Fox Taps JFK, Elvis and Grand Funk Railroad to Hype the U.S. Open

Weird, Wooly $15 Million Campaign Turns the Amps Up to 11

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Fox Sports is teeing up what it is calling the biggest promotional push in the history of golf's U.S. Open, launching a $15 million multifaceted marketing blitz in advance of the tournament, taking place June 18 through 21.

The promo effort comes as Fox prepares for its inaugural broadcast of golf's second Grand Slam event, and the initial TV spots balance a reverence for the history of the Open with more than a little of the network's trademark chutzpah.

One of the three promo spots Fox has in the hopper kicks off with archival footage of President John F. Kennedy playing the links at the Hyannisport Club in August 1963. Decked out in a pair of de rigueur Nantucket Reds and sporting his trademark Wayfarers, JFK the duffer is the very picture of preppy cool. (And for a man wracked by chronic back pain, President Kennedy had a honey of a swing.)

The spot gets a little weird from there, jumping from a quick shot of an exuberant Arnold Palmer to a snippet from "Easy Rider" -- a film that would seem to reside at golf's antipode -- before cutting to a young Elvis Presley. As the voiceover would have it, "like rebels and rock 'n' roll," the Open has "become a stage for greatness." It's an odd assertion to make, but very much in keeping with Fox Sports' gloriously overdone approach to self-promotion, so no surprise there.

The so-called "Anthem" spot ends with a barrage of iconic Open moments -- here's Tom Watson making his miracle chip shot on Pebble Beach's 17th hole, there's Tiger Woods presenting the trophy to the gallery after winning his first Open in 2000 -- scored by Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band." The juxtaposition is almost sublimely goofy, and it's the kind of big swing that only Fox can carry off.

A second promo features last year's runner-up, and recent Player's Championship victor Rickie Fowler, in the throes of what appears to be a bad peyote trip. (His driver turns into a rattlesnake! The fairway narrows to the width of a Duane-Reade aisle!) Mr. Fowler's barely perceptible smirk at the end really sells the spot; last year at Pinehurst, he took second place, finishing eight strokes behind Martin Kaymer, and it's payback time.

Along with in-house placement on the Fox broadcasting network and Fox Sports 1, the Open promos will appear on national cable networks Discovery Channel, Comedy Central, History and CNN. Reinforcing the TV spend are print buys in Fox's former corporate siblings The Wall Street Journal and New York Post and outdoor signage in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Chambers Bay Golf Course, which will host the 2015 Open, is a 45 minute-drive from Sea-Tac.)

"This is not only one of the biggest marketing events in the history of Fox Sports, but it may well be the biggest in the history of the U.S. Open," said Robert Gottlieb, exec VP-marketing, Fox Sports Media Group. Mr. Gottlieb confirmed the $15 million price tag, adding that the figure combines paid media with the dollar value of the in-house schedule.

Mr. Gottlieb said that while the Open promos are undeniably the product of the Fox ethos, the thrust of the marketing effort is to acknowledge the history and the tradition of the event. "When it was first announced that the U.S. Open would be in our hands, there was concern in some quarters as to what Fox was going to do with the franchise," he said. "I mean, it's as if people expect us to come onto the course blaring air horns."

Of course, in outbidding legacy media partner NBC in a 12-year, $1.1 billion deal, Fox has earned the right to hype the Open as it sees fit. As Mr. Gottlieb noted, every aspect of the campaign is informed by the perceived sanctity of the event -- only now the amps are all cranked up to 11.

"It's little more edgy than what people may have seen in the past. It's a little louder, it's a little more dynamic, it's a little more colorful," he said. "All the hallmarks of how we've always covered sports are on display. And that's really an acknowledgment that something new and exciting is happening in golf right now."

The young blood in golf's top ranks has a lot to do with that excitement. The world's No. 1 player, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, is 26 years old. Newly-minted Masters champion Jordan Spieth bought his first legal beer last summer, and Mr. Fowler won't turn 27 until mid-December. At the same time, relative old-timers like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are always a threat; any combination of two or more of those names at the top of the leaderboard should guarantee a big ratings turnout.

If nothing else, Fox hopes to avoid the ratings disaster that was the 2014 Open. Per Nielsen, NBC's final-round coverage averaged a record low 4.6 million viewers and a 3.0 household rating, representing a decline of 45% versus the year-earlier broadcast.

Fox's willingness to experiment with technology is a big part of the reason why the phrase "What's the score?" is now all but obsolete, and they'll be bringing that same moxie to Chambers Bay. At the risk of unleashing the next Glow Puck, the network's Fox Lab unit plans to try out an array of gizmos and gimmicks, including drone flyovers, a tee cam, ball-flight tracing, extreme wide-angle bunker shots and remote robotic cameras.

The 2015 U.S. Open tees off Thursday, June 18, on FS1. The cable network will carry the first two days of live coverage, after which Fox will take over for rounds three and four.