Tennis doesn’t typically give retailers a big bounce, but that isn’t deterring brands from pushing new product and marketing initiatives to coincide with this month’s U.S. Open in New York.
Executives said that the tournament, the final Grand Slam event of the year, offers worldwide exposure and a stage to showcase fresh merchandise.
“The visibility is incredible; it’s huge to have that launch at that time,” said Bruce Schilling, GM of sports marketing for tennis and golf at New Balance, adding that tennis fans are most engaged during the major tournaments.
Schilling confirmed New Balance would have a fresh colorway of its acclaimed 996v2 shoe in time for the U.S. Open, as well as a new performance-apparel kit, available in mid-August.
The company has seen its on-court profile increase significantly as Milos Raonic, one of its sponsored athletes, has risen through the ranks. (Raonic was the runner-up at Wimbledon this year.)
For Under Armour, somewhat a newcomer to the tennis market, visibility at the U.S. Open is critical.
“The category is an area of growth for us, so it’s very important for us to utilize major events to drive brand awareness around our athletes, product and innovations within the category,” said Kevin Ross, VP and GM of golf and tennis at Under Armour.
The Baltimore-based athletic label does not have a performance tennis shoe commercially available. UA only produces custom sneakers for its sponsored athletes: Scottish player Andy Murray (who recently won Wimbledon) and young American Sloane Stephens.
Ross said that Murray, Stephens and other athletes should help fuel shopper interest in Under Armour’s tennis apparel and accessories during the roughly two weeks that the U.S. Open is being played. “We certainly see an increased interest for tennis-specific product, whether that is product inspired by the kits our athletes are wearing or general training product,” Ross said.
Adidas is introducing two new apparel collections — the Barricade for men and the Adizero for men and women — for the tournament. Adizero will be worn by Angelique Kerber, and Barricade by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. (Novak Djokovic plays in Adidas shoes, but wears apparel from his sponsor Uniqlo.)
“It’s certainly not as big as basketball and soccer, but we take all sports very seriously,” said Mark King, president of Adidas Group North America. “We look at tennis as a heartbeat sport [that people are passionate about]; it’s important here and in many countries around the world.”
While some brands are merely present in the marketplace, others devote considerable resources to remain a leader in it. In fact, Fila, with its lengthy heritage in tennis, is doubling down on the sport.
This year, the brand extended its partnership with the BNP Paribas Open, entered into a new partnership with Tennis Canada and signed pro John Isner.
“We’re going to continue to commit to these big events because they give us authenticity,” said Jon Epstein, president of Fila North America, which also sponsors Sam Querrey.
The exec confirmed Fila has 830 tennis-specialty retail accounts in the U.S. alone, adding that its commitment to the sport is year-round, not just during major tournaments.
“You’ve got indoor tennis in states like Florida, Texas and California, where they’re playing all year, and you’ve got clubs that demand freshness and newness all the time,” he said.
“We have collections we drop every single month all year long to our core tennis accounts.”
Still, Matt Powell, global sports industry analyst with The NPD Group, believes investing too much in the sport is a mistake.
“The tennis business in the U.S. is pretty tiny,” he said. “It’s not a significant shoe or an apparel business, and I don’t think it has much of an
impact on retailers.”
Brands in the space might disagree. Nike, for one, continues to heavily promote its roster of star tennis athletes, which includes Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, with the latter crossing over into Hollywood territory in a recent Nike training campaign featuring actor-comedian Kevin Hart.