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Volume 20 No. 46

Events and Attractions

U.S. Speedskating has partnered with one of the sport’s most decorated Olympians, Apolo Ohno, to create a short-track speedskating event. 

The event, which will be called the Apolo Ohno Invitational, will be held Nov. 21 at the Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City. It will air live on NBC Sports Network and feature speedskaters from the United States, Canada, China and the Netherlands. 

U.S. Speedskating developed the invitational in an effort to raise the profile of speedskating between Winter Olympics. It pitched Ohno on it last January and tried to underscore that attaching the retired Olympian’s name to it could not only help drive viewership and attendance, which would help the sport, but it also would help to keep his name relevant in the sport for years to come. 

“[Ohno] is the most iconic athlete to ever compete in the sport and he remains incredibly popular in the American public,” said Ted Morris, U.S. Speedskating’s executive director. “He’s the guy we wanted to be attached to what we hope will become the biggest annual event in speedskating.”  

Octagon Olympics and Action Sports managing director Peter Carlisle, who represents Ohno, added, “His name provides some credibility for the event, and for him it creates this great platform to do what he wanted to do when he stepped away from the sport, which is promote it and breathe some life into it. It’s the right time to try something like this.”

The partners both stand to benefit financially. U.S. Speedskating will be able to sell sponsorships to the event and tickets while Ohno will receive a licensing fee and a small percentage of revenue.

U.S. Speedskating hopes to sign a title sponsor and four associate sponsors. Sponsorship assets include TV advertising, billboards and rinkboard signage during the event. 

Morris hopes the invitational can revive a sport that has lost some of its public awareness after Ohno retired after winning his eighth Olympic medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games. During the years Ohno raced, short-track speedskating was one of the most popular sports televised by Olympic rights holder NBC. It is often considered a roller derby on ice, with four to six skaters sprinting around a small rink in 500-meter and 1,000-meter distances. They often collide and wipe out as they race for the finish line. 

The speed and success of the U.S. team during Ohno’s years made the sport a staple of NBC Olympics’ prime-time broadcasts, but with no U.S. stars in Sochi last February, it didn’t receive the same amount of TV time. Morris hopes the Ohno Invitational can change that. 

U.S. Speedskating plans to energize the audience by adding music, lights and the type of in-venue entertainment people associate with NBA games. 

“We’ll try to rock ’n’ roll-ify this event,” Morris said. “The inspiration for me is the Brooklyn Nets. We want to turn the house lights down and the music up and get people excited.” 

Citizen Watch is renewing its sponsorship of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships and expanding its deal to cover the eight Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series events as well as the U.S. Tennis Association’s planned player-development complex in Orlando.

The Citizen deal is the first for the USTA to contractually carry past the completion of the renovation of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2018, as well.

Lew Scherr, USTA chief revenue officer, said the arrangement envisions creating an iconic presence for Citizen on the Open grounds, not disputing the suggestion that the presence could be a giant watch. He declined to offer deal terms.

Lew Scherr (left), USTA chief revenue officer, and Citizen Watch President Jeffrey Cohen

Citizen’s current deal was set to expire after 2015, but the new deal will replace that agreement, making the new contract at least four years in length. Given the inventory involved — the USTA had to clear out all watch deals from many of the eight USOS events — the annual deal is likely near eight figures.

Citizen renewed, Sherr said, “when they saw the investment we were making here [at the National Tennis Center], and they saw the opportunity the Series presents from a [branding] standpoint.”

Scherr negotiated the deal directly with Citizen President Jeffrey Cohen. Citizen has been a U.S. Open sponsor since 1993.

The USTA’s development in Orlando is being billed as the new “home” for American tennis. The $60 million, 100-court project is scheduled to open in late 2016.

WATCHING THE AMBUSH: While Citizen may be happy to renew with the Open, the company could not have been thrilled about the giant Seiko ad that greeted fans as they walked to the nearby subway from the National Tennis Center as the Open got underway last week.

Because the Open is in a public park and surrounded by public transit, ambush marketing is an annual issue for the USTA. Stella Artois, for example, has continued its now-annual practice of plastering the nearby Long Island Railroad and subway stations with tennis-themed advertising. Heineken, which declined to comment on the subject, is the Open’s long-standing beer sponsor.

But this year, the “ambush” subject seems to be at hand even more than in the past.

Seiko bought space on the Metropolitan Transit Authority bus depot building overlooking the boardwalk that connects mass transit to the Open site. The advertising features new Seiko endorser Novak Djokovic.

Additionally, on the first day of this year’s event, Asics sent employees into the subway leading to the Open to hand out promotional flyers and free Metrocards. Polo is the official apparel and sneaker company of the Open.

Scherr said it is challenging to work with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority because the agency sells ads systemwide and the USTA cannot ask the MTA to not sell ads. That said, Sherr expressed disappointment that “reputable companies … are using these tactics.”

The USTA this year did take at least one measure to combat ambushes: The group acquired commercial rights to 175 lamp posts that ring the perimeter of the Open grounds. Companies had previously ambushed the event with small banners on those lights. That space is now used by USTA sponsors.

The USTA negotiated with the New York City parks department for the rights.

MAKING YOU WATCH: The U.S. Open is running ads on ESPN this year that were created by the director of “Napoleon Dynamite,” Jared Hess. The ads originally appeared on YouTube as part of the USTA’s “Tennis Makes You” campaign. The idea is to convey in an irreverent manner that tennis makes you smart and attractive, said Sue Hunt, the USTA’s chief marketing officer.

The ads proved so popular on YouTube, garnering more than 1 million views in the last six months, that the USTA decided to move them into their allotted inventory on ESPN.

A fan photo op at the AmEx Fan Experience

A NEW EX-PERIENCE: American Express last year had 180,000 fans pass through its on-site American Express Fan Experience. This year, almost everything is different at the site, an effort to leave fans with more digital memories, said Michele Carr, American Express’ director of sports sponsorship and strategy.

Gone are the Wii tennis stations. In their place are stations to register for a bracelet that, when scanned at certain stops, lets a fan receive an email with digital highlights. There is a station to swing a racket or jump in the air, with a stadium backdrop behind, and a photo is shot. Fans also can pretend to talk to AmEx endorser Sloane Stephens, and even high five her. The photo emailed appears to show the fan with Stephens, who is digitally inserted.

Carr talked about a “bragability factor” in discussing this year’s set-up. Fans wanted proof they were at the Open, and last year’s experience did not give it to them. There are a few leftovers, from the past: a tennis court, largely used for kids lessons; the Tennis Hall of Fame exhibit; and a swing analysis station.

HIGH-TECH CHASE: JPMorgan Chase is the Open’s top sponsor and long has used the event for two reasons: hospitality and branding. This year, the bank broke a bit out of that model, hosting an event with Andy Roddick in New York City the week before the Open and deploying enhanced technology for fans to experience at the tournament. Using Oculus machines, fans can immerse themselves as a chair umpire, making a line call at the end of what is billed as the final.

An artist is painting a billboard mural based on highlights from the Open.
Photo by: USTA (2)

Chase also made available cellphone charging stations.

“Based on feedback from 2013 U.S. Open attendees, we learned that people were interested in complementary activations that enhanced their experience,” said a JPMorgan spokesman via email.

MAKING MEMORIES: The USTA has hired an artist for this year’s event to paint a mural above the New York side entrance to the Midtown Tunnel that is supposed to capture each day the highlight of the Open. Added to daily, the project ultimately becomes a two-week piece of art.

In its first year, Wasserman Media Group’s endurance sports group has boosted business around its racing events and expanded its stable of athletes. 

The agency launched its endurance group early in 2014, with executive vice president Matt Wikstrom overseeing a staff of eight. The group negotiates contracts and marketing deals for professional cyclists and operates three racing properties: San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers race and the multicity 5K Electric Run and obstacle series ROC Race. 

By operating events and promoting athletes, Wasserman’s ownership model is unique in the U.S. endurance sports space. The company employs a similar strategy in action and Olympic sports, as well as soccer. 

The adult-focused Electric Run combines a nighttime 5K with lights and a party.

The company’s high point came in May, when the Bay to Breakers surpassed 40,000 paid registrants, up 20 percent from 2013. Wasserman bought the event from AEG in October for an undisclosed amount. 

In the lead-up to the race, Wasserman signed apparel manufacturer Under Armour, training website Map My Fitness and travel website Zozi as premier race sponsors, deals valued in the low to mid-six figures. 

“The new deals helped from a financial standpoint, but they also elevated the race’s visibility,” Wikstrom said. “We made some really positive inroads this year.”

The group has also boosted sponsorship revenue around the Electric Run series, which features 23 events made up of a nighttime run followed by a party with electronica music. The group is positioning the events primarily for the adult market, and it cut low-six-figure deals with energy drink Rock Star Energy, whiskey maker Southern Comfort and fitness technology company FitBit.  

Wasserman also grew its stable of professional cyclists to 12, adding cyclocross national champions Jeremy Powers and Logan Owen and road cyclists Caleb Fairly and Travis McCabe. 

Wikstrom plans to branch beyond cycling into other endurance athletes in 2015. 

“We’ve always known what we’re good at, and that’s representing athletes and brands and properties,” Wikstrom said. “We’re applying that to endurance sports, but we’re not getting away from our core focus.”

Fred Dreier is a writer in Colorado.