It’s a crisp, autumn morning nearly nine months before fans stream into the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., for the 2016 U.S. Open tennis tournament. Nicole Kankam and her five-member team are already well into their work to ensure their marketing efforts fill the stands in 2016, as capacity at the tennis center continues to grow each year.
Kankam, a Consortium alumna who received her MBA from New York University in 2005, is the managing director for marketing at the USTA, where for three years she’s focused on the organization’s pinnacle event, the U.S. Open. With new seating around the tournament’s practice courts and a new stadium scheduled to open in 2018, organizers are expecting the tournament to draw 14 percent more fans than the 700,000 who already visit the venue during the two weeks straddling Labor Day weekend each year.
“In two years, we have to bring 100,000 more people on the site. Diversity is critical to that,” Kankam said. “This has been top of mind for 10 years. The senior leadership recognized that the U.S. Open can’t just focus on our core audience base, particularly if we want to grow the mission and the U.S. Open.”
In 2015, Kankam piloted a “social influencer” marketing program to help promote the last U.S. Open. She and her team tried it with a single “influencer” in 2014 and expanded the program to five last year. It was specifically designed to increase the diversity of the audience, as well as attract a younger crowd. The average U.S. Open visitor is about 44 years old.
The idea is simple: Look to influential bloggers and social media users serving Hispanic American and African American audiences. Invite them to come to the U.S. Open and photograph or blog about whatever they think will appeal to their audiences. Meanwhile, offer their audiences a code to buy discounted U.S. Open tickets.
One pair of influencers is known as “Street Etiquette,” two African American photographers who did a fashion photo shoot on the U.S. Open tournament grounds. Another—Fashion Bomb Daily—also shot fashion pictures around the grounds, while also sharing anecdotes from that day in the life of writer Claire Sulmers.
“We were happy to have them come on site, blogging, talking about it as they’re here, about why it’s a great event and why they can see themselves here,” Kankam said. “We also captured video of them experiencing the tournament. We’ve seen success tapping into social influencers in those diverse communities. We’re looking to really expand on that social influencer program.”
In fact, U.S. Open tennis growth among African American visitors in 2015 was more than double the 2014 tally, rising from 11 to 23 percent.
Not much of a tennis player
Kankam said she finished her MBA program on a Thursday at NYU in 2005. The next Monday, she was at work at the USTA, originally as a marketing associate. She says USTA veterans mark time based on how many U.S. Opens they’ve worked. She’s finished her ninth, after leaving the USTA for a two-year stint at World Wrestling Entertainment before returning three years ago for the managing director position.
Though she played tennis in high school, she says she basically reserves the racket for free time on vacations and the occasional appearance in the USTA staff tournament.
The USTA recently entered into a corporate partnership with The Consortium that is chiefly designed to draw more executive level leadership to the nonprofit’s staff and its corps of volunteer boards. Kankam said she was thrilled to learn about the partnership with the organization that helped make her MBA possible.
“The most important thing about The Consortium was the network of people I developed,” she said. “The people I stay in touch with the best and the most often are the people I went through The Consortium with. It really built my confidence before going to business school.”
She wasn’t particularly worried about the coursework at NYU. She was ready for that. But the Orientation Program (she attended the 2003 OP in Atlanta) was “a safe place to bond with my future classmates,” she said. “The professional navigation, the networking to get jobs—it really set me up for that.”
Pictured above: Nicole Kankam on the broadcast stage at the U.S. Open tennis tournament venue.