Tennis’s Next Big Star? Call Her Coco

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Coco Gauff
Photo Credit: New Balance

While most 15-year-olds are getting ready to go back to school, Coco Gauff is busy with something else: grabbing the tennis world’s attention. With the 2019 US Open beginning on August 26, the Delray Beach, Fla., native expects to be a premier attraction – both on and off the court. For fans, they can catch Gauff’s US Open debut on August 27, when she faces off against 18-year-old Russian Anastasia Potapova on Louis Armstrong Stadium. 

The center-stage treatment that the teenager’s receiving is a far departure from her relatively small status as recently as July 1. In the first round of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships, Gauff pulled off the upset of the tournament – knocking off five-time champion Venus Williams in straight sets. Although her run ended in the fourth round to eventual Ladies’ Singles champion Simona Halep, Gauff’s impact throughout could not be overlooked.

Since falling to Halep, Gauff appeared in a US Open prep exhibition match against World No. 2 Ash Barty in North Carolina. Tickets sold out in less than two hours, and at least 3,000 people attended the affair. Factor in sponsorship deals with companies such as Barilla, HEAD, and New Balance, and Gauff’s recent success has not only helped her but her sponsors as well. 

“As a global brand, it was great to see our young athlete garner that level of attention with ‘Coco Mania’ during Wimbledon,” said Allison Barnett, brand manager at HEAD. “International coverage of Coco not only shined a light on the phenomenal talent that she is, but it did help to bring our brand forward as well.”

“Her run at Wimbledon just shows that she’s ready to play against the top players,” said Evan Zeder, global sports marketing manager for tennis at New Balance. “Do we expect her at this age to be making consistent runs of second weeks in Grand Slams? No. Are we going to be excited if she does? Of course, but I think from our side, we’re there to support her and make sure that she’s doing everything she can to become a better player and person.”

According to John Suchenski, director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, the usual suspects in tennis drive viewership at Grand Slam events – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. That held at this year’s Wimbledon, but Gauff was a welcome surprise to ESPN’s successful coverage. 

Over Wimbledon’s first seven days, ESPN’s viewership was at 799,000 – a 29% increase year-over-year. Each of Gauff’s matches was the most-watched of that day. Her fourth-round encounter with Halep on July 8 saw the highest numbers, averaging 1,123,000 viewers and peaking at 1,225,000.

“How often in sport do you get to see an up-and-coming player play against their childhood idol and beat them? It doesn’t happen in most sports,” said Suchenski. “I’m sure a lot of our viewers have children, some that play tennis or other sports. To see somebody who is the same age as their children go out and perform that way and shock the world with a win like that, was probably a big draw for viewers.”

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Gauff’s success has also been key for New Balance’s growing tennis division. According to Zeder, New Balance’s tennis portfolio began expanding in 2013 by partnering with Canadian Milos Raonic to become his exclusive tennis and training footwear and apparel provider. Looking to add a younger, budding star to the roster, Zeder found the answer in Gauff, then a 12-year-old. 

At 12, Gauff made the finals of the Orange Bowl, a prestigious junior tennis tournament with former champions such as Federer and Caroline Wozniacki. Then as a 14-year-old, she won the 2018 French Open Girls’ Singles title which, according to Zeder, separated Gauff from her adolescent peers. By October, she inked a multi-year endorsement contract with New Balance – exciting everyone at the Boston-based company about its improving tennis reputation.

“When it comes to marketing her and building her story – when we pitched and when we talked to Coco and her team and her family, you know, really from our side it was about being able to tell her story,” said Zeder. “It was to get her story out there at a young age, so it’s always been a part of our plan.”

Since her Wimbledon run, Zeder and New Balance are continuing to develop Gauff’s brand. To promote her US Open appearance, the company recently revealed its “Call Me Coco” campaign on social media. The initiative aims to inform the public more about Gauff’s background. Before Wimbledon, everyone – including the media – knew her by Cori, her birth name. Now, her Twitter handle is @CocoGauff, her following is more than 135,000 – up from roughly 20,000 pre-Wimbledon – which, according to Zeder, provides the perfect platform for Gauff to increase her fanbase.

“Doing that for such a young player is not about us trying to show that she’s going to go out there and beat everyone,” said Zeder. “It’s more about, ‘win or lose, call me Coco’ – she wants to go out there and just make a name for herself.”

“I think we were always planning on building a campaign,” said Zeder. “It means for us – we’re not going to be doing our jobs about telling her story if we’re not going to put something behind her to help get her name out there.”

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Another organization that has benefited from its relationship with Gauff is HEAD, a sports and clothing company headquartered in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Similar to New Balance, HEAD boasts an impressive tennis profile, representing stars such as Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Maria Sharapova, among others. Despite their importance in the sport, their ascendence pales in comparison to Gauff’s.

According to Greg Mason, president of racquet sports at HEAD USA, past clients eased their way into stardom. In the case of Gauff, her rise has been so rapid, no one – not even him – expected it to happen now. While there are cautionary tales of tennis players peaking at a young age and failing to meet expectations, Mason sees Gauff as a story that will only get bigger as she grows older.

“We’ve had a relationship with Coco for years so it wasn’t a surprise that she gained a following; however, nobody could have expected how quickly she became a star,” said Mason. “The fact that she’s handled it so well speaks to her maturity. The public wants to know more about Coco and that will happen in the coming months. We fully expect her to gain even more popularity as people get to know her better.”

Whether she wins the US Open or loses in the first round, people working with Gauff are confident about her future. Suchenski and ESPN landed Gauff an appearance on Good Morning America the Tuesday before the tournament and facilitated her press conference interviews. New Balance’s rollout of the #CallMeCoco campaign will continue throughout the tournament and serve to open her up to future endorsement opportunities with other brands.

“We’ve had multiple conversations with our partners at each of the majors, as well as the tours, about working together to find ways to grow that next generation of stars,” said Suchenski. “She would be a welcome starting point for that – if she were to continue the momentum coming out of Wimbledon this next two weeks and then hopefully wherever she should go from there, she becomes a regular face that we see on our coverage in the next five-to-ten years.”

“She’s put herself in it because of her run at Wimbledon,” said Zeder. “She put herself in a position where a lot of eyes are going to be watching her and a lot of people are paying attention, which is something I think that she’s been ready for. For us, we’re trying to not add pressure to that. We just want to be there and support – win or lose.”