Anatomy of an Unexpected Story
An unexpected story developed at the 2023 PGA Championship and the world loved it. Club pro Michael Block made the cut, hit a hole-in-one, then finished in the top 15 to secure a spot in next year’s tournament. TV broadcasters loved his interviews, golf writers loved the underdog story, and the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay wrote a column saying this was the story golf needed.
Somebody had to spot that story first and realize it had the makings of a big story. Sometimes it is the media, but often it is an event’s communications team that spots those unexpected stories and knows how to pitch them to media to get them the recognition they deserve.
Andrew Patron/Delray Beach Open
At the Delray Beach Open, a men’s professional tennis tournament on the ATP Tour where HolterMedia handles media relations, such an unexpected story developed in February 2023. The first inkling came from Pete Holtermann, who was lending a hand to on-site Media Director Toni Woods by writing player court introductions.
Matija Pecotic, ranked No. 784, was a last-minute alternate entry into the qualifying event before the main tournament. He had won his first match, and now we needed an intro for when he took the court for his second match. With little known about the player, Pete started researching and learned that Pecotic had played at Princeton, earned an MBA at Harvard and currently worked full time at a real estate investment firm in Palm Beach near the tournament.
This was a decidedly different story from most pro players. Has a day job? Went to Princeton and Harvard? Toni tucked those notes into her mental back pocket. This would at least be a good local story.
She kept an eye on his qualifying match because if he won he’d be in the main tournament and she’d pitch the story. He did. But a comment by the ATP Tour communications manager sitting next to Toni took this story to the next level.
At age 33, this Princeton and Harvard grad with a full-time job had just qualified for his first ATP Tour event. This is a Tin Cup moment in tennis. This is the 33-year-old single A minor league baseball player finally getting called up to The Show. This is Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams belatedly stepping up to the plate, the culmination of a lifetime dream.
Knowing how unusual this was in tennis, we knew there had to be a story behind Pecotic’s journey. Toni planned to interview him and Pete made a key suggestion – get the interview on video. Toni lined up the tournament videographer. The tournament photographer supplied excellent photos. The ATP set up the interview.
This kind of collaboration is important to being prepared to pitch an unexpected story. Providing media with everything they need in a timely manner boosts your chances of coverage.
The video was key because Pecotic turned out to be a natural on camera, and hearing his story, in his owns words, about how a promising career never happened due to bad timing and illness, along with the emotion and humility he felt about reaching this moment, was priceless. His words from the video would be used in coverage around the world.
Since giving up his tennis career for the business world, he had stayed in shape doing the things all of us working stiffs could do but don’t – hitting before work, running after – just in case a chance to revive his tennis career ever came along. Still armed with an ATP ranking, he had shown up at the local Delray Beach Open and signed in as an alternate for the qualifying rounds but didn’t get in. He came back to the courts the next day to pick up some rackets when the ATP manager told him to stick around because a player might pull out. That’s what happened, and within the hour Pecotic had walked onto the court, mistakenly introduced as the player who pulled out (hence the need for his intro the next day). Two wins later he fulfilled the dream of making it to The Show, an ATP Tour-level event.
Always eyeing the story angle, we knew there was one more thing that could make this story even more worthy of national media coverage: In the main draw, Pecotic was to face Jack Sock, an American who was formerly ranked in the world’s top 10 and was a past tournament champion. If Pecotic could pull off that upset, the story would have legs.
As this is a Cinderella story, he of course won. Toni was off and running late that night pitching the story to national sports and financial media, as well as international tennis media. She linked to the interview video and photos. She highlighted the turning points of his journey as well as the endearing parts, like the fact that he had to leave work early to get to the match and he sometimes practiced with his 70-year-old boss before work, who of course was cheering him on from the stands.
Along with the ATP’s pitching, the media ate it up. Toni woke the next morning to a message from Pete that the story had made espn.com’s homepage. That was the start of a whirlwind few days that included Bloomberg and CNBC stories that focused on Pecotic’s job and education. Tennis Channel, which was televising the tournament, referenced the story often, and its senior writer did a deep dive on Pecotic for tennis.com. Toni collaborated with the tournament’s local PR firm, Blue Ivy, on local print and TV media coverage to give the tournament some early-week buzz.
The ATP landed a spot on the national Jim Rome Show on CBS Radio. The Tour also did its own reporting and posted several stories on its homepage that uncovered several new anecdotes.
Tennis.tv posted an edited version of the interview video that has been viewed 1.5 million times on Instagram with 43,000 engagements. Novak Djokovic shared it and encouraged Pecotic to give the tour another try, saying he doesn’t belong in the office just yet. Pecotic had been in the right place at the right time nearly 10 years earlier when he ended up as a hitting partner for world No. 1 Djokovic during the 2013 U.S Open.
Pecotic lost his next match and his fairytale was over. But after the tournament his story ran in Sports Illustrated and was told on The Tennis Podcast, which has subscribers all over the world. Jason Gay at the Wall Street Journal wrote his first underdog sports story of the year, before golf’s club pro made headlines.
After seeing what he was capable of in Delray Beach, Pecotic decided to give the tour another shot. He committed to playing 25 events on tennis’s minor tour in hopes of raising his ranking enough to get back to the ATP Tour, but he’s still working his day job remotely. The media attention helped him gain a wildcard into an ATP Tour qualifying event in Houston, where none other than Jack Sock was scheduled to play a qualifier again in the first round. Pecotic didn’t make it to the rematch, falling to the world’s 107th-ranked player in a tight qualifying-round match. Three months after his Delray Beach breakthrough he reached the final of a low-level pro event, so maybe he’s gaining momentum now that he’s playing matches regularly. He’s improved his ranking by almost 250 spots.
We’ll be keeping an eye on him. Because another media relations tactic is a good follow-up story.