At last year’s US Open, tennis players faced off in an empty stadium due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To try to keep fans engaged, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), which hosts the annual event, moved fast to invest heavily in the digital experience. Through a partnership with IBM, spectators could watch live competition via streaming video and read AI-powered narratives before games, based on stats and coverage from prior matches. There was even AI-generated crowd noise, with different sounds correlating to different levels of excitement on the court.
Chief Marketing Officer Amy Choyne’s team also relied on the power of storytelling to keep athletes connected with fans. That included streaming historical matches on YouTube, hosted by the players themselves; live Twitter conversations as matches happened; and creating at-home viewing kits, complete with a Grey Goose collectible glass and signature tennis-themed cocktail.
“We had a robust content strategy at usopen.org to make sure that we were doubling down on our reporting and storytelling…[as] the stories were happening,” Choyne says.
The Importance of Authenticity
In her role, Choyne leads branding for the US Open, oversees fan engagement, and works on community tennis initiatives, which seek to grow the number of people playing the sport in the US.
When it comes to connecting with fans, Choyne is an advocate of focusing on target demographics and developing content that resonates in an authentic way with that group. As an example, Choyne points to an initiative emphasizing women’s equality in the sport.
“If we were telling the story…we would lean into bringing Billie Jean King [a top tennis player in the 1970s] forward and interviewing her,” she says. “But if we were talking to a younger audience, we would possibly bring in Venus Williams, who is really taking the torch from Billie in this area, and perhaps has a deep connection to a younger-skewing audience.”
Choyne’s team also looks for opportunities to get insight directly from players. During Black History Month, Choyne’s team opted to post an open letter from Frances Tiafoe Jr., a Black professional tennis player, instead of an interview or traditional profile written by USTA staff.
“Coming from a player’s point of view, rather than one of our editors on staff, was incredibly personal and connects on…being a person of color [in tennis],” she says. “And what better way to do it than in the authentic voice?”
Metrics Choyne Tracks
When analyzing fans’ reaction to USTA initiatives, Choyne turns to social media in addition to traditional focus groups. “I read all the comments on social media,” she says. “Everyone has an opinion, and they might not always be nice. There are a lot of hate-sayers on social media.”
According to Choyne, the team assesses engagement levels quarterly to look for increases and decreases. That includes retention of people participating in USTA programs, the number of tickets sold to events, the time spent on the USTA site, and interactions with digital initiatives.
While the association has yet to release information about the number of fans allowed at the event, the US Open will be held in-person, starting in August, at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, NY.