifications combined provided us with some great tennis-themed creative content and showed off the lighter side of the sport.
In previous years, sponsors seemed to get involved with the U.S. Open because senior management people wanted good seats to the tournament. Longtime sponsors like Mass Mutual ran generic spots not specifically crafted to the tournament. This year the Open’s insurance sponsor used ads set to portray people’s ‘passion for tennis and passion for life.’ One spot depicts a girl waking up on the day of a big match with a tennis racquet crease on her face as a sign that she slept with her stick, while another featured two boys diligently filling out the form and waiting for their 7am slot at the courts.
Other Open sponsors running spots included the tournament’s technology partner IBM, which used the theme of excellence on the court with excellence in other areas of life; and Lexus, who used two spots, one related to the life of a tennis ball, and then capitalized on Andy Roddick’s success with repurpsed ads of him driving along with hitch hikers who praise his performance.
And who could forget American Express, who got some attention last year for their spot featuring Roddick looking for his “Mojo”? When Roddick was blasted out of the first round by Gilles Muller, the ad became an elementary example of crisis communications, serving a persistent reminder about the absence of America’s Number One player. AmEx showed that they learned their lesson with an ad this year that shows Roddick playing tennis with Pong, the tennis-like video game from the 1970s. The company developed a smart marketing plan and tied in a promotional component so that fans on-site could stop by the AmEx booth to play Pong and win prizes. They also added in a mobile version of the game to keep the momentum going off-site.
Bear in mind that not every company is new to tennis-themed ads. Canon has been running them since the 1970s, when they featured an iconic ad campaign with former champ John Newcombe. Andre Agassi’s Rebel commercials ran up until last year. Maria Sharapova is the latest to star to emerge in the camera maker’s spots with the latest one featuring tennis balls following Maria home and then forming a smile.
And love it or hate it, be advised that Nike’s ad featuring Maria Sharapova is the first that the sports giant has used around the Open since back in 1995, when it ran the famous guerilla tennis spot featuring Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi duking it out in the streets in what could best be described as a modern flashmob.
Meanwhile, apparel sponsor Polo Ralph Lauren placed interactive kiosks on-site on the luxury suite level so that potential customers could search for and purchase products and used the same technology off-site in their Manhattan boutique. Very slick.
Speaking of which, digital media has suddenly become the big thing in tennis, which is exciting considering that its an area that the sport that has lagged behind others (forgive me, I’m repeating my mantra…). The USTA streamed its second Monday evening session on its Website for the first time, keying after the successful stream of a Pete Sampras-Robby Ginepri exhibition match during the Spring. For the first time, DirecTV customers were offered coverage similar to what UK fans get during Wimbledon. Subscribers were able to choose coverage from several different courts, and got real-time scores from the entire grounds. In a new twist, Sprint offered video highlights from the Open to its 15 million subscribers for the first time.
Keep in mind that this is all a really big deal. Though the ATP is already streaming some events through ATPtennis.com, both the ATP and the WTA Tours have been restricted by their existing media deals to offer a constant stream of digital media to their fans. Could expansive online coverage become a regular gig? Let’s put it this way: It’s surely a sign of things to come. With so many tournaments, many of which are spread around the world, each of which with many multiples of matches played out on different courts, tennis has a huge amount of content. The opportunity to take advantage of on-demand digital media will be critical to the sports growth. That fact is lost on no one, least of all Etienne de Villiers and Larry Scott, who took part in a Digital Media Forum during the tournament.
Targeted advertising and smart exploration in digital media combined are a reflection of the aggressive efforts to work with sponsors to effectively promote the sport, as well as showing a concise recognition of the audience the sport reaches. These past two weeks are similarly a reflection that someone gets it, and it shows bigtime.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
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