How N.Y. Subway Riders Are Playing Virtual Basketball With Carmelo Anthony

A look at Kumho Tire's digital display

The New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony has had no shortage of endorsement money lately, with Foot Locker, BoostMobile, Isotonix, Degree and Nike's Jordan line among the brands that have written checks to the athlete. Most of the time, Anthony lends his 6-foot-8 frame to a TV spot or a billboard. But starting last week, New York's favorite forward upped his endorsement game: As part of his deal with Korean tire brand Kumho, Anthony's heavily tattooed arms and perennially grinning visage were on hand for a virtual game of hoops—with ordinary New Yorkers, down in the subway.

Well, sort of. Kumho set up a touchscreen video game of pop-a-shot inside the Times Square subway station, complete with a virtual Anthony ("Melo," as fans know him) presiding.

Kumho's stateside marketing communications lead, Shaina Shieh, said partnering with the NBA was a no-brainer. Bridgestone has a deal with the NFL and Continental is a FIFA sponsor, after all. The chance to ink a deal with Anthony just before the upcoming All-Star Game, however, begged for a stunt that was participatory and New York-centric. As Shieh put it: "We wanted to get New Yorkers involved, and we wanted a New Yorker to win."

But setting up a hoop-shot game (even a virtual one) in the Times Square station was about as easy as deciphering New York's notoriously confusing subway map. Kumho faced a number of thematic and logistical problems, among them the constraints of operating underground and limited creative time with Anthony. (Ultimately, given the Knicks haven't won a championship since 1973, the marketing game here might have been better than the basketball one.)

Kumho's first issue, since it wanted to time its promo to the All-Star Game on Feb. 15, was where to install it—a 64-inch touchscreen that allows "players" (read: commuters) to shoot hoops with the swipe of a finger. Freezing temperatures and the city's accumulated slush ruled out the sidewalk, so the brand elected to go underground. With 5.5 million riders each day, the New York City subway is a slam-dunk in terms of foot traffic, but that fact doesn't make life easier for marketers.

"The subway poses two different challenges," said Anthony Petrillo, svp of business development for Pearl Media, the firm that built and installed the game. "The noise levels are very high, and the traffic is fast-paced. People are going from A to B as quickly as possible. It's not like a mall."

To get New Yorkers (and lost tourists) to pause and pay attention, Kumho took photos of Anthony passing a ball directly at the video camera. Rendered on screen, the pass appears to break the glass, complete with sound effects. "You don't expect to hear shattering glass in the subway," Petrillo said, "so you'll stop and turn." 

The next challenge: How do you work a car tire into a basketball game? "We had the idea of people throwing a basketball through a tire," Shieh said, "but we decided against it because it was too conventional and not that interesting." The solution took the form of a tire replacing the basketball. The flick of a finger on the touch screen sends tires into the air, with the user's touch determining whether the radials make the swish or not. When a player's 30 seconds are up, depending on the score, Anthony delivers a critique ranging from "You're the real MVP" to "Did you even try?" 

Commuters who don't have time to play hoops with Melo can ride the Shuttle train with him, courtesy of a vinyl wrap.

Kumho also captured images of Anthony in a still pose (with crossed arms, casting a competitive gaze to his left). At the game's end, the touchscreen snaps a photo of the player and drops the image beside Melo, allowing people to be photographed "with" the star athlete. Pearl's server then e-mails the shot to the user, tagged with #KumhoSweeps, ready for sharing via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

It's too early to say whether or not Kumho will get its money's worth from hiring Anthony or forking over funds for the subway space. (Its subterranean campaign also included video screens in Penn Station and a vinyl skin wrap for the shuttle train to Grand Central.) At press time, the game was averaging 100 players a day. Shieh would not comment on Kumho's costs, and a representative for Outfront Media (the vendor that sells space in the system) told Adweek it does not publicize advertising rates. (New York magazine reported that display ads for a quarter of one subway car ran $44,000—and that was in 2005.) In any case, it's fair to assume there are big bucks riding on this game of hoops.

But Petrillo believes even if tens of thousands of hurried New Yorkers don't wind up playing, the social and word-of-mouth value justifies everyone's time and trouble. After all, it's hard not to notice Anthony's thousand-watt grin emanating from that touchscreen. And, he added, "there are very few people on the island of Manhattan who don't recognize that face."


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