I’d Rather Be Playing Tennis with Amy Choyne

July 20, 2021

As the Chief Marketing Officer, Amy Choyne oversees all of the USTA’s marketing efforts across each of its divisions, including community tennis and its emphasis on driving the USTA mission and overall tennis participation in this country, as well as all aspects of the USTA’s professional tennis interests, most notably the US Open, which is owned and operated by the USTA. Choyne joined the USTA from a multi-faceted retailer marketing career that included the lead senior positions at a variety of international brands, including Aeropostale, Kenneth Cole Productions, Anthropologie and Barneys New York. Her responsibilities have run through the entire marketing spectrum, from creative campaign development to strategic branding and brand imaging, as well as digital marketing development and database management. Other major brands for which Choyne served in senior marketing roles include Limited Brands, Giorgio Armani and A|X Armani Exchange.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and this is a wonderful great addition to USTA edition of the Impact podcast. We’re so lucky to have you with us today, Amy Choyne. She’s the Chief Marketing Officer of the United States Tennis Association. Welcome, Amy, to Impact.

Amy Choyne: Hi, thanks for having me.

John: Amy, before we get talking about all the great and fun stuff you and your colleagues are doing at the USTA, can you first share a little bit of your back story. How did you even get to this position over the United States Tennis Association?

Amy: Sure. It is actually quite a tangled path and not one that most people take. I grew up in a small town in Westchester County, and then, went to University of Michigan, which is an awesome university. A bit cold. Liberal arts education, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My parents were kind enough to allow me to explore. Graduated with an art history degree, which is very useful in life. Took a job, actually, in fashion working for Talbots in their product development office in New York. I worked within fashion and publishing for over twenty years. Everything from luxury from Giorgio Armani to niche like Barney’s to mass like Limited Brands, Victoria’s Secret, Aeropostale, and Kenneth Cole. I really built my career around retail. Retailers, as you probably know, know so much about their customer base. The way we shop and how to personalized messaging for people. When the USTA was looking to transform their digital footprint and connection with customers to expand their connection to people playing the sport, they looked outside of the tennis world to see best-in-class people who really have that great connection with customers, and retail was one of the places that they looked in. I heard about the position. I jumped on it. I have been playing tennis all of my life.

John: I was going to ask that question. I know I was going to ask that question, so I’m so glad you said that.

Amy: I’d say I don’t play with people in the office because a lot of them are ex-professional athletes, at least, collegiate athletes. I took a break in tennis after my highlight on my high school tennis team. Actually, just started getting back into it a couple of years ago. I’ve been going to the US Open since I was four. Every single year with my family. I had a tennis family, so this opportunity looked incredible for me because not only is it supporting the US Open, the fan experience, in marketing I would say the grandest stage in the sport, but it’s also the mission of the organization which is to grow tennis in America. For someone for twenty-plus years that was selling buttons to America, selling sport and health seemed more like a worthwhile career path and more meaningful. So, it was a no-brainer for me.

John: Real essence of all that is people like you with a skill set that you have, knowing the customer, that’s a transferable skill set when you want to go and redo things in a different direction and take your career path in a different direction. Knowing the customer and having that ability to hone in is something that’s very transferable and gives you a lot of flexibility.

Amy: Yes, I actually believe so. I always say when people going into marketing, understanding seer, understanding data segmentation and personalization, how that entire world works and balancing, obviously, that with the creative on how to come up with interesting campaigns tailored to those specific targets is kind of golden in your career growth. You could transfer that. Obviously, there was a little bit of learning I had to do on the politics of tennis and the sport of tennis from a business standpoint, but that’s always a learning arch that you have when you join any company.

John: For our listeners and viewers, we’ve got Amy Choyne with us today. She’s the Chief Marketing Officer of the United States Tennis Association. To find Amy, her colleagues, and all the great work they’re doing at the United States Tennis Association, go to www.usta.com or usopen.org. Amy, where is tennis today? Where was it before the pandemic? And then, how did the pandemic affect the sport of tennis? How are you now coming out of it with regards to science winning this tragic period that we all have to live through around the world? How are you coming out of it and how do you foresee it as you evolve out of this pandemic period?

Amy: Tennis, for many years, had seen a decline. It had its heyday in the eighties, they always like to say. There was a decline, a little bit of flatness, especially in youth. So, a couple of years ago, we put a lot of energy into working on a youth brand that was more of an umbrella for the sport called Net Generation, which really combated some myths about youth tennis which is it has to be competitive, it’s an individual sport, it’s not accessible, it’s not fun. We really are trying to position it as more playful. Not only for kids but also, for adults. Anyone of any size, age, race, gender could play the sport. It’s more accessible now than it has been in many years. The pandemic, and COVID specifically, thank goodness we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for so many reasons. Actually, it was quite good for tennis. Tennis and golf were both quite good because both are outside sports. Naturally, COVID-safe because you could be socially distant. Especially, when it comes to singles. So, we actually saw an increase in participation in tennis. Year over year, it was up about forty-four percent and we saw about three million new players come into the game. And then, racket sales itself for up about twenty-two percent and forty percent within the youth market, which means more people are picking up rackets and learning the sport. Within those racket sales, a lot of them are beginner rackets.

John: Now it’s getting really interesting about knowing the customer. Now I see how you’re following all these different data points in the algorithm and you’re able to track growing flat versus negativity. You’re able to see how you’re growing the sport then.

Amy: Yes, I mean, we track it in the data that we have about participation but there’s also a pack study on all sports that is independent that allows us access to those numbers,

John: Growing up in Queens, so basically in the shadow of Forest Hills, and then of course, close to where Citi Field is and where the Open is always held now after cycle that up Forest Hills. That’s how old I am. Tennis was a big deal. I mean, you can imagine. When you’re in Queens, you’re basically, in your mind, at the heart of tennis. And then also, we had all these legends. Not only Billie Jean King, but we also had Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and all these wonderful wonderful icons back then. Talk a little bit about growing the game, and who is your real competition? When I was growing up, soccer wasn’t a big deal. Is it soccer and golf now because of the rise of Tiger? A lot of the competition or is it just competition versus yourself in terms of educating your potential customers?

Amy: I think there’s a lot of competition there. I think soccer is one of the more competitive sports for us, just from a youth perspective. Because it naturally evokes teamwork when parents are looking where they want their kids to get involved with, whereas, we have to educate kind of what are the attributes and benefits of tennis to parents. That it promotes teamwork, social skills, sportsmanship, coordination, agility, balance, strategic thinking, and there’s a wide range of benefits. It’s also a lifetime sport. I don’t know about your circle. I don’t know that many soccer players that I’m friends with, whereas, I know a lot of adult tennis players play for the rest of your life. There are extreme benefits as you go through all those stages. So, I think soccer is one. I think sadly Esports and the phone is probably the biggest competition we have right now. Using the word pandemic, it’s a pandemic in America where kids are just less active. So, we actually work with a bunch of different sports and there’s something called the American Development Model. We promote that at a certain age, you really also shouldn’t just do one sport. You should not specialize just in tennis or just in baseball. You should do a bunch of different sports to make sure that youth and kids are more balanced from a skillset standpoint.

John: I didn’t even think of that. So Esports is even a big competitor. You’re fighting against the inertia that those kids are having fun playing Esports, but they’re really just sitting on couches.

Amy: They’re really just sitting on couches. If you’d asked my son, he would rather play something on the computer than get out and play soccer.

John: Okay. That’s interesting because my children are much older than your son. How old is your son?

Amy: I started late. My son is seven and my daughter’s two and a half. Great ages but they’re both addicted to their respective iPads, which is probably my fault as a mother but people do what they have to do when they work from home with COVID.

John: Talk about that. Let’s just talk about marketing in your own household. I understand that. All the people that I work with, their children are the same. They’re on iPads and they love their games. So how did you evolve your own children to still enjoy the technology that exists and all the benefits of technology, but to also get them to do something outside like tennis? How does that work in your own household?

Amy: Well, in my own household, I strongly believe in modeling. I recently started taking a class actually at the Billie Jean King Center For Tennis. At the same time, I bring my son to his tennis class. He sees that I’m doing it so he wants to do it. So, I think that is incredibly important. There also are technologies now that kind of merge the two. I had just bought my nephew some dribbling game with a basketball that is connected to the iPad. That actually evaluates if you’re dribbling consistently. That’s also a bridge that many sports are playing with as well.

John: Interesting. So, the mixture of technology with the actual analog sport itself is a way of bridging youth over.

Amy: Yes.

John: That’s really cool. Talk about icons. Again, I grew up with all of you. Now, I’m thinking back. Not only Billie Jean King, but Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Who’s your next Tiger Woods? Who’s your next icon that is emerging? Unfortunately, the Williams sisters are probably at the back half of their careers now. Unbelievable careers and wonderful ambassadors of the sport and icons of athletics overall. But where do you go next? Where do you foresee the next icons evolving?

Amy: It’s an interesting question from an American standpoint, especially coming off such a time where social injustice was pretty right there out in the open in the news and injected in what every sports organization did last year’s inclusive of us. People that are not only rising on the court, but rising as voices within tennis are people like Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka, and Frances Tiafoe. Probably less vocal on the social front, but doing great on the court, Dominic Thiem. People like that. I mean, these are names that we’ve been watching pretty hawk-like.

John: I was happy Coco won I think twice last weekend or something.

Amy: Yes.

John: Because my granddaughter’s name is Coco and she’s only one but I’m thinking, “This is my way of bridging her in. You’re going to follow the Coco Trend here.” I’m just trying to think of every which way to get, like you said, kids away from the TV and from gaming stuff. So, the big question which of course everyone wants to know, Amy, is the US Open. Are people going to be going this year?

Amy: Yes, absolutely. Last year, as you know, we did pull off the US Open. When I say pull off, it was Herculean. There were so many different scenario plannings and thankfully, we did it in a safe environment and we did it with three things in mind: Can we do it in a physically responsible way? Is it good for the sport? And, is it safe for our players, our internal team, as well as for fans? If they were going to come. Fans did not come, but we did do it. This year, we are planning to have fans and welcome them back. We started the planning with a twenty-five percent capacity. Now, we’re already up to a fifty-percent capacity. If I had a magic wand, I would make it a hundred percent capacity. I think it’ll probably be somewhere in between fifty percent and a hundred percent, but we’re really partnering with Governor Cuomo’s team on that to see what the limitations are. And then, working with our operations team to figure out how to do that in a safe environment. But as you know, the world, knock on wood, is quickly coming back. You being a New Yorker too. Broadway’s opening up. I just saw Moulin Rouge is selling tickets for September, so I think we’re in a sweet spot of when it will be safe. We are an outdoor event as well, so we have that going for us.

John: It’s funny. I told my wife last night that I was interviewing you today and we were talking about some of the more timely sports things that are now upon us. Let me ask you this question because we were debating last night about this issue. So, do you think the Olympics should happen this year?

Amy: Tough one. That’s a tough one. I mean, I haven’t heard the recent reports from Tokyo, but I know the last I read up on it, they were concerned about the restrictions there. I know from our athletes that we’re sending, there are extreme restrictions that they can only be in the village and their hotels. You can’t really go out in Tokyo. It’s going to be a bubble. I think it is a global risk. So, it is obviously up to them on the calculation if that risk is worth it.

John: Of course, we all love sports. If you don’t love to see the sport, go on. But then, last night, Bloomberg reported. This was just recent from last night that eighty-four percent of the Japanese population doesn’t want it to happen because they’re worried about themselves about super spreader events and things. It’s just so hard culturally, socially, economically to balance those interests. The sports world is big business now, as you know. You’re in the middle of it. It’s just so fascinating to try to figure out how to do things and do things the right way.

Amy: I know. It’s a crazy time right now. Australia had a similar predicament when they did the Australian Open. The Australians in Melbourne did not want them to come because of the super spreader. There were, I think, multiple lawsuits going on. In the end, they did it safely. They had to shut down for a little while. Hopefully, it’ll be much smoother for them this year in January but we all have to tread lightly and figure out how to do this in the safest way possible.

John: For those listeners and viewers that just joined us, we got Amy Choyne with us today. She’s the Chief Marketing Officer of the United States Tennis Association. To find Amy, her colleagues, and all the great work they’re doing, please go to www.usta.com or usopen.org. Amy, your specialty as you said at the top of the show is knowing the customer. You came out of retail with a lot of great experience. There’s a lot of young viewers and listeners of this podcast that love sports and want to become sports executives. Talk a little bit about the skillset that you learned in terms of knowing the customer. For those youth out there that want to get involved in the sports organizations whether NFL, NBA, tennis, whatever, how are your skills so important to have opportunities to become involved in the big business of sports?

Amy: There are multiple ways you can get involved in sports. Obviously, I come from a holistic marketing approach that is very heavy on content and the development of content to these specific targets, ticket sales, and fan engagement. There’s a whole different world of marketing also that you can get involved in called partnership marketing or sponcon. That is working with more the business of sports marketing in which you are negotiating sponsorships with the US Open or with the USTA integrating them into the fabric of the brand for the sponsors. I still work on that from being the brand liaison or brand cop as one might call me, but those negotiations are more “the business of it”. So there are multiple kinds of ways that you could get involved in the industry itself and that path leads more to like a Chief Revenue Officer, ticketing, and hospitality. That whole entire world. My world, as I said, I think knowing your customer at the heart of it is incredibly important and that comes from also understanding traditional as well as new media approaches of how to engage the customers, whether it’s through social media or CRM. Social media, as I said, is probably one of the biggest things to always keep on top of, especially, because it’s ever-evolving.

John: You were an art history major. So, you learned your skill sets on the job in terms of social media and traditional marketing versus new media marketing.

Amy: Yes. I was an art history major. Then, when I started working, I actually went back to school at Parsons through graphic design because I also run all of the creative services. So, I like to say my mind is analytical and creative. I think it is a good balance for my position because I could kind of manage both. Social media didn’t exist when I was in college, nor did email, if you could believe that. I still can’t believe that we didn’t have email back then. I had one of those really big computers like the old Mac classic. So, I learned that on the job. I absolutely did.

John: So interesting. I always talk to people about striking a balance in their position. You have an interesting position where you have a creative brain, but also an analytical brain too, given your art background and your metrics background in terms of knowing the customer. So, on a day-to-day basis, are you doing more managing or making? How do you balance the blessings and the burdens of having to do both probably in where you sit?

Amy: It’s a good question. I think I do a bit of both. I think I know enough about the metrics and the digital infrastructure and technology to be dangerous, but also know what I don’t know and have a wonderful team that is under my Chief Technology Officer that are my partners in creating my vision. And then, from a creative side, I have my in-house creative people and also ad hoc agencies that kind of help us as well. Unfortunately, when you become in a managerial role, sometimes you’re not necessarily the doer but more kind of steering the ship on the vision.

John: Got it. Makes sense. Hey, when I was young, the big tennis academies had a big role in getting the excitement going of tennis and the competitiveness with America’s youth like Next School down in Florida and those kinds of places. Does that still exist? Is that waxing or waning? Is that going to further assist you to get America’s youth playing tennis more again?

Amy: No, that still exists. Those schools still exist. We also have a pretty robust player development team at our Orlando campus. We built a campus about three years ago and has about a hundred courts down in Orlando. It’s where our headquarters is. We also have a headquarters up in White Plains, which I’m based. We are definitely grooming the next Americans to come out. The question is, do you need an American icon to increase participation in America? It’s always an interesting question. I’m not sure you do. I mean, I could, look at someone like Roger and Rafa in awe and want to train like them. So, I think, tennis unlike the other sports in America, it’s a global brand and it is three hundred and sixty-five days a year. There is always something going on from a tournament. That’s why COVID was so tragic for the sport because there was no tennis for a while. The WTA, ATP, and the Slams did some interesting content in between.

John: Amy, it’s wonderful having you today. I want to give you the last word before we have to sign off for the day, but thank you for joining us and thank you for doing the great work that you do because we know it’s a healthier America when more people are moving around. The more people that are playing sports, the more youth and adults play tennis, the healthier they’ll be. I just want to thank you for making the world a better and healthier place, but I want to give you the last word as well.

Amy: Thank you for that. Well, thank you for having me on this. It’s been a pleasure. Tennis is a wonderful sport with so many benefits. I think that people feel that it’s hard to get into, hard to find a player, but please come on usta.com. Check out our site. There are tools to get you into the game. From technology to activities to do at home with your kids. So, we welcome everyone into the sport. It’s a great sport for life.

John: Amy, continue your success and you’re always welcome back on the Impact podcast.

Amy: Thank you.

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