In 2017, Roger Federer’s management agency Team8 set out on an ambitious goal – to create the Ryder Cup for tennis.
Now, as the Laver Cup enters its third edition beginning on September 20, the tournament is in a position to achieve that.
In 2017, Steve Zacks was executive vice president and chief marketing officer at NetJets, a private jet company and subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway. During his time at the company, he developed a relationship with Federer, who was a brand ambassador for the company.
Zacks was then approached by Federer and his longtime agent Tony Godsick about creating the tennis equivalent to the Ryder Cup, professional golf’s biennial tournament between Europe and the United States. When asked to become managing director of the Laver Cup, instead of worrying about the logistics with launching a tennis event, Zacks realized what many would’ve related to in this scenario.
“When given the opportunity to work with Roger Federer and Tony Godsick it’s as they say, ‘an offer that you can’t refuse,’” Zacks said.
Since Zacks joined the Laver Cup – which is owned by Team8, Federer and Godsick’s sports management agency – in 2017, each year has seen it expand. It debuted in Prague, where Team Europe – featuring stars such as Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Dominic Thiem – faced off against Team World – which boasted John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, and Jack Sock, among others. Tickets for the three-day spectacle – consisting of 12 matches – sold out within hours and brought in over 83,000 buyers from 50 countries outside of the Czech Republic.
In 2018, it left Europe and made its U.S. debut at Chicago’s United Center, which was retrofitted to hold 20,000 attendees. Similar to its predecessor, the 2018 edition was a sell-out showcase. Saturday’s afternoon and evening sessions – where fans could see Federer, Kyrgios, and Novak Djokovic – drew 19,756 and 19,346 fans, respectively. Sunday’s turnout was even higher at 19,804 visitors. Over the three-day event, 93,584 people attended the Laver Cup and averaged over 31,000 per day – slightly below Wimbledon’s daily average of 36,000.
Even coverage of the Laver Cup has exceeded expectations. According to Ken Solomon, president of the Tennis Channel, viewership for the 2018 event was up 130% year-over-year. Pre-match coverage of the first day also saw increased 78% year-over-year – punctuated by a 50% rise year-over-year in final-match viewership. To him, the metrics don’t do justice to the energy in the United Center during last year’s event.
“I don’t think you can understate not only how great this event has been and what it’s meant to us and what it’s meant to tennis – but how much tennis has benefited overall because of it.”
“It is so loud that you’re going to not believe you’re in a tennis match,” Solomon said. “You’re going to think you’re at [a UFC] event. People in Chicago were blown away by the level of interest. It says a lot about, if you do the sport right and let people know, we’ve got something [gigantic].”
After the success displayed in the Windy City, the 2019 Laver Cup is back in Europe – this time in Geneva, Switzerland – Federer’s home country. Tickets for all three days went on sale last February and sold out the upper-and-lower bowls of Geneva’s Palexpo convention center in two hours. Ticket prices were as low as $250 for the five-session event, but also were as high as $7,700. Single-session tickets are still on sale – with prices ranging from $724 to $2,427.
While these price points make the Laver Cup look more luxurious than affordable, Zacks says that the tournament does try to be accessible to everyone. According to him, at least half of the Palexpo – which will host 85,000 fans for the 2019 tournament – has a maximum price tag of $625 for the five sessions for an average of $125 per session. He admits though that given the popularity of this package, they sell very quickly – almost instantly.
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“We do have a lot of seats that are available at an affordable price,” Zacks said. “The challenge is they sell extremely quickly – I mean literally in seconds. In those situations, what might remain available at the end are some of the more premium prices.”
To make the event as open to the public as possible, Zacks says that on the day before the tournament there will be a Fan Zone outside the venue. That will give fans couldn’t buy tickets the chance to watch the players practice for free. He also says that Fan Zone tickets over the remainder of the tournament will be sold on a limited basis.
For Zacks, he’s particularly proud of the Laver Cup for donating 100,000CHF, or roughly $100,795, to build the Child and Adolescent House – a children’s hospital – at the Geneva University Hospital. According to him, they will also be donating athletic equipment to aid in the recovery of the children.
Outside of this, Zacks and the Laver Cup partnered with the city to invite over 1,500 schoolkids to attend Thursday’s practice session. While they won’t be able to go inside the Palexpo, he believes that seeing these larger-than-life figures on the practice courts will help breed a future generation of tennis players.
“The idea is that maybe this will inspire some of them to take on tennis themselves,” Zacks said. “Certainly it will be an enjoyable day. We did the same thing in Prague when we were there – so we do engage with the city and figure out opportunities to inspire as well as leave a legacy.”
Going forward, the Laver Cup legacy will now intertwine with the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour. In May, the tournament partnered with the ATP Tour to become an official tour-sanctioned event. This provides access to ATP services such as marketing and social media promotion and tour officials and doctors. According to Solomon, there’s already been a 60 to 70% increase year-over-year in Tennis Channel’s Laver Cup coverage amongst 18-to-49-year-olds – which means more eyeballs are focusing on this year’s promotions.
After watching the independent event between 2017 and 2018, ATP Tour President Chris Kermode was impressed at its rapid ascension. Having organized the transition of the ATP’s season-ending tournament from Shanghai to London in 2009, he is aware of the challenges with hosting a tennis tournament. Heading into the 2019 Laver Cup, he’s seen that it has successfully avoided any growing pains – and wants to help it prosper even more.
“Across its first two years, it’s been easy to see that the Laver Cup has struck a chord with fans worldwide in a very short time,” Kermode said in an email. “It’s been great to see the passionate participation of the players and the response from the fans at the sold-out events in Prague and Chicago, and we [at the] ATP are excited to include the Laver Cup as an official part of the ATP Tour calendar and have it featured alongside other tournaments on all our platforms. We look forward to our first year of partnership in Geneva and many successful years ahead.”
With the new ATP Tour-Laver Cup, the event can also focus on its future. As Tennis’ Big Three continues to age – Federer at 38, Nadal at 33, and Djokovic at 32 – the sport is looking to find the next generation of talent to gravitate towards. For Zacks though, whenever that trio decides to retire, the Laver Cup will still be played for years to come.
“Tennis has a long history and many champions that we’ve loved who’ve come and gone – that will happen,” Zacks admits. “We think we have an event and a concept that resonates and will stand the test of time. We hope and look forward to the opportunity to have Roger, Rafa, Novak as captains and continuing [their] association with this tournament. It’s a competition and it’s a celebration of the generations and that’ll continue.”