At this year’s U.S. Open, you don’t need to be a tennis pro to face off against Maria Sharapova on the court.
American Express is partnering with Ms. Sharapova for a virtual reality game that lets U.S. Open fans return the tennis legend’s serves with their own moves, the latest example of amarketer embracing new technologies to create immersive experiences for consumers. The “You Vs. Sharapova” game is just one element of American Express’s broader marketing efforts around the tennis tournament, which the company has sponsored for more than 20 years.
“We really are more than ever tapping into the competitive fire of the U.S. Open as an event that not only embodies the level of competitive intensity for the players but is also fueled by the energy and spirit of New York,” said Deb Curtis, American Express vice president of global sponsorships and experience marketing.
While American Express doesn’t disclose the number of card members that attend the U.S. Open, Ms. Curtis said the company’s ticket sales and attendees to its “fan experience” activation and programming have been increasing every year.
The card company is one of the biggest ad spenders at the U.S. Open. American Express last year spent $7.7 million on measured media during the tournament, second only to Mercedes Benz which spent $8.2 million, according to data from WPP’s Kantar Media. In all, advertisers spent nearly $68 million during last year’s U.S. Open, Kantar Media data shows.
This year, American Express wanted to go a step further to help fans feel the intensity of a professional tennis match and to use virtual reality technology in a more active way. The “You vs. Sharapova” activation, which lets fans go head-to-head in a virtual tennis match with Ms. Sharapova using live action and computer generated imagery of the athlete — and even try to return the star’s 100 mile-per-hour serve — is a major component in American Express’s U.S. Open fan offerings this year.
Ms. Sharapova has signed a two-year partnership with American Express for this year and next year’s U.S. Open, marking the first time the company has worked with the tennis star. Financial terms of Ms. Sharapova’s partnership with American Express weren’t disclosed. In addition to appearing in the virtual reality tennis game, Ms. Sharapova will appear in out-of-home ads starting Monday that promote the services American Express is offering on and off-site at this year’s tournament.
“Maria in a lot of ways is an embodiment of our customer,” said Ms. Curtis, adding that the company looks for celebrity partners that have stories that inspire its customers. “She’s a card member, a business owner, a philanthropist.”
The ads, which highlight Ms. Sharapova’s competitive spirit, will appear in locations along the route fans take to the U.S. Open in New York City, such as Grand Central Station, the 7 subway train headed to the tournament, the U.S. Open boardwalk and the Citi Field LIRR station. The creative is a continuation of American Express’s “Journey Never Stops” campaign that launched in February.
Ms. Curtis said the company is thinking about ways to partner with Ms. Sharapova beyond the U.S. Open and noted it worked with the tennis star to create a curated guide of New York City attractions for U.S. Open attendees.
The company’s “fan experience” activation at the U.S. Open will also include meet and greets with other tennis stars, radio earpieces for card holders that provide live commentary and match updates from ESPN, and U.S. Open-themed Twitter debates with tennis players John Isner and Monica Puig.