Opportunity doesn't always knock. Sometimes it just leaves a flier at the door.So it was for James Blake, the Cinderella tennis player who overcame a broken neck and his father's death in 2004 to reach this year's US Open quarterfinals - only to lose a thrilling five-set match to Andre Agassi. The feel-good ride was publicity gold for the event's outstanding PR team, which reacted quickly to the unfolding story, placing Blake on such outlets as The Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America, vaulting the Open from the sports pages into entertainment news.
"The US Open is the highest-attended annual sporting event in the world, and we try to utilize that platform to bring attention to not only the tournament, but its economic impact on New York, and the human interest stories that develop," says Chris Widmaier, senior PR director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the sport's US governing body. "We've also placed more emphasis on outreach to non-traditional media such as Vanity Fair, Us, and In Touch."
Another unfolding story was, of course, Hurricane Katrina, which tournament officials responded to by establishing relief funds on-site, coordinating with Red Cross efforts, and arranging for players to donate money for every ace they hit.
Widmaier's staff handles accreditation for 1,500 journalists, and juggles interviews and post- match press conferences for 300-plus players at the beginning of the fortnight. Some 500 outlets, including USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times, are a daily presence, while many others attend sporadically or are given special one-day credentials. Emphasis is placed on providing international journalists access to players from their country.
"Some countries have several magazines devoted just to tennis and are hugely interested," Widmaier says, "so there's a concerted effort to schedule matches for international players at prime viewing times for their respective countries." More than 60 nations are represented at the Open, making multi-language publicists a valuable asset, states Widmaier, who formerly worked in PR with the NFL and at Dan Klores Communications. He and the USTA PR team work alongside journalists and photographers throughout the tournament in a state-of-the-art media center adjoining the main stadium. I'll tell you about this mecca of comfort and convenience in next week's column...
Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer