He built it, and so they came, first in dribbles and then like a monsoon.
It took Charlie Pasarell more than 30 years to get it the way he wanted, but once he did, his tournament became a celebrated destination for tennis fans worldwide.
Each spring, they flock in record numbers to the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. That’s a long and fancy name. They should just call the whole thing Pasarell’s Palace.
Starting March 8, and for the next 11 days, as many as 500,000 people will roll through the gates. The Palm Springs area will buzz. Restaurants will be jammed. Sunscreen will be a best-seller. Even the House that Ruth Built and the fictional field that Shoeless Joe and Kevin Costner made us fantasize about would allow a nod of recognition to the palace and sports creation of Charlie Pasarell, our local desert dreamer.
The BNP Paribas is not one of the four majors on the tennis tour. It stands alone as the tour’s nearly major. It is an almost Grand Slam, lacking only the sport’s official designation in order to qualify as one. Its attendance each year threatens to surpass the French Open, much to those overseas organizers’ Gallic chagrin. Two of the others, the Australian and the U.S. Open, are so huge they are as much ATM machines as sports events. The fourth, Wimbledon, is an ivy-covered wall of tradition. Attendance isn’t an issue; it’s not even a consideration. It’s Wimbledon. Say no more.
But even to the untouchable-unapproachable in London’s suburban postal district known affectionately as SW19, where strawberries and cream are the mother’s milk of tennis, the desert Taj Mahal that Pasarell and his three cohorts built and nurtured is an upstart and irritant.
Tennis as a whole loves it, congratulates it for what it has done for the sport. And, on occasion, envies it.
The BNP Paribas is played in the second largest tennis stadium in the world, capacity 16,100. Coincidentally, the world’s largest is the main court at the U.S. Open, capacity 23,200, named for Pasarell’s close friend and former UCLA tennis teammate, the late Arthur Ashe. The BNP Paribas was the first to pay both men and women singles champions $1 million. It is usually played in postcard-perfect weather and it has, in many ways, set the agenda in tennis facilities and technology.
The effectiveness and grandeur of Indian Wells are mostly the doing of Pasarell, who came to UCLA by way of Puerto Rico, and his own three-person dream team, Ray Moore, Steve Simon, and Dee Dee Felich. They are the Fab Four of Indian Wells. There have been others involved in the tournament, of course, including sales and marketing geniuses such as the late Julie Copeland, the still-hard-at-it Peggy Michel, and Rolf Hoehn.
PHOTO BY GERRY MACEDA
A stadium with a view. This year there will be 18 new concession areas and an additional 100,000 square feet in the main stadium.
WHAT MOORE HAD SAID WAS DISPUTABLE; THE WAY HE SAID IT WASN’T. THE TWITTER WORLD LIT UP. ESPN BROADCASTERS WERE CRITICAL, AND VIEWERS NODDED.
But it was Pasarell, Moore, Simon, and Felich who kept piling one brick atop another, who kept deciding that what the rest of the tennis world saw as spectacular wasn’t good enough. Now, for the most part, they are all gone, no longer involved in the event purchased in 2009 by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison, whose willingness to spend and improve carries Pasarell’s vision forward.
The tournament’s COO, brought on by Ellison, is Steve Birdwell, on site for six years and, despite little tennis background, getting good reviews as an operational head.
The new tournament director is 38-year-old Tommy Haas, a German tour player who lives in Los Angeles, once reached No. 2 in world rankings, and is married to Sara Foster, an actress who starred in the TV series 90210 and the daughter of Hollywood music mogul David Foster. Haas is well spoken, appreciative of the opportunity he has at Indian Wells, and still trying to play on the tour. As an oft-injured player, he is currently entered in events through a medical exemption. He even said recently that he may try to play in the BNP, though ATP tour rules would forbid that, given his position. BNP tournament officials believe the additional publicity brought by Haas playing would be worth asking for a waiver.
Needless to say, Haas has big shoes to fill. Snowshoe-size.
Pasarell will again be a spectator at this year’s event. When Ellison bought the event, he gave Moore and Pasarell management contracts. Pasarell’s three-year deal wasn’t renewed and he now does his development dreaming on a hotel and golf course project in Puerto Rico. He said he was disappointed his management deal wasn’t renewed, but praises Ellison for continued upgrades to the event.
“Larry was just more comfortable with Raymond [who dealt the most with Ellison],” Pasarell says, “and I understand that.”
PHOTOS BY GERRY MACEDA
Five-time winner Novak Djokovic
Felich, the assistant tournament director, retired after last year’s tournament; she came on board in 1982 when Byron Radaker, chief executive of flooring and shipbuilding company Congoleum, decided to sponsor the tournament, then being played in La Quinta. She was fresh out of the University of New Hampshire, working in a restaurant, occasionally walking Radaker’s dogs and playing a little tennis with him. Radaker suggested she work for a few months at the tournament he was sponsoring in Palm Springs. When she took the job, she thought she was going to Palm Beach, Florida.
She stayed for 35 years, selling tickets, training volunteers, overseeing public relations, and assisting Simon in running the event.
“A more competent, responsible person you’ll never find,” says Moore of Felich.
Says Felich, “I thought about that tournament 24/7.”
Her co-worker was Steve Simon, for whom the term “unflappable” was created.
Simon was a Southern California kid who liked baseball and discovered he was better at tennis. He played at Arcadia High School, then Long Beach State. Eventually, he got a job with Adidas and was well known to Pasarell, Moore, and Felich when he joined their management team in 1989. It was a seamless addition.
“We knew how he was,” Pasarell says. “He had a way of keeping things inside, and then, once he set his mind on doing something, he did it.”
Simon’s personality mirrors his golf swing — slow take-back, pause at the top to measure things, then down and through, smooth and focused. He was the front line of this multimillion-dollar sports event for 26 years, through construction projects, fluctuating ticket pricing, near bankruptcy, weather crises, ego eruptions of entitled players, press demands, whining TV types, and ticket-holder demands. He handled it all without blinking. If Simon ever lost his cool or raised his voice, it would have made the evening news.
Simon’s boss at Adidas, J. Wayne Richmond, says of Simon, “Nice guys do finish first.”
Some are self-effacing. Simon is self-reducing. His own assessment of his venture into the business world? “I knew, with my forehand, I had to find work.”
PHOTO BY GERRY MACEDA
Rafael Nadal is a three-time winner — the last in 2013.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Martina Navratilova won twice at the BNP.
In October of 2015, Simon left the BNP Paribas Open to become commissioner of the Women’s Tennis Association. Nobody questioned his qualifications. Reached by Palm Springs Life in Australia and asked for enough interview time for “a couple of sentences’ worth about him,” Simon responded that “one sentence would be enough.”
That leaves Moore, who remains with the tournament as, in his description, “a man without a title.”
He remains on Ellison’s payroll, consulting on everything from tennis to construction. Last year, he was the tournament director, the final holdover from the Pasarell-Felich-Simon era. Things were going smoothly until the tournament’s final Sunday morning, when Moore managed the impossible by stepping on his tongue and swallowing his foot at the same time.
He was carrying on a tradition of meeting the press. For years, it had been Breakfast with Charlie, which meant you also got Moore and Simon. It was mostly a chance to eat some scrambled eggs, hear about that year’s attendance, and learn of Pasarell’s most recent vision for the next year.
A question was asked about the women’s tour. Moore bristled a bit, then responded, in part, “In my next life, when I come back, I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. Very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.”
There was a bit of a stunned hush in the room, but no follow-up questions. In the back, Felich and media relations director Matt Van Tuinen felt tingles down their spines. Did the lack of follow-up questions mean they had dodged a bullet?
Fat chance. What Moore had said was disputable; the way he said it wasn’t. The Twitter world lit up. ESPN broadcasters were harshly critical, and viewers nodded. In a few days, in a news release with Ellison’s praise for what he had done and meant to the tournament, Moore stepped down as tournament director. The last one standing from Pasarell’s original dream team was out.
Not so fast. A few months later, The Desert Sun ran a story that Moore was still working for the tournament, still on the payroll. Birdwell is operations chief; Haas will run the show; Moore is still there, but in the tournament shadows.
PHOTO BY BILLIE WEISSE
The 2017 BNP Paribas will be organizationally shiny new, though the past remains fascinating.
What is now a multimillion-dollar extravaganza began as a small event in Tucson in 1974. Pasarell was a doubles winner there that first year, and Moore was a doubles runner-up. They had met as young players at a tournament in Philadelphia in 1964, roomed together, and became lifetime friends.
“I came to the U.S. from South Africa with $50 in my pocket,” Moore says. “Then, I got to meet Charlie.”
Pasarell, now 73, was two years older than Moore and soon was an established tour player. When he was at UCLA, he’d been the No. 1 player during the weeks Ashe wasn’t. Pasarell eventually got to No. 11 in the world. Moore, who gained much of his tour prominence in doubles, got as high as No. 34 in singles.
After two years in Tucson, the event moved to the desert and Mission Hills. But in 1980, a 100-year flood hit, the finals were washed out, and Mission Hills wanted no more. It had lost $80,000 on the tournament.
Pasarell was director of tennis for Landmark Land Co., which was then developing the La Quinta Hotel. He decided he could hold the tournament there.
“The Church of Scientology had owned the land,” he says. “They moved out in the middle of the night. All we had left was a deserted swimming pool that Esther Williams once used for a movie.”
Landmark and its director had 10 weeks before the 1981 tournament to clean things up, build five courts, and make it look like a place you might hold a tennis tournament. Along the way, they hit a water main and created a lake. “As the players were walking out to play their first matches,” Pasarell says, “we were still painting lines on the courts.”
The La Quinta site became a cozy, friendly tournament spot, with its sunken center court and swaying palm trees. There, in 1982, Yannick Noah ended Ivan Lendl’s near-record match winning streak at 44. A few years later, a local pro named Larry Stefanki got a wild card into the event and stunned everybody by winning the tournament.
But Pasarell wanted more than cozy and friendly. Soon, the city of Indian Wells had three hotel sites available and Pasarell and Hyatt consummated the deal that brought the Hyatt Grand Champions to the desert. Moore would soon come aboard as Pasarell’s partner in a newly formed PM Sports Management.
“We committed to the first site,” Pasarell says, “but Indian Wells didn’t know what to make of a tennis stadium. They resisted, so I reminded them that every hotel had a swimming pool and they should just see this tennis stadium as a swimming pool that will make money.”
Indian Wells still balked. It’s a wealthy city that wants peace and quiet for its residents. It disliked the vision of a bunch of noisy sports fans. It said it would allow the stadium, but with no more than 4,000 permanent seats. For Pasarell, that was not nearly enough.
He went to lunch and figured it out. He accepted the terms and then had a stadium built that was terraced on the bottom and had 4,000 permanent seats built around the top ring. For the terrace area, he rented 10,000 folding chairs, at a dollar apiece, to make his 14,000-seat stadium. Indian Wells rules had been followed and Pasarell’s vision fulfilled. The new stadium received quick credibility when Boris Becker won the first two men’s titles.
The search for a perfect sponsor was never-ending. It was Newsweek from 1988 to ’99, but Pasarell and Moore were always looking for more — that extra $1 million for prize money and improvements. They learned that one page of advertising in Newsweek cost about $90,000. What if the tournament people sold the ads themselves? In the first year, they sold $1.4 million’s worth.
Nevertheless, financial stability was an ongoing jump on the trampoline.
At one point, Pasarell and a group of players and tennis officials shared ownership of the tournament with the PM Sports Management Group. This players group was represented by the sports marketing firm ProServ. The firm’s president, Donald Dell, took a tight hold of the tournament’s purse strings.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Jimmy Connors got his first win in 1976 when it was called the American Airlines Tennis Games and was played in Palm Springs. He also won two titles when the tournament was held in La Quinta.
PASARELL PAID A VISIT TO THE BANK HEADQUARTERS IN PARIS. IT WAS THE LONGEST OF LONG SHOTS.
“He made a $5,000 restriction,” Pasarell says. “Nobody could write a check for more than $5,000 without his approval. I fought him on it. He said he was making sure we didn’t lose money that year. I promised we wouldn’t. He said if I didn’t, he’d kiss my cheek. We ended up making $52,000 and I asked him which cheeks he had referred to.”
At one point, a Chinese group offered to buy the tournament and move it to Singapore. “They talked about $80 million,” Pasarell said, “but their real offer was $44 million.”
A similar thing happened with an offer from a Las Vegas group that included Andre Agassi and his manager, Perry Rogers. It was presented as $1 million a year for five years for PM Sports to run the tournament, but it would be moved to Vegas.
“We got there,” Pasarell says, “and the deal turned out to be different than we had been led to believe. But just before I left for that meeting, I had a cold call from a commercial real estate guy, who said some land in Indian Wells had become available. I didn’t think much about it, but wrote down the phone number. When I got back from Vegas, I saw the number on my desk, called it, and found out we could lock up a short option on that land for $50,000.”
Pasarell grabbed it, and that’s where the Indian Wells Tennis Garden sits today.
In 1998, as the new stadium was being built in Indian Wells, and Pasarell was within weeks of signing a large sponsorship deal that would help finance the construction, the ATP called him to a meeting. They said International Sports and Leisure (ISL), which at one point held exclusive marketing rights for both the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, wanted to do a deal with the ATP.
The deal would be for exclusive marketing rights for the nine Masters Series tournaments, of which Indian Wells was the most prominent. Pasarell, so close to another deal, demanded that his Indian Wells tournament get separate consideration and more money in the ISL deal. ISL agreed and signed a contract guaranteeing that Pasarell’s tournament get $100 million over the next 10 years.
That temporarily eased Pasarell’s concern over the $55 million construction loan on the stadium, at an unfavorable 8 percent interest rate. But he got only two-and-a-half years of ISL money, because ISL went bankrupt.
What they needed was a major title sponsor, one with staying power. Peggy Michel, the tournament’s vice president of sales, was among the first to identify the European bank BNP Paribas as a top candidate. The bank had been involved in tennis for years, with its sponsorship of the Davis Cup. Michel had been a professional player for several years, winning three major titles in doubles with partner Evonne Goolagong. When Michel started talking up BNP Paribas and making some contacts, Pasarell and the team got very interested and paid a visit to the bank headquarters in Paris. It was the longest of long shots.
“We walked into the bank on Sept. 15, 2008,” Pasarell says. “That was the day Shearson-Lehman went under. The banker greeted us by saying that we had picked the worst day in the history of banking to ask for money.”
BNP Paribas survived and Pasarell’s tournament got its money. After the ’09 tournament, a group in Doha, Qatar, made a substantial offer to move the tournament there. And that’s when Ellison stepped up, saying an event of this caliber should never leave California.
The courtship of Ellison had begun three years earlier. Its consummation, as in all things this high-profile and expensive, did not happen easily. In 2007, Moore visited the billionaire tennis enthusiast at his home in Woodside, California. “We had a great talk,” Moore says, “and I left the house feeling good, convinced that he was ready to do something. But I had miscalculated. All I had done was show him how he could buy another Masters Series tournament, the one in Cincinnati, and move it to San Francisco on the same August dates.”
Ellison didn’t buy Cincinnati, and he came to Indian Wells the next year as spectator and guest. “He was impressed with what he saw,” Moore says.
“We talked brass tacks, purchase price. He seemed close.”
Then Ellison was injured in a fall and as he recuperated, the deal went away again.
In 2009, when Doha was pressing for its deal, offering $87.5 million, Moore and Pasarell were two of nine board members deciding. Moore says he was convinced the board would go for the Doha offer.
“I called Larry,” Moore says. “He said he would buy it for $100 million. I wasn’t telling Charlie any of this. We were arguing a lot those days. I took it to the board. They said, ‘Ask for $120 million.’ I called Larry. He said no. He wouldn’t pay that. Took it to the board the second day. They said ask for $110 million. Larry said he would pay $100 million. The board wanted my next offer to be $105 million. Larry told me I wasn’t listening. His offer was $100 million. Not $105 million. Not $101 million. Take it or leave it.”
The board had an emergency meeting. They moved again for the price to be $120 million.
“I’m not saying anything,” Moore says. “These guys are all smarter than I am and they had no relationship with Larry Ellison. None of them even had his phone number. They said the offer has to be $120 million and we should call him. I kind of blew up. ‘Who should call him? I’m not calling him. Any volunteers?’ ”
Finally, they backed down and accepted the $100 million. “Larry never came back at us in any way,” Moore adds. “He honored exactly what he said on the phone and we had a deal.”
This will be the 42nd edition in the desert of this tournament. As the new steward, Haas has the right idea going in. “It will be 20-hour days,” he says. “I will be the guy who will be everywhere and nowhere.”
Haas joked during an interview about how it might be nice to have one year without more construction. This year’s tournament will have 18 new concession areas and 100,000 additional square feet of area in the main stadium. There is talk of a future hotel on the premises and a tennis museum.
That’s the Pasarell model. Keep building and they’ll keep coming.