The Laver Cup's five sessions drew more than 90,000 people to Chicago's United Center in September. (Courtesy United Center)
United Center’s foray into major professional tennis proved to be a profitable venture for the facility, and it positions the city of Chicago as a host for events at the sport’s highest level, arena officials said.
The second annual Laver Cup, held Sept. 21-23 at the home of the NBA Bulls and NHL Blackhawks, drew 93,584 over the five sessions, resulting in one of the best-attended multiday events since the arena opened in 1994. Ticket prices ran from $200 a person to $10,000 a group for the highest level of premium hospitality packages.
United Center generated revenue through concessions, parking and rentals of its 150 suites. For merchandise, the building had a revenue share agreement with Laver Cup for seven retail locations in the arena and one site in the Laver Cup Fan Zone, a large activation set up outdoors next to the arena.
It marked the first major men’s tennis event at United Center and its first indoor competition since a 2012 exhibition with John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier. For the city, it was the first high-profile men’s tennis competition since Volvo Tennis/Chicago in 1991 at the UIC Pavilion. At that event, John McEnroe defeated his younger brother Patrick.
The Laver Cup consists of two six-player teams, Europe and The World, and took place for the first time in Prague in 2017. It is named for Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, who won a record 200 singles titles, 11 Grand Slams and five Davis Cups for his native country.
Current superstar Roger Federer played a key role for developing the event to reach a younger audience by mixing up the traditional format tied to pairings, matches and broadcast production, said Joe Myhra, United Center’s vice president of business affairs. In addition to Federer, top Laver Cup competitors included Novak Djokovic of Serbia, winner of the 2018 U.S. Open; Kevin Anderson of South Africa; and John Isner, among the top American tennis players.
Laver Cup is a group effort involving tennis agency TEAM8, Tennis Australia, the U.S. Tennis Association and Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann. Primary sponsors are Rolex, JPMorgan and Mercedes-Benz.
United Center won the event bid against multiple U.S. arenas, in large part because of the more than 1 million square feet inside the building and the parking lots next to the facility on the 40-acre property, according to Myhra.
“We’re the largest arena in North America, and we maxed it out for this event,” he said.
The Laver Cup Fan Zone offered a chance to watch the pros warm up, plus views of action inside and the Chicago skyline. (Courtesy United Center)
The Laver Cup Fan Zone was a big piece of the overall production. The centerpiece was an enclosed practice court, a 6,000-square-foot, five-story glass building that allowed fans to watch players warm up before their matches. An LED board attached to the court showed competition from inside the arena.
The fan zone extended to an International Tennis Hall of Fame history showcase, arcade-style tennis games, Wilson racket stringing and a premium lounge exclusively for JPMorgan Chase credit card holders. Event sponsors Barilla pasta held cooking demonstrations and Grey Poupon supplied its mustard for the fan zone and all player and hospitality areas.
“When we first bid the event, the biggest challenge was being able to fit it in our schedule,” Myhra said. “We’re a busy building. They needed almost three weeks to build the practice facility and we had to work around Blackhawks preseason games and concerts. We worked with the city to shut down streets and develop a transportation plan. We had a lot of international visitors using public transit and ride-share programs.”
Inside the arena, officials installed temporary seating at both ends of the floor to accommodate tennis, which has a much smaller surface than basketball and hockey. As part of that process, United Center officials had to design an elevated structure to bridge those temporary seats to improve sightlines and bring fans sitting in those sections closer to the tennis court.
The goal was to match the look and feel of last year’s Laver Cup with the design and implementation, Myhra said. United Center had a Blackhawks preseason game set for Sept. 25, two days after Laver Cup, which left arena operations crews with 48 hours to get the facility ready for hockey.
As part of their effort to connect with a newer audience, Laver Cup officials set up cameras on the net and on the floor, plus a mobile camera overhead providing views similar to those looking down on the huddle at NFL games. Overall, 36 broadcast cameras were used for Laver Cup, more than for Stanley Cup games at United Center in recent years, Myhra said. Tennis Channel and Amazon Prime were among several media outlets broadcasting and streaming Laver Cup internationally.
Hospitality was a major element of the overall experience during Laver Cup. United Center, in conjunction with Levy, its concessionaire, transformed the building’s 190,000-square-foot atrium, which opened just last year, into a premium food space. It’s not typically used to serve food and drink, but Levy did a fantastic job executing that piece of the operation, Myhra said.
“This event will always be on our radar, but the issue will be if and when they come back to North America, will they go to the same market or a different city,” he said. “Obviously, on the way out, we reminded them that we had a successful event and would love to host it again.”