TENNIS USES U.S. OPEN TO SHOWCASE SPORT TO KIDS: LACK OF COLORFUL PERSONALITIES HINDERS PUSH TO REBUILD GAME

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The U.S. Tennis Association over the next three weeks will leverage its crown jewel, the U.S. Open, in marketing efforts to promote the sport-especially to kids.

In fact, the 1997 U.S. Open, which begins next week, marks a transitional point in the business plan implemented by the USTA in late 1995. Having been focused on stabilizing the organization's financial situation over the past two years, the USTA is turning its attention to growing the game at the grass-roots and national levels.

Tennis industry insiders say there's a pressing need to rekindle interest in the sport among young people.

NO MORE MYTHIC RIVALS

Despite young champions like Pete Sampras and teen phenom Martina Hingis, the rap on tennis is that it lacks not only compelling personalities but mythic rivalries comparable to Jimmy Connors vs. John McEnroe or Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova.

The number of tennis telecasts dropped from 40 in 1992 to 31 last year, and average ratings for all have dipped from a 2.9 in '92 to a 2.2 in '96, according to BJK&E Media TV Sports Report.

"There's no doubt we want tennis to be more appealing to kids. That's where we as an industry need to do a better job," said Pierce O'Neil, USTA director of sales and marketing.

But Mr. O'Neil insists that despite the Tiger Woods-inspired hype surrounding golf, a game that shares tennis' upscale demographics, tennis remains in good shape.

He cited an ESPN/Chilton Sports Poll that said tennis, with 84 million fans, has 11 million more than golf, as well as 1996 Tennis Industry Association research showing participation was up 10% to 20 million.

REVAMPED IN '95

The USTA revamped its business and marketing strategy in 1995. In renegotiating TV contracts and sponsorship agreements for the popular U.S. Open, it created packages that included grass-roots programs and rights to under-leveraged secondary events.

CBS, which has the U.S. Open through 2000, is committed to airing the U.S. Women's Hard Court and U.S. Men's Clay Court championships.

The network is boasting of five new advertisers: Ernst & Young, Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury, Principal Financial Group, Texaco and United Airlines.

USA Network, which will broadcast 11 nights and more than 80 hours of coverage, reports its gross ad sales are up 16% to 18% from last year. BMW of North America, Gateway 2000, Johnson & Johnson, and Visa USA are among its biggest buyers.

"There's no doubt that tennis has taken a drubbing recently, but like any sport, tennis is cyclical," said John Cronopulos, USA Network's VP-ad sales, corporate accounts and special events. "But [the U.S. Open] still has great value because of the upscale demos that it reaches."

Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Infiniti division, one of USTA's five Corporate Champions, also sponsors USTA League Tennis, a grassroots program. IBM Corp. is building a Web site for the U.S. Open and will soon build a permanent Internet home for the USTA.

Mr. O'Neil said the Corporate Champions program could best handle eight marketers. Citizen Watch Co., Heineken USA and Prudential Securities round out the five on board now. The program will generate $26 million in revenue for the USTA this year, $30 million in 1998.

"The USTA's packages allow us to own a sport," said Steve Davis, Heineken's VP-marketing. "Tennis is upscale and has great demos that match our 21-to-35-year-old consumer. We wish we could be a bit younger, and so does tennis, so we fit well there, too."

DEVELOPING NEW PLAYERS

The USTA is doing its part to develop future tennis players. On Aug. 23, the association will stage the second annual Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the U.S. Open's new home, Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens.

CBS will air a 2-hour special based on the event Aug. 25, sponsored by American Express Co., Infiniti and Nike. USTA will support this week with a national tune-in campaign on radio and in The New York Times.

During U.S. Open broadcasts on CBS and USA Network, which holds cable rights through 2002, USTA will break two spots in its tennis-advocacy effort, a 60-second PSA and an updated version of last year's award-winning "Boy vs. Wall" spot. USTA is handled by Grybauskas Beatrice, New York.

The agency also created a TV campaign that promotes tennis, the U.S. Open, and the new stadium.

Arthur Ashe Stadium is proving to be a marketing hook for the USTA, which is staging a gala inaugural for the facility on Aug. 25. Pop diva Whitney Houston

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