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During a time when racial unrest was at its height in 2020, walking into a room and asking for major changes in a predominantly white sport—on the court and in the boardroom—would have made anyone shudder. But not for Nicole Kankam.
The United States Tennis Association’s managing director for marketing boldly spearheaded the organization’s very first social justice campaign, “Be Open,” at the 2020 U.S. Open, which was designed to honor the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in an “interesting and respectful” way. Its support of diversity and inclusion quickly resonated across the sports industry.
“I was really passionate about wanting to see this all the way through and being mindful that it wasn't just going to be performative,” says Kankam.
As part of the “Be Open” initiative at the 2021 U.S. Open, a group of 10 diverse and underrepresented artists were commissioned to create artwork that was displayed for two weeks during the tournament, some of which were curated by BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors. “The art display was very much pushing the envelope for the USTA,” says Kankam, who described the pieces as different, unique and impactful. “Bringing the Black Lives Matter movement to the front seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium made some people uncomfortable.”
Some of the feedback on the art installation that the USTA received included remarks like, “I don't want politics in my sport.” Other tennis fans greatly appreciated the sentiment in the stadium. But Kankam refused to let any commentary dishearten the important messaging at the heart of the campaign.
“If we are saying that we stand for this, we can't just bend to pressures from the criticism we know we're going to get,” she says. “It was almost an imperative for us as a tennis organization to continue this trend, because now fans are coming to expect that.”
For Kankam, who oversees marketing, brand strategy and fan engagement for all USTA professional tennis events in North America, embracing her power and confidence was par for the course with this campaign. “If I don't speak up, who's going to speak up? If it's not me, then who?” she says. “I definitely have felt more empowered to be more definitive, more firm and more confident.” And having allies within the organization that can help is so important in this work, she says.
“[The USTA’s] chief revenue officer Lewis Sherr was a strong supporter of the campaign and helped to amplify it,” says Kankam.
A DePaul University music business graduate, Kankam held marketing positions at MTV and Virgin Records before enrolling in business school. “I didn't get my MBA and think I was going to go into sports,” says Kankam, who saw the framework of the music industry rapidly changing early in her career. “But I wanted to get more professional training and strengthen my analytics skills, to give me the optionality to go in whatever direction I wanted to.”
She discovered that she enjoyed marketing in business school and realized that she still wanted to work on a product where she could make personal connections with consumers. So when the USTA presented an opportunity with the U.S. Open—a combination of sports and entertainment—she was intrigued.
“It is part sports, part entertainment and part experiential,” says Kankam, who started her new position right after graduation. “I started off working on Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, and then every year took on more and more responsibility.” She credits her mentors Stacey Simmons, senior director at BET, and Michelle Wilson, a former USTA and WWE executive, among others, with guiding her through the ranks. “They really helped foster and develop my career,” she says.
“Last year, I was one of very few, senior Black executives at the USTA and definitely the only Black woman in a managing director role,” says Kankam who adds that the USTA recently welcomed their new chief diversity and inclusion officer, Marissa Grimes. “In many meetings I'm the only person of color.”
While pro tournaments like the U.S. Open are the marquee events for the USTA, the organization also focuses on growing the sport in communities across the country. And although Kankam oversees marketing for the pro events, she’s passionate about seeing tennis continue to flourish into a diverse and global phenomenon, at all levels. The USTA is working on building grassroots participation in the sport—through refurbishing parks and facilitating programs on the youth level—and creating an environment that feels welcoming to all.
“This year we had a day where we celebrated HBCUs and it tied with giving tennis grants to HBCU coaches in the name of the late David Dinkins, who was a huge staunch tennis supporter of the U.S. Open and also a Howard alum,” she says. The USTA also launched a program called Net Generation, which helps normalize and professionalize the coaching systems. “It's a more formal process to get coaches to kids,” adds Kankam. “These grants give resources to coaches of color. Because getting kids into the sport is important, but so is being coached by people that look like them.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.