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The story behind New Balance’s ‘Call Me Champion’ campaign for Coco Gauff

The tennis star’s celebratory shirt has been years in the making

For hours after she won the 2023 US Open, Coco Gauff refused to change out of the baggy white T-shirt she put on over her match outfit following the trophy presentation.

The shirt worn by the 19-year-old tennis star featured one sentence in black script on the front:

“Call Me Coco Champion.”

For New Balance, this celebratory piece of apparel had been years in the making, since 2018, when Gauff turned pro at 14, and the Boston-based sportswear company signed her to an endorsement deal.

Last year, Gauff extended her New Balance contract after becoming the only active player in pro women’s tennis with a signature sneaker. And, at this year’s US Open, she laced up her shoe, the New Balance CG1, en route to winning her first career Grand Slam title.

To celebrate the milestone, New Balance brought back the “Call Me Coco” slogan from the brand’s original marketing campaign, only this time with a revision.

“We’ve known Coco’s potential since we started working with her. And we’ve never questioned that potential, on or off court,” Evan Zeder, head of global tennis and baseball sports marketing for New Balance. “New Balance has been preparing as if her winning a Grand Slam could happen — as if it would happen. From our side, it eventually became is this US Open going to be that moment.”

The special-edition shirt went live on New Balance’s website minutes after Gauff fell to the court in tears at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, where she defeated the Nike-endorsed Aryna Sabalenka, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the US Open women’s singles final. The first batch of T-shirts, which totaled a “few thousand,” according to New Balance, sold out in five hours. After being restocked, the shirt is now sold out again.

Following the US Open, New Balance reported 145,000 unique visits to the T-shirt’s page on newbalance.com, which experienced a 500% increase in the keyword search for “Coco” in September.

Also, according to New Balance, the brick red and thirty watt “City Brights” colorway of the CG1, which Gauff wore in the final, has been the brand’s top-selling footwear model in all sports this month. Only one unisex size of shoe, the M14/W15.5, is currently in stock online.

“The rollout wasn’t as smooth as it looked,” Zeder said. “There were so many different moving pieces, from getting the copy approved by legal to having T-shirts onsite in case she won to then putting the shirt on the website immediately after she did. But, we had the shirt ready. We’ve actually had the shirt ready for a couple of tournaments.”

In the video that captures the reaction of Gauff’s friends and family box when she won match point, Zeder, dressed in a black New Balance T-shirt and hat, is the first person who Gauff’s mother, Candi, hugs in elation.

Zeder attended the US Open final not only to support New Balance’s face of tennis but also to make sure that, if Gauff won, she, her family and friends could celebrate in the T-shirt commemorating the moment and partnership.

Candi Gauff (second left) and Corey Gauff (center), parents of US Open women’s singles champion Coco Gauff, and coach Pere Riba (right), react to her victory search after her win against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus during the US Open tennis championship 2023 on Sept. 9 in New York.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

“We made about 50 shirts in various sizes,” Zeder said. “We had a big bag — I think it was like a Trader Joe’s bag — that we stuffed in a locker in the players lounge.We basically stored the shirts in a place we knew we could get to. Then, when she won, we had someone on our team who ran them over. Coco’s agency made sure he had a ticket ready, in case security stopped him.”

According to Zeder, the Gauff family signed off on New Balance releasing the “Call Me Champion ” shirt if Gauff won the 2023 US Open. And when she did, Candi Gauff couldn’t wait to break out the championship swag honoring her daughter’s first major victory.

“Candi looked at me and was like, ‘Where’s that ‘Call Me Champion’ shirt?’ ” Zeder said.

New Balance didn’t sell any shirts onsite at the US Open the night Gauff won. The set, which was composed of approximately 50 shirts, was only handed out to Gauff’s camp — except for one shirt.

“The only one I gave outside of her team was to a little kid who saw I had a bag of the shirts and said, ‘Can I have one?’ ”

Tennis player Coco Gauff won the US Open while wearing her signature shoe, the New Balance CG1, in the brick red and thirty watt “City Brights” colorway.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Zeder remembers the first time he met Cori “Coco” Gauff when she was 14 years old, and she and her family went to Boston to visit New Balance headquarters. Following that first meeting, Gauff memorably handwrote a note to New Balance chief marketing officer Chris Davis, thanking him and the brand for considering signing her. In October 2018, New Balance officially announced a multiyear endorsement deal with Gauff.

By July 2019, Gauff became the youngest player in history (at 15 years and three months) to reach the main draw at Wimbledon. Then came her statement Wimbledon debut — a straight-sets victory over five-time tournament champion and tennis legend Venus Williams.

“At Wimbledon, people kept calling her Cori Gauff,” Zeder said. “Every tournament after that, it was still Cori. But she was adamant to New Balance that she’s Coco, and her dad is Corey. In speaking with the Gauffs, and Coco’s agency TEAM8, we said, ‘Well, if you want everyone to call her Coco, let’s make some T-shirts that tell them to. Then, it was thrown out, ‘What if we make an entire ‘Call Me Coco’ campaign?’ ”

After the original “Call Me Coco” T-shirts dropped in 2019, New Balance began plotting a potential relaunch of the campaign slogan with the revision as Gauff made progressively deeper runs at Grand Slam tournaments.

The brand brought back the “Call Me Coco” shirts for the 2022 US Open, where she debuted her first signature sneaker, the New Balance CG1. Gauff, however, lost in the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2022.

“New Balance has gotten a lot of questions about our partnership with Coco,” Zeder said. “Why did they make a signature shoe for a player who hadn’t won a Grand Slam? But, at some point, you gotta be a little bit predictive. You gotta be ready for a moment.”

That moment arrived at the 2023 US Open, where Gauff became the first American teenager to win since Serena Williams in 1999. At last, she’s a Grand Slam champion — and New Balance made sure tennis is calling Gauff just that.

“There’s some bravado behind ‘Call Me Champion,’ because no one can ever take that first Grand Slam away from her,” Zeder said. “The T-shirt tied a beautiful bow around what is the true start to this partnership. Just like Coco, New Balance is just getting started.”

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.