When tennis star and Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick saw the hosts of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption criticizing the U.S. Tennis Association's new marketing campaign for the U.S. Open Series on July 19, he was delighted. So delighted, in fact, that he went on the show the next day to explain why the series really is "Summer's Hottest Reality Series."
"I think it's just [kind of an] easy promotional tool to make people pay attention," Roddick said to hosts Jay Mariotti and Michael Wilbon, "which it did because you're talking about it."
But is any publicity good publicity? In its latest advertising campaign, the USTA has glommed on to the reality television wave, formatting television spots and print ads to resemble Survivor, American Idol and The Real World, among others. The television spots each highlight one of 17 players and their made-for-TV personality.
Serena Williams is "The Diva," and sister Venus is "The Goddess." Veteran Andre Agassi is "The Legend," and Roddick is known as "Rocket Man." With nicknames like "Mr. Unpredictable" (Marat Safin) and "The Drama Queen" (Vera Zvonareva), not all of it is positive, but that is exactly what the USTA and its marketing consultant firm, Arnold Worldwide, were striving for.
"We knew it would be a little bit polarizing," said John Staffen, the creative director at Arnold who directed the campaign, "but the truth is, tennis is one person vs. another person, and what goes into that is the total makeup of that person, and you can identify with a certain player as much as that guy on American Idol."
Though aligning the sport with reality television has given the USTA a medium to introduce the "characters" of the U.S. Open Series, it brings along with it everything else that the name "reality television" represents.
"Reality TV has a negative connotation, almost like you're looking for dirt," said Jim Kahler, director of the MBA sports business program at Arizona State University. "When you think of reality television, most of it is garbage - who is going to get knocked off the island, who is sleeping with who - and I don't think corporate America connects with that."
Though the campaign has not revealed any secret trysts, it also does not show how the game is played. The spots show how the players prepare for matches and what they think of the sport, but forehands and backhands are missing.
"People would rather see great competition and less identify with the athlete," said James Gentry, professor of marketing at the University of Nebraska. "It also doesn't show that it's too glamorous."
Gentry said that could be a strength of the campaign. By showing the players as people and not as superstars, the television sports could demystify some of the privileged air of the sport.
"Tennis is seen as somewhat elitist," Gentry said. "They're trying to take some of that elitism away and show these people are just like us."
Although no finite numbers are available yet to show if the campaign has had any impact as the series' third week begins, visits to the USTA's Web site have increased since the campaign was launched, according to Chris Whidmire, spokesman for the USTA.
"Sports truly is reality TV," Whidmire said. "You don't know what is going to happen until the game is played."