Most people who follow the jet set life of Larry Ellison, Oracle (ORCL) co-founder and chief executive, know that he is a passionate sailor, with BMW Oracle Racing's successive America's Cup title fresh in hand. Less well-known is that the software billionaire is almost as crazy about racquets as he is about boats. The BNP Paribas Open, now underway in Indian Wells, Calif., through Mar. 21, is Ellison's most recent sports acquisition. It's a testament to his love for tennis.
Ellison's purchase of the 35-year-old tournament and the Indian Wells Tennis Garden facility, completed last fall, is thought to have been in the $100 million range. It includes a four-year operations-management contract with Charlie Pasarell and Ray Moore, who have run the event since its inception and kept it from moving overseas by bringing in a group of high-profile investors, including tennis greats Pete Sampras, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and the USTA.
The Open—BNP Paribas (BNP:FP) took over its naming rights from Pacific Life, starting last year—is often referred to as tennis' "fifth major " because of its stature on the tennis calendar and the record crowds it draws. Attendance in 2009 topped 332,498 spectators during its two-week run. The central 16,100-seat stadium, the second-largest tennis stadium in the U.S., after Arthur Ashe in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. (which can hold up to 23,200 people), is often filled to capacity, especially for evening matches when springtime desert temperatures become more bearable.
The field of athletes is as impressive as the venue, with the world's top 300 players vying for $9 million in prize money this year.
"Hit for Haiti" event on Mar. 12
With 300 of the best men and women converging at Indian Wells, you can have a ring-side seat and practically rub elbows with the present champions as you watch them practice, train, and play on the sunken or grandstand courts within the majestic grounds or on the world's second-largest stadium court. Rafael Nadal will be defending consecutive titles while unretired Belgians Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are expected to stir up some desert dust.
A new attraction this year, personally overseen by Ellison, is a "Hit for Haiti" exhibition on the evening of March 12. It will feature Andre Agassi and Nadal taking on Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, and Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova battling Clijsters and Steffi Graf. Ellison, who coordinated the event after seeing "Hit for Haiti"'s success at the Australian Open, is hoping to raise $1 million or more for the beleaguered country.
On March 16, Agassi will follow up that event with one of his own to benefit the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. According to the Foundation, Agassi will host "up to 15 couples in his suite during both the day and night sessions." Tickets are $10,000 per couple.
The exhibitions and charitable efforts are bound to make what is already one of the most fan-conscious events on the men's ATP World Tour and the women's WTA Sony Ericsson Tour an even friendlier tennis destination.
Larry wins again.