Michelob Ultra combines the real and virtual in what it claims is the world’s first hybrid tennis match. The match, which highlights the career of John McEnroe as he plays against himself, was created with the help of computer simulations and ball return machines. Michelob Ultra is in discussions with ESPN to air the content on May 7.
The innovative spectacle runs 45 minutes and celebrates the career of McEnroe, known for his volleying skills and colorful court behavior. During the match, the tennis legend plays five different virtual versions of himself through his career. With the tagline, “It’s Only Worth It If You Enjoy It,” the campaign by the Anheuser-Busch InBev brew emphasizes how McEnroe didn’t always enjoy himself. The match allow hims to reflect on his career and find enjoyment.
“The message is simple, as he looks back at his career, he is reminding us all to enjoy the journey. To have fun out there in whatever we're doing,” said Ricardo Marques, vice president of marketing, Michelob Ultra US & Global.
The stunt could gain traction purely from its novelty, as the idea of a tennis legend playing an AR version of himself is likely to draw in viewers — especially when McEnroe’s history of confrontational behavior is taken into account. McEnroe’s behavior has made headlines, even after his retirement.
However, McEnroe has also been seen as a controversial figure at times and could be a risky partner for the brand. In 2017, he came under fire for saying Serena Williams, who has partnered with Michelob Ultra in the past and has 23 Grand Slam titles, would be ranked number 700 if she played on the men's circuit. Still, the selection of McEnroe for the stunt was very much deliberate for a hybrid match that shows a competitive player's evolution over time.
"We chose important years in his career [such as] 1979, which is when he came into the circuit," Marques said. "Eighty one, that's when he made it to the top for the first time in his career. Then 1982 was a bit of a down year, the year where he was struggling. And then in 1984 he came back in full force to rank at number one again, and then in 1992 he retires."
Michelob Ultra, a light beer known for its sports ads and emphasis on wellness, has seen significant growth in recent years, boasting $3.1 billion in sales in 2020. The beer’s success coincides with an aggressive sports strategy that has included enlisting A-listers like Usain Bolt and Serena Williams. The McEnroe vs. McEnroe match is the latest stunt in this strategy. Michelob Ultra will promote it with a 30-second ad on YouTube.
The virtual match marks a broader shift in Michelob Ultra’s strategy. As brands flock to the metaverse and digital experiences, the brewery looks to compete on digital fronts while doing something to stand out from the competition. According to Marques, digital events such as the hybrid tennis match could become a common occurrence in Michelob Ultra marketing.
“I think more than virtual/real events, I think that constant factor is entertainment value. And that is exactly what we look to deliver here, to deliver a show, a show that is based on the experience of this amazing athlete,” Marques said. “That is unique, that has never been done before... So I think that's the most important thing for brands like Michelob Ultra to focus on.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that a broadcast deal had been finalized when discussions for the deal are ongoing.