Brian Lutz / September 14, 2020

Brian Lutz Commentary. How Good Can You Get At Tennis? Take My Questionnaire

US OPEN 2020.

You cannot be serious.

I am. We are going to look at the way the 2020 US Open Championships in NYC marketed their product. When I say product I mean the tennis tournament during the Corona Virus pandemic.

With no fans, no fan noise piped in (hint: they needed it) the tournament that took place at Flushing Meadows, Queens was a challenging affair for the hosts and the eyes and ears of the viewers.

Sponsorship is serious business especially when you don’t have any tickets sales from fans. In fact, marketing tennis stars is big time business so much so the term: “you cannot be serious” did get an application for trademark by IMG who represented John McEnroe at some point in time. It never followed through to fruition.

And neither did many of the marketing ideas for this years 2020 US Open. The fan board used in the NBA bubble was repurposed for the tennis but they didn’t really utilize it as well as the NBA.

Idea! Have some celebrities on the fan board and include some scripted interview questions with celebrities for winning players on Ashe stadium.

Why a scripted you ask? There is too much on the line to simply “wing it” with family members and fans. You can ask fans to conduct some questions. The problem is the fans ask bad questions that lack any compelling substance plus fans are not used to performing on camera with hundreds of thousands of viewers watching on ESPN.

This is why radio stations pre record all listeners that call into the show. They never do it live even thought it sounds like they do. This marketing thing is serious business. It’s has to be polished to be effective.

Fans surely would tune in to see which celebrity would pop up next for after match interviews. Who wouldn’t want to see Alec Baldwin or his alter ego Donald Trump interview Novak Djokovic after his satisfying win?

It was also very awkward for players. The tournament would use family members to interview winning players.

But many of the players were uncertain if fans could see them and vice versa. These were essentially post match blind dates.

The best marketing of the tournament was by Naomi Osaka who won the women’s title. She wore the names of newsworthy victims of allegeded police altercations (I’m purposely making a neutral statement) on her protective mask.

The mask was solid black with white colored font of the names of the deceased. She wore a different name for each round she played. It got a lot of attention and naturally got a heartwarming reception from the surviving family members and the news media.

This type of marketing or in this case activism was a nice touch and grew her own personal brand while getting the viewer to ask questions or at the very least do some googling or retweeting. This guerrilla marketing was a fresh addition to the on court fan less event. Ironically, none of it came from the tournament organizers.

For most of us who were watching it on television the breaks were dominated by the technology partner IBM. One of the first things the USTA should consider is dropping them and getting a fresh company to help drive the sport to new levels.

Firstly, IBM Watson has to be the lamest computer in the world. The stats they generate and the questions the Watson comes up with is about as interesting as a race of garden snails. Big Blue has turned into Old Gray.

Here is a sample of the IBM algorithm and the questions it gathered from all of its myriad of data points:

“Is Billy Jean King the most influential tennis player in history?”

“Are the Bryan Brothers the best doubles team of all time?”

“Is Roger Federer the best tennis player ever”

As John McEnroe pointed out during the ESPN broadcast: “Do we need a computer to ask these questions?”


With the United States being such a technology driven culture it is time for the United States Tennis Association to develop a digital strategy to take the tournament into the future.

The US Open app has been bad for years. Now with google snippets you can type in any name. For example: “thiem vs zverev” and you will instantly get scores and stats.

This is called zero click searching. Which is much more convenient than downloading an app that requires lots of navigation and little added value.

For those watching at home you will find a lot of repeats when it comes to commercials. Naturally, that’s the name of the game in advertising but it becomes mind numbing to watch.

After seeing a spot over 50 times I start tuning out any brand messaging.

Naturally, IBM tops the list with some not very well thought out creative. Lots of old ideas and concepts from the agency that developed the ads repurposed from social media.

Here is the sample of their work. It’s cute as you can see they check all of the boxes the client wants accomplished with a focus on multi-cultural participation and inclusion but the creative is simply tired after the second or third viewing.

Year after year over used tennis metaphors greet us each year at the end of summer. It’s like ground hog day for sponsors every US Open but we know it’s gonna be a long winter even before we see the ad.

Here is a sample of what I’m talking about:

This IBM spot is so bad it only has 8000 views on youtube and it was published on Aug 31st the day the tournament started. That’s terrible reach in case you were wondering.

Bai on the other hand did a terrific job with messaging and branding with celebrity spokesperson John Legend. Here is my favorite spot.

This ad makes your mouth water when you see the ad. John’s velvety voice, cranberry colored suit and moving props never get boring.

The script is clever and on point: give your tongue a taste vacation.

Yes, John is a huge sell out but it’s forgivable since he has no where to perform live during the pandemic and musicians can’t make any money selling records any more.

US Open your marketing in 2020 was a foot fault in the first game of the first set in the first round.

Photo credit: Ad Age