Why Nike Built Its Own Tennis Court in Manhattan

To show off its new Nike Court collection before the U.S. Open, the sportswear giant built its own space for tennis tournaments at a busy intersection in Manhattan.

By Jim Shi August 26, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT

Photo: Oliver Correa

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Before the start of this year's U.S. Open tennis tournament, Nike sought to shine the light on its new Nike Court collection with a premium tennis experience, the execution of which was anything but traditional: build a full-size regulation tennis court on highly trafficked Canal Street.

Devised to be a surprise pop-up, the sportswear brand purposefully did little to no media outreach for the five-day event, which ended on Sunday, opting instead to let happenstance take its course. “The goal was to create something that would have an impact and create a media, as well as influencer, moment,” said Tom Bussey, founder and principal at Production Glue, which oversaw overall infrastructure, creative management, execution, and stage production. “This was meant to be an amplified, hyped-up version of what you see on a public court by the Hudson River.”

Bussey, who has worked with the sports giant for nearly half a dozen years, collaborated with several key Nike staffers on the eight-week-long project: Rob Aldinger, director of Nike events east and who was the internal project lead; Damian Bulluck, brand director of Nike Sportswear; and Paul Chang, brand manager of Nike Sportswear.

To commemorate the year the first tennis collection launched, 1995, Nike offered 95 continuous hours of play starting Thursday morning. Anyone with a Nike+ account could go on and request court time. In addition, Nike hosted a special influencers evening as well as a special tennis clinic with New York Junior Tennis & Learning’s program for kids that featured an appearance by Andre Agassi. While the event was technically not open to public walk-ons, passersby could, depending on availability, attend as spectators.

The downtown Manhattan venue, situated at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets on a vacant lot next to Duarte Square, was scouted by Production Glue, which last fall produced the Talking Transition community forum on the same site and had also considered the space for the TV game show Million Second Quiz. Because the space is privately owned and not mired by labor unions or landmark codes, there wasn’t the same level of urgency to work 24 hours a day—although the build did take one and a half weeks due to large infrastructure elements, not to mention the need to bring in electricity, HVAC, and restrooms.

In total, Production Glue utilized around 10,000 square feet of space to house the tennis court, two brand immersive locker rooms for participants (players arrived to find a full tennis wardrobe waiting for them, along with customized name plaques), a formal entrance check-in tent, and plenty of amphitheater-style seating for guests. The court itself was raised four feet above the ground, surrounded by protective netting that rose an additional 20 feet. The structure, overall, measured 25 feet tall, 70 feet wide, and 120 feet long. Metal barricades along the perimeter of the court were an added safeguard, as was around-the-clock security—even Grand Street between Varick Street and Sixth Avenue was closed for several days.

“The idea of the court is to have a premium professional playing surface,” Bussey said. “Everything was intended to be authentic and legitimate.”

In order to achieve what Nike described as a “disruptive tennis” experience, the court was painted with an intentional line pattern—no doubt a reference to the vision of clean white lines championed by Nike design legend Tinker Hatfield—that was then mimicked in the light treatment surrounding the court and net. Said lines also extended past the edge of the court, “spilling” into the bleachers as well as the light treatments.

“As a player, we wanted the lines to be in your field of vision,” Bussey said. “It had to have a good presence by day and night.”

Because the court was meant to couple both performance and lifestyle, a color scheme of grey, white, and black was adhered to for the entire venue, a reflection of the colors of the Nike tennis program. The fourth color, green, was visible via the tubes of LED light that formed the chasing light sculptures attached to the netting.

As for the court itself, Production Glue turned to a modular system normally used indoors (four large rain tarps were on standby in case of precipitation). After installing the wooden understructure, which included an intentional slope to allow rain to drain, hundreds of individual prefinished tiles were pieced together on the surface over four days, all of which were then special-surface painted (breaking up the tiles required a simple padded sledgehammer).

With the scope of the event narrowed down and the venue established, Production Glue’s biggest challenge was being a good neighbor. That meant keeping emissions low, locating generators away from residential buildings, and minimizing overnight work. Music, for example, was not played on the court for the overnight tennis matches.

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