The Business Of Sport: Mastercard makes passion points pay off at recent Australian Open

Sam Ahmed, Mastercard's senior vice-president of marketing for Asia-Pacific, says hours-long tennis matches and the season-long Champions League offers plenty of opportunities for brand exposure.
Sam Ahmed, Mastercard's senior vice-president of marketing for Asia-Pacific, says hours-long tennis matches and the season-long Champions League offers plenty of opportunities for brand exposure.PHOTO COURTESY OF MASTERCARD

Just as Roger Federer and Serena Williams constructed points en route to historic Australian Open titles, tournament sponsor Mastercard had a very deliberate game plan at Melbourne Park.

The payment giant's decision to begin a three-year partnership with the Australian Open this year is a key part of its strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Asia is the leading region in e-commerce as well as social and digital interaction - areas that are vital to Mastercard.

Moreover, the year's first tennis Grand Slam tournament attracted 720,363 spectators last year, with more watching on television. Thirteen per cent travelled from overseas to be at Melbourne Park, with visitors from Asia growing by 25 per cent year on year.

"We have millions of viewers in Japan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, and India, so we know that there is an interest point or what we call a passion point," said Sam Ahmed, Mastercard's senior vice-president of marketing for Asia-Pacific at Grand Hyatt Melbourne last month.

"And we sponsor passion points, we don't sponsor events. If there's a grain of passion, you can create priceless experiences," he added, alluding to Mastercard's Priceless campaign, which was launched in 1997 on the basis that experiences matter more than things.

  • 35%

    Mastercard research shows that more Singaporeans are going to the Australian Open, and their hotel spending in 2016 was up 35 per cent from the previous year.

"And to me, that is the essence of why we are sponsoring the Australian Open... Second of all, we can use that now to talk about travel, to talk about e-commerce, and to talk about digital payments."

Mastercard's research has shown that tourists who attend the Australian Open often stay in the country for two weeks, travelling to other parts Down Under. And tennis fans at the grounds and around the city are given plenty of reminders of how to pay for their spending: logos of overlapping red and yellow circles appear on electronic billboards, stadium signage and hoardings.

Mastercard's increasing investment in sport is a calculated move.

Ahmed revealed that of the nine consumer passion points that Mastercard has identified - sport, entertainment, music, travel, art and culture, culinary and dining, philanthropy, shopping and the environment - sport accounts for more than half its media spend. Its investment in sport has also increased by 20 per cent in the last year.

The Australian Open is not the only tennis event that Mastercard sponsors. The American multinational corporation also backs the French Open and Miami Open, while other major global sponsorship properties include golf's PGA Tour and The Open Championship, football's Uefa Champions League, and Major League Baseball.

Different sports lend themselves to different winning formulas. A European football tournament like the Champions League lasts for months, while tennis matches can go on for an indefinite period of time. This means plenty of opportunities for brand exposure.

"There are breaks, change of ends, you have opportunities to interact with consumers naturally," explained Ahmed. "The other thing about tennis is the drama.

"Consumers understand that there is nothing more real than the drama of sport."

Mastercard is involved in the Open Championship - golf's oldest Major - for a rather different reason: It gives the brand legs in a market halfway across the world.

"When we did our segmentation analysis, we found globally a very interesting insight: Our Japanese consumer finds the British Open (synonymous with) the home of golf," said Ahmed, who formerly served as vice-president, marketing and category, at Starbucks Coffee Asia-Pacific.

"The Japanese consumer loves heritage and history. The Japanese consumer loves the values of the British Open... so when we decided to sponsor the British Open, it wasn't just because of the British fans, it was because we had a massive audience in Japan."

From the greens to the courts, Mastercard's aim is to be No. 1 in transactions in the Asia-Pacific by 2020. And it is taking its best shot.

•The Business of Sport is a monthly series that explores the current trends and talking points of the emerging sport industry.

•Lin Xinyi's trip to the Australian Open was sponsored by Mastercard

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2017, with the headline 'Making passion points pay off'. Print Edition | Subscribe