Indian Wells, one of the premier-level tennis tournaments on the professional circuit, has always brought nightmares for Serena Williams. In 2001, at the age of 19, Williams took the court for the Championship match against Kim Clijsters. Upon entering the court, Williams and her family received an overwhelming amount of “boos” and jeers, especially from the white spectators in attendance. What caused this uproar, which is sometimes stated as the most malicious environment ever seen in the history of tennis? In the previous, semifinals round, Venus and Serena were scheduled to play each other. Just four minutes before the match, Venus withdrew, citing an injury. Very few people believed this claim, as suspicion lead to father and coach, Richard Williams, who was believed to fix his daughters’ matches. With angry fans, the hostility carried over to Serena’s next match, seen in the video below.
With anger and a heavy undertone of violence in the air, Serena remained strong and eventually won the match. Serena later stated,
“I walked out onto the court, the crowd immediately started jeering and booing. Throughout my whole career, integrity has been everything to me. It is also everything and more to Venus. The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply. The undercurrent of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”
After that year’s tournament, both Serena and Venus avoided the tournament. As a premier event, both sisters received heavy fines, but in an effort to boycott, they remained steadfast. While Serena refused to play at Indian Wells for over a decade, but this year she made a change. This is where social media comes in.
In a personal essay for TIME, Williams announced her return. Within this online article that went viral in the tennis community, Williams revealed her reasoning for returning. At the end she said, “Indian Wells was a pivotal moment of my story, and I am a part of the tournament’s story as well. Together we have a chance to write a different ending.” Personally, I do believe it was the right time for her to return to the tournament, but I also think there were other non-emotional factors that led to this decision. After this announcement, a barrage of professional videos (see below), images, and articles hit the web promoting her return.
Partnered with Omaze, a fundraising site for specific causes, Williams partnered with the Equal Justice Initiative to not only raise money, but to randomly select one contributor for an all-inclusive trip to Indian Wells to meet her through a VIP experience. After this initial, professionally-made video, multiple others were released to promote this package, including detailed fun facts, her favorite social media comments, and other promotions. Serena also went to twitter to interact with fans, mentioning Omaze.com in every post.
Omaze wasn’t the only company to jump on this Indian Wells ship with Serena; Nike and Pepsi decided to tag along as well. Using #serenareturns, both Williams and Nike, who is Serena’s most famous and lucrative partnership posted this advertisement on their Twitter (3K favorites) and Facebook (1K likes) accounts.
For Pepsi’s promotion, they used an artistic image of Williams is paired with a Pepsi logo and the caption “When you challenge yourself, everything looks different. Check me out in a different light.” While not inferring anything about Serena’s return to Indian Wells, the timing of this ad is aligned with Nike’s strategy – to launch these ads only days before the tournament begins.
What is there to learn from Williams’ announcement and social strategy in her return to the Indian Wells tournament? First, “Williams and Partners” knew how to release her announcement to create the biggest exposure. She could have simply written a Twitter post, but she decided to make it big – making her initial announcement through TIME. Secondly, she supported that announcement through a promotion – including a cause, i.e. Omaze and the Equal Justice Initiative. This strategy not only informs the public about her return and charity work – but creates positive branding and excitement for her as a player.
Additionally, through Nike and Pepsi’s ads, Williams is able to make more money and get more support through a co-branding technique. Serena and these brands aren’t the only people to benefit – Indian Wells also gains supporters. Being one of the most famous female athletes in the world, many West Coast fans will be drawn to the tournament, creating more ticket sales and profit. While her announcement would have generated buzz already, the release of various partnerships and promotions via social media created an international news frenzy seen by all. In general, This reunion may have been beneficial for her spirit and heart, it might have been beneficial for her bank, image, and partners as well.
Sources: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2396406-serena-williams-vs-monica-niculescu-score-and-recap-from-indian-wells-2015, http://time.com/3694659/serena-williams-indian-wells/, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/03/serena-williams-return-indian-wells-score-2001-racism