In the world of COVID-19, when most live events have come to a halt due to physical distancing orders, one unexpected event format is skyrocketing in popularity: drive-in theaters. The concept goes far beyond film screenings; in recent months, it’s been used for everything from concerts and food festivals to product launches and even weddings.
And big-name brands, such as Tennis Channel, are taking notice. On June 23, the Sinclair Television Group-owned sports network hosted a drive-in event to kick off the Credit One Bank Invitational, which took place June 23-28 as part of tennis's (Re)Open Tour series of events and exhibitions. The 16-player tournament, presented by Tennis Channel, raised funds for frontline healthcare workers at the Medical University of South Carolina.
While the tournament itself had no spectators, it was important to Tennis Channel to provide a space for fans to gather in person. The event took place at the Terrace Theater, a local movie theater that recently converted its carpark into a pop-up drive-in. The outdoor area was themed out for the event, and attendees were given free refreshments and Tennis Channel swag while they watched the night's match on a large screen.
Tennis Channel is no stranger to creating in-person activations at local and regional events. “We execute an array of different activations at regional events including wine tasting evenings, yoga classes with celeb instructors, meet-and-greet receptions with our on-air talent, and customized and branded VIP areas for fans on site,” explained Neil Roberts, executive director of marketing for Tennis Channel. “As much as we can, we like to work with marketing partners on both national and local levels to maximize our consumer reach and network awareness.”
During COVID-19, the channel has hosted a few virtual events, including a recent town hall with The Wall Street Journal that drew some 500 guests for discussions on the future of tennis during COVID-19; Sports Illustrated editor Jon Wertheim moderated. But the drive-in event was a new idea for the brand.
“I had initially looked at doing a drive-in event back in 2019, but couldn’t get any traction,” said Roberts. “Due to COVID-19, we knew going into this particular tournament that fans couldn’t enjoy the Credit One Bank Invitational from the stands and in-person, so we started to explore alternate ways for them to experience the action in a comfortable and safe setting. I knew drive-ins had suddenly become a hot marketing tool for concerts and film premieres, so I was inspired to take the same idea—but to show live tennis instead.”
He added, “It seemed like the ideal solution to safely gather fans in a way that simulated watching tennis together—all while keeping a safe distance.”