Why the U.S. Open Remains Such a Draw for Corporate Sponsors

September 8, 2017, 6:38 PM UTC
on Day Eleven of the 2017 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 7, 2017 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
Al Bello 2017 Getty Images

Every year the U.S. Open comes to Queens, New York and every year businesses invest millions of dollars in sponsoring it. But do these companies get any tangible return on their investments? If not, then why do they even do it? We went to the Open to find out, and oddly got the same cliched response from all the brands we spoke with. They all want to connect their consumers with their “passions,” one of which is apparently tennis. They also hope to boost brand engagement and brand awareness.

But does a brand like American Express really lack awareness? Probably not. AmEx strives to pamper its own customers, which they did this year by offering complementary hand massages and makeup touchups. The brand touts its dedication to small businesses by showcasing those types of businesses in its tent.

But that wasn’t all AmEx had in store for U.S. Open visitors. The “hero of their activation” was Air Tennis, a virtual game that reminded me of playing Wii Tennis.

Christina Austin
Christina Austin

It also had a fun photo booth that took a photo of you from the perspective of a tennis ball being served.

AmEx is involved with other sports as well, including the P.G.A. U.S Open and the N.F.L.’s Seattle Seahawks.

Chase, a sponsor for 36 years, gives away souvenir hats to fans every year. The bank also provides on-site phone chargers that double as devices used to stream all matches without using cell data or WiFi. Chase is the sponsor of the men and women’s singles finals and hands out the check to the winners.

Frank Nakano, head of sports and entertainment at J.P. Morgan Chase, says, “Sponsorship drives revenue, it’s not just marketing. And our CMO would tell you that.”

Nakano also ackowledged that the “bar keeps getting raised for expectations at big sporting events. But sometimes just air conditioning and a bathroom are enough.” It’s safe to say that JPMorgan’s hospitality lounge, which was built in the stadium just for the occasion, was more than just AC and a bathroom.

Overall shot from the 2017 US Open for the Chase and J.P. Morgan Chase lounge.Chase

Ralph Lauren also dabbles in U.S. Open apparel by making the official outfits for the ball people and officials since 2005. This year it offered create-your-own Polo shirt designs which seemed to be a hit.

Christina Austin
Christina Austin

Lew Sherr, Chief Revenue Office for the USTA, says the U.S. Open draws such strong sponsors because “tennis is the most successful gender neutral sport ever” in terms of the fan base. He said that the fan base is “affluent, well educated, and increasingly diverse,” and the brands also represent that.

He said brands spend in the low seven figures up to eight figures on an annual basis for sponsorships, the price of which often depends of the prominence of signage on the court, the amount of promotional space on the ground, and the extent of hospitality offered.

Sherr said the payoff is global exposure in a two-week long event that is broadcast morning to night around the world. Brands can “entertain high-value clients and have meaningful engagement with fans.”

In his years working with the USTA, Sherr has a few favorite sponsorship elements, including the headsets AmEx gives out every year that fans use to listen to commentary on the matches. The Chase chargers/streaming device is also a hit, as well as the Emirates seat cushions.

While other brands we spoke with have been sponsoring the Open for years, Deloitte first entered the space this year (though it’s not new to the sport as it already partners with the USTA). It sees the main draw as a desirable place to host clients and prospective clients.

Emirates, a well-known international airline, wants growth in the U.S. market, which is why its in its sixth year sponsoring the Open. It had a huge triple suite complete with cabin crew as the waitresses and hostesses. These real life flight attendants are iconic symbols of the brand, says Matt Schmid, senior vice president of Emirates North America.

View from the Emirates suiteTLA

Emirates chose the Open because it provides national coverage in a “noisy market.” From a media buy perspective, Schmid said it would be very expensive to reach that exposure in separate buys that aren’t part of the tournament.

Emirates is no stranger to sponsoring sporting events. Turn on any English soccer match and you’re bound to see its name plastered on jerseys or stadium signage.

Schmid says Emirates is “one of the few, if not the only, airline that sees our brand as an investment. The brand is part of the product. It’s not just something we put in the planes. It’s alive.”

According to Ben Shields, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, “in an era of fragmentation, sporting events are among the few shared experiences in our culture that still attract relatively large audiences, which is typically important for big brands. Associating with sporting events can imbue brands with emotional appeal that they cannot create on their own.”

Each brand said it would be hard-pressed to find concrete numbers showing an increase in clients, cardholders, or flights taken thanks to exposure at the U.S. Open. A Chase V.P. said that “it’s more of an art than a science.”

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