SBJ/September 21 - 27, 1998/No Topic Name

Tennis group to protest 'ambush' ad campaign

The U.S. Tennis Association plans to complain formally to American International Group Inc. about advertisements the insurance giant placed outside the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

The ads thanked fans for attending the Open, which ended on Sept. 13. The USTA, which hosts the event, is worried the ads could have been interpreted as giving AIG a formal connection to the Open. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. is the official insurance sponsor of the event, while AIG is not a sponsor.

"We believe we have a responsibility to protect our sponsors from ambush marketing tactics," said Pierce O'Neil, the USTA's director of marketing.

O'Neil would not actually identify AIG as the target of USTA's ire but said it was clear from walking outside the grounds who the offending party was.

The two AIG ads were almost impossible to miss as spectators walked away from the Open and toward the subway and the parking lot at Shea Stadium. One said: "This event insures the only thing we can't. Great tennis. (Thanks for coming) AIG-world leader in insurance and financial services." The ads were on canvas draped on two sides of a building that houses a bus depot.

The USTA plans to send a letter to AIG complaining about the ads and asking that they not be repeated next year, but the association is unlikely to threaten any actions, legal or otherwise. AIG did not return calls seeking comment.

The USTA letter comes as the price of a U.S. Open sponsorship continues to rise. The U.S. Open this year took in

$30 million from 21 sponsors, nearly doubling the dollar amount from just a few years ago. Given those numbers, it's not hard to see why the USTA would seek to protect a U.S. Open sponsor's exclusivity.

Ambush marketing is not uncommon surrounding a major event. The Olympics have had to deal with it for years, and other leagues and teams are similarly afflicted.

"Certainly, when the stakes are high and when there is a high-profile event of the magnitude of the U.S. Open, it is fairly common that companies that cannot get in the front door will still want to deliver their message," said Frank Vuono, president and chief executive of Integrated Sports International.

In fact, Reebok International Ltd. orchestrated a series of events around this Open, including having Venus Williams wear a different outfit in each round she played. And Fox Sports Australia had a logo on Patrick Rafter's shirt during the finals, which were televised on CBS Sports.

The USTA was not as concerned with Reebok's massive ambush campaign, however, even though Fila Holding S.p.A. is the official footwear sponsor of the U.S. Open. Even last year, Nike Inc. — once the king of ambush marketing — ran a series of ads on the subway line that travels to Flushing Meadows.

AIG appeared to have hit too close to home because the ads seem to suggest the insurer has USTA sanction. But because the ads did not even mention the U.S. Open by name, or include the USTA logo, the ads are legitimate, said Vuono.

In fact, Vuono is critical of the USTA for not surveying all the possible ambush sites — such as a major building site right outside the tennis grounds — and ensuring they are used only by sponsors or the USTA.

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