At a time when too many brands are changing too many sponsorships too often, American Express continues to teach us the value of staying the course.
Its 23-year partnership with US Open Tennis, one of the longest-running in the history of sports sponsorships, year-after-year delivers fresh experiences that engage tennis fans on-site and outside the stadium gates, in New York City and beyond, elevating the practice of sports sponsorship to championship levels.
In 2005, American Express and agency of record Momentum Worldwide scored our coveted Grand Ex award for a US Open activation that included transforming New York City’s Rockefeller Center into a mini National Tennis Center complete with stadium seating, a Jumbotron, live matches, demos and a grass lawn. It would become the poster child for experience extensions and amplifications. Eleven years later the dynamic duo aced the competition once again, snagging another Grand Ex for a fully integrated program that began with incredible off-site events (including a hydro-interactive tennis rally on the Hudson River) and went into full effect with a massive on-site fan experience at the two-week Open competition (in Flushing Meadows, Queens) that included tennis demos, branded moments and a virtual reality experience unlike anything this industry had ever seen.
Then there were the fan favorites—the US Open radios with exclusive content, the tennis clinics, player meet-and-greets and other perks inside that 20,000-square-foot US Open American Express Fan Experience, all designed to connect American Express cardmembers with the action and give them a heightened experience, exclusive access and customized content.
Truth be told, our editors always figured it was inevitable that a brand would end up winning our Grand Ex twice. But in an age of RFIs, RFPs and fickle marketers who seem to change agencies way too often, we figured the odds of a brand and the same agency winning the Grand Ex twice were slim. But after 14 years, they did. You gotta give it up to American Express for its commitment, focus and for staying in the game with the sport of tennis, with the US Open property and with its longtime agency of record Momentum Worldwide.
“Twenty-three years ago when we started this partnership, we were a name on a wall. Now we’re pervasively on the grounds, whether it be the fan experience, the radios, servicing, or ticket access for our members,” says Deborah Curtis, the company’s vp-global experiential marketing and partnerships.
And if American Express gleans a few new cardmembers along the way, so much the better. The Open is the largest attended sporting event in the world (per Forbes), with ticket revenue of roughly $100 million and nearly 700,000 attendees with an average household income of $161,000. A good number of those fans whip out their American Express cards to land seats offered by the company before they go on sale to the public or to access special American Express-sponsored pre-events. On-site, an exclusive cardmember club and customer care representatives answer questions and attend to service needs. The other non-card-carrying fans are a potential source of new business for the financial services giant.
“Our goal is to engage our cardmembers in ways that make them feel more loyal, more connected and more in love with their relationship with American Express. And certainly, it also gives us a platform to showcase what membership means to prospective customers who may not be as familiar with us,” Curtis says.
Tapping into its cardmembers’ passion for tennis and extending its reach to hundreds of thousands of potential new ones is a strategy that’s become the signature of American Express’ US Open partnership. “It’s about keeping it fresh, original and meaning something to the changing environment and the changing consumer,” says Momentum chairman and ceo Chris Weil. “What we’ve found over the years is that cardmembers expect their experience at the US Open will be better because they’re cardmembers—and that encapsulates the value of being a member.”
And as the 23-year-old program has evolved, its one-of-a-kind activations have become so compelling across traditional and social media, they’ve essentially broken through the confines of the stadium where they take place, giving the program exponential reach on a national scale among customers and prospects alike.
The US Open American Express Fan Experience figures prominently on the Open grounds. The custom-built, two-story structure sits atop three full-size courts where fans can play heated matches against friends, watch live-streaming matches on a Jumbotron screen, meet tennis idols and share epic photo match-ups socially. A cardmember club with food, drinks and massages overlooks it all. Throughout the grounds, guest information booths help fans navigate the Open.
So, just how does American Express keep the experience fresh year in and year out? Part of it, Curtis says, is working with the US Tennis Association (USTA), the tournament’s governing body. Three additional factors also help keep the experience feeling new. “Listening and being keenly aware of the latest technology that helps to fuel that fan experience, listening to our gut and what we know about our customers and the notion of wanting to deliver year-on-year for our cardmembers,” Curtis adds.
And so it began. The activation kicked off with American Express’ first Rally on the River, a free VIP and cardmembers-only affair on New York City’s Pier 97 on a lovely Wednesday night before the Open that featured appearances by tennis pros Maria Sharapova, John Isner and Monica Puig, comedian Kevin James and musical guest Chromeo. But the real star of the event was the technology that brought it all to life.
“We didn’t tell people what to expect, so they came looking to get some good food and an evening on the pier, and what we gave them was a hydro-interactive experience,” says Christine Shoaf, svp-global business lead on the American Express account at Momentum. As guests arrived, the back of the staging blocked the stadium seating and tennis court on the other side.
After about 20 minutes of mingling, photo ops, interviews and the press energy buzz, brand ambassadors handed each guest a tennis ball and brought them to the stadium at the end of the pier. The host congratulated American Express and the USTA for renewing their ongoing relationship, then, once it got dark, a 40-foot-tall by 60-foot-wide truss came to life with about 30,000 gallons of water pumped in from the Hudson River (which was returned to the Hudson, later, of course) forming a water wall that glowed with color and graphics in response to the on-court action. As the players—first the pros, then some of the fans in the stands—competed, their interactive tennis racquets translated their moves into 3D graphics, animations, sounds and video projections onto the wall, all in real time, with custom-tracking software built by Momentum. At the end of the event, everyone joined the action as they descended onto the court and threw their tennis balls into the wall.
“We gamified the playing experience,” says Jason Snyder, Momentum’s chief technology officer, who with a team of lighting, audio and computer engineers put the experience together in less than four weeks. But despite all the technology, brain power and planning, ultimately the end result was out of his hands. “In many ways we were at the mercy of the wind, because if it exceeded 15 mph, the water curtain would bend and not only make the court wet but distort the images,” says Snyder, who throughout the event nervously waited in the catwalk above the structure, his wind meter in hand and praying very hard. “In the end, Mother Nature cooperated,” he says.
Two ingredients contributed to the success of Rally on the River. “One, it was a celebration of the extension of our partnership with the USTA, which was a big, celebratory moment for both of our brands,” Curtis says. “And second, we wanted to bring new technology to build on the excitement leading up to the Open, but do so in a way that hadn’t been done before by putting the fan at the center of the experience.”
A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME
That strategy—putting the fan at the center of the experience using technology in a way that had never been done before—also played out at American Express’ on-site Fan Experience via a virtual reality You vs. Sharapova activation, a never-been-done-before engagement that pit fans against the tennis pro’s blistering serves, lobs and volleys and ran for the duration of the tournament. This industry had never seen anything like it.
“VR made a lot of sense, but no one had ever built a live action, fully active sport VR experience,” Snyder says. So he tapped into contacts at HTC to snag the new Vive technology, which wasn’t commercially available, and along with Valve lighthouse tracking, Steam VR and ReelFX technologies created a VR experience unlike any other.
“We weren’t going to make a passive VR experience, like most of what you see today,” he explains. “We wanted people to play tennis, so this was really the technology that facilitated that.”
Once Snyder solved that problem, he and his team jumped into production mode. First they captured a full body scan of Sharapova inside a massive 20-foot tall by 20-foot wide sphere, then shot her hitting balls and speaking lines (“Good try,” and “Now, let’s see if you can handle my serve!”) that the creative team wrote based on what she might say in an actual tennis rally. They also created a VR “coach” who would introduce players to the two-and-a-half minute experience and filmed an official USTA tennis court and its environment. “We worked with our animators to composite all that digital information together, and put that inside of a game engine and a physics engine, which we then tuned to the experience folks were going to have,” Snyder says.
Snyder and his team configured the audio, so players could hear the “swish” of the racquet strings moving through the air and other sounds activated through the gyroscopes and sensors of the controller in the player’s hand. “We would adjust the physics engine to make sure it wasn’t too hard, and that the balls were bouncing with the earth’s gravity,” Snyder adds.
On-site at the Open, fans lined up outside the three bays for their chance to wear the headset with integrated headphones and swing a wireless controller that was weighted to feel like a tennis racquet as they played against a computer-generated Sharapova. “The lines were longer than anything we’ve ever had, but for most people it wasn’t bad,” says Shoaf. “At our highest point it was less than an hour and, given the nature of the space, there were plenty of people who would have been in there for an hour anyway because of the air conditioning and watching a match.”
The entire program was integrated with above-the-line media, below-the-line promotions, and cross-channel marketing. Rally on the River’s video recap became the most-viewed content in the history of American Express. The fan experience drew 210,000 visitors and led to 1.25 million on-site engagements. The program as a whole generated 1.7 billion p.r. impressions, and served up 4.9 million social engagements, 197 million broadcast impressions and 16.2 million video views.
A SPIRIT OF COMPETITION
Curtis calls You vs. Sharapova one of the company’s most exciting activations. “In the past we have done everything from swing analysis to our fan court,” she says. “It is really about trying to have them feel the Open in a new way, and the ultimate experience is actually feeling like you are on that court with a player, so that was incredibly exciting that the technology has actually caught up to make that feel so real.”
For Snyder, a high point of the experience occurred when Bill Gates asked to have one of the systems shipped to him. “He ended up tweeting a picture of himself playing a tennis game out to his followers. For me, as a chief technology officer, that was a really big deal.”
Other on-site touchpoints included the radio earpieces pre-tuned to live play-by-play commentary and match updates available to cardmembers throughout the Open and to all fans on Sept. 7. Snyder describes them as “not high-tech, but important tech.” Fans also could star in shareable videos simulating a rally from the tennis court baseline at Arthur Ashe stadium and people at home could tap into the excitement of daily US Open-themed #AmexTennis debates on Twitter with tennis pros Isner and Puig.
Indeed, the matches, and the spirit of competition fueled American Express’s 2015 Open activation, from the Rally on the River and You vs. Sharapova until the last fan left the tennis center. “We were not only looking at how we can immerse our cardmembers in new ways, but how do we get them to feel what a player would feel on the court, and to compete with themselves to elevate their own game,” Curtis says. “That was certainly a driving force of the virtual reality experience as well as Rally on the River—the competitive nature of the game and the energy and fervor of New York City.”