What to expect at the fanless U.S. Open
Of all the sporting events trying to operate in a COVID-era fanless world, the U.S. Open—which starts Monday in New York City—might face the toughest task.
Fans are in the event’s DNA, from the boisterous late-night crowds filling the upper reaches of Arthur Ashe Stadium to the countless swanky corporate hospitality gatherings hosted by sponsors that pay top dollar for suites. In a normal year the tournament draws 700,000-plus fans to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, making it the largest annually attended sporting event in the world, according to the United States Tennis Association.
While it will be impossible to recreate the Big Apple buzz this year, the USTA and its sponsors are scrambling to at least maintain some of the tourney’s magic through a series of campaigns and virtual activations. Organizers have had to move faster than a Serena Williams serve—since the decision to go-forward with the tournament came less than three months ago.
“The last two months, we have had to completely re-imagine how we are marketing the event,” says Nicole Kankam, the USTA’s managing director of marketing.
Below, a look at what to expect.
Addressing social justice
The USTA will debut a new campaign called “Be Open” from dentsuMcgarrybowen that hits on themes of racial justice and equality. It includes a video narrated by singer Andra Day, as well as her song, “Rise Up,” that will run on ESPN Monday, on the tournament’s opening day, and feature equality advocates and trailblazers including Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King. The effort includes a program called “Black Lives to the Front” in which the USTA has commissioned artwork from 18 black artists that will fill empty rows of the stadium.
“We would be remiss if we didn't leverage the huge opportunity and attention on the U.S. Open and not address the reality of what is happening out in the world from a social justice perspective,” Kankam says.
Turning sponsor suites into player spaces
Suites that are normally filled with fancy sponsor parties will be handed over to players in an effort to provide more socially distant spaces for stars to relax. As Forbes reported, the Mercedes activation enter was converted into an outdoor fitness area and the Emirates café turned into a player dining area.
Online concerts, e-commerce cocktail kits and ace ventures
While they won’t be on site with fans, sponsors are still trying to make some noise. JPMorgan Chase, a U.S. Open sponsor for 39 years, normally hosts top chefs and tennis legends at events for its customers at the air-conditioned Chase Lounge. This year the marketer is doing virtual cooking demos, while also streaming a concert on its social channels on Friday featuring Khalid, Chloe x Halle and Kane Brown.
The longtime signature drink of the U.S. Open is the Honey Deuce cocktail from Grey Goose, which features a honeydew melon ball. This year, Grey Goose is selling them in the form of cocktail kits that can be purchased online from Sourced Craft Cocktails.
Mercedes-Benz USA is running a program with Sloane Stephens in which it pledges to donate $50 to the USTA’s “Rally to Rebuild” foundation for every ace served at the Open. The foundation benefits 160,000 underserved youth in 250 diverse communities across the country, according to the automaker.
Subdued ‘fan’ sounds
COVID-era sports viewers have gotten accustomed to fake crowd noise pumped into Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association game broadcasts. But ESPN—which is airing the tourney—is promising to limit faux fan sounds at the Open to select periods, like when players walk on and off the court. Otherwise, the network says audio will be “optimized to capture the physicality of players’ performances—how hard they’re hitting the ball, their force/strength,” according to a production summary shared with Ad Age. As for the commercial breaks, ESPN has sold out of ad time for the finals and semifinals, according to a network representative.
Virtual player boxes
Part of the U.S. Open experience is watching players climb into their so-called player boxes after a big win to hug a coach or parent. That won’t happen this year. But the USTA is erecting LED screens around the lower perimeter of Ashe stadium that will beam in feeds of family and friends watching from afar, allowing them to interact virtually with their loved ones.