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Beware the wrath of the celebrity athlete

Beware the wrath of the celebrity athlete

Overzealous folks at the US Open learned the hard way to never forget who brings value to the sport. Andreas Keller shows how the region can learn from this PR debacle.

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September 30, 2011 4:36 by



Andreas Keller is the Managing Director of Weber Shandwick, Dubai.

For all you tennis fans out there, if you followed the recent US Open in New York, I’m sure you will agree that it had more drama than any episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The people’s champion Roger Federer blew several match points in his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams disgraced herself by unleashing a tirade of abuse against the umpire in the women’s final. What this year’s US Open will be most remembered for, however, is the major rain delays that affected the tournament and indirectly plunged the United States Tennis Association (USTA) into a PR crisis.

OVERZEALOUS PR
The first week of the tournament all began so well with gripping matches, great crowds and storylines. Jon Wertheim who covers tennis for CNNSI.com commented on the great first week in his Saturday, Sept 3 recap:

Then the rain came and threw the event organisers, USTA, the ultimate curve ball. Matches were cancelled, entire days were scratched and the organisers scrambled to find solutions.

At the slightest hint of good weather players were sent out to go on court and then in some cases called back after less than 20 minutes. The conditions were not optimal, but it is not uncommon for players to be sent out in wet weather to play tennis. Heavy rain is an issue that tennis associations who host Grand Slam events in France and England deal with every year. So what went wrong here?

In their overzealousness to keep spectators happy and get their schedule under control, USTA lost sight of their single most important stakeholder: the athletes who play the game and fill the stadiums. Above all else, players want to play so USTA just assumed they would be willing to go out and play in slippery and dangerous conditions even when the courts were not ready.

PLAYERS REVOLT
Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray reacted furiously after being sent out to play in what they believed were dangerously wet conditions. Take a look at what they had to say here:

UNHAPPY RAFA (by MrNeonSports)

NADAL NOT FEELING PROTECTED (by ESPNUK)

RODDICK NOT HAPPY WITH CONDITIONS (by ESPNUK)

Hearing such public comments from athletes who endure a rigorous playing schedule, put their bodies on the line 365 days a year and often play in matches that go well over five hours gives their statements instant credibility. As far as I can remember, never have players voiced similar concerns so forcefully at any other major event.

As a governing body of a sport, if you are embroiled in a PR battle with celebrity athletes you will almost always lose. Anyone who has worked with athletes or celebrities will tell you that their happiness is often the #1 priority because if they are not happy, their complaints can have irreparable damage to your image and reputation. Without them there is no show.

It is baffling how USTA ignored the concerns of the players and it doesn’t seem like they really consulted with them which forced them to go public with their statements. The players are also smarter than USTA. Nadal enlisted the support of other key players such as Murray and Roddick to give more significance to his complaints.

Here is a video that sums up the unrest that was taking place:

WHAT COULD HAVE USTA DONE?
They could have avoided the issue going public by simply having a dialogue with the players to agree on a mutually beneficial solution.

You want to get the well-known players on your side, especially those who have a lot of clout on the tour. I mean would anyone care if Donald Young or John Isner complained? They should have identified the main antagonist, in this case Nadal, and dealt with his concerns and complaints swiftly.

Once the issue became public, USTA then put out a statement which said: “Unfortunately, not all light rain and mist shows up on radar. We have experienced referees, and they decide if courts are fit for play. Conditions may be not ideal, but still can be safe.”

Who would you believe about safety, the referees (who have probably never played a competitive match in their lives) or the players? That’s a tough one…

Take a look at a Roddick getting upset with officials about the condition of the court:

WHAT CAN THE MIDDLE EAST LEARN FROM ALL THIS?
Let’s face it. In business and in life, nothing always runs according to script. The unexpected occasionally happens, but it’s how you deal with the situation and the people around you that ultimately define the success of the decisions you’ve made.

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