I’ve recently seen several people say they would like to see the meaning of PR change from public relations to people relations. Whatever you call it, teams and athletes are better for using it in their professional arsenals.
As we take in the U.S.(tennis) Open these next two weeks, we’re reminded of the added value that “up close and personal” provides between athletes and fans. After most matches at the USTA Billy Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., you will find players stop to sign large tennis balls, programs and tickets for fans who gather near practice and in the front rows of match courts. A few years ago, the United States Tennis Association instituted a tradition that asks winners of each match in all rounds sign three new tennis balls and swat them into the stands. Fans hoot and holler at players so that they might hit balls their way. At a time when it’s tough to find big-name football, basketball and baseball players sign anything unless there’s a fee involved, professional tennis players seem to sincerely enjoy the 30 seconds it takes for them to connect with their fans in ways other sports cannot.
Golf is another sport that finds its athletes more open to fan engagement by signing tickets, caps and in at year’s PGA Championship, golf balls.
“This helps sports like tennis and golf, possibly because they are individual sports, not a team sports, which helps to connect athletes with fans personally,” said Ryan Knapp, PR Director at the National Premier Soccer League. “Anytime there is autograph signing and interaction between athletes and fans it’s a benefit, but only if it is genuine. If it’s forced, there is no benefit.”
Knapp said one exception is when tennis pros launch the post-match balls into the stands.
“I think that’s pretty cool actually, but the benefit? Someone gets a cool signed ball and tells a story,” Knapp said. “It’s unique to the Open. If every sport had its athletes sign balls and launch them in the stands, I don’t think it would be as effective.”
Among the best signers in these sports that come to mind: Andy Roddick (tennis), Serena Williams and Venus Williams (tennis), Phil Mickelson (golf), Hunter Mahan (golf). I know there are others, so please feel free to add those you know who spend their own time signing for fans.
I can also tell you that having worked with Dick Vitale for ESPN and ABC Sports broadcasts, he signs as many autographs as time allows at the dozens of venues where he provides basketball analysis. Many years ago, I also had to drag former U.S. Gymnastics Olympian, Bart Conner, from a throng of fans for whom he spent at least 20 minutes after a telecasts because he had another commitment. These are people who won fans throughout their sports careers and grew those fan bases when they switched to broadcasting just because they took extra time to interact, face-to-face. It’s “person relations” that promotes stories and often endears fans for lifetimes.