Oracle of the Wells

by: Peter Bodo | December 23, 2009

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Ow by Pete Bodo

Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation, is the new owner of the BNP Paribas Open, one of the most valued and prestigious of tennis franchises. The tournament draws more spectators than all but the Grand Slam events (over 330,000 last year alone), and it's one of the prestigious "dual" events that feature men's and women's draws.

You' ve got to hand it to this tennis nut Ellison - when he jumps in, he goes with both legs. I guess Wimbledon wasn't up for sale.

This is a terrific bit of news for the game, because while Ellison certainly has a nose for making money, you have to see this acquisition as comparable to Ted Turner's ventures into ranch ownership. Whatever other issues come into play, we know that Ellison's aim can't be speculative, or driven purely by a desire to put another cash cow in his barn (That's Ellison on the far left in the photo, with his Oracle BMW America's Cup sailboat racing crew). The Indian Wells tournament will probably figure as a high-profile jewel in the Ellison empire, and you can bet it will be treated accordingly.

Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore, the founders and former owners of Indian Wells, held a conference call yesterday. In it, they sometimes referred to the BNP Paribas Open as their "baby." Cliché as that it is, the description is apt - and accurate.

Pasarell and Moore took the clay, or sand, of the Palm Springs area (their mutual adopted home) and sculpted the event and the place that became their Indian Wells Tennis Garden over decades, navigating some howling sandstorms along the way. For them to have survived even the political wars that tore the ATP apart in the wild and wooly 1980s and '90s called for shrewd planning, great negotiating abilities, a Rolodex the size of a 60-gallon oil drum, and political skills that would make even a U.S. Senator tip his hat, or blush.

And the funny thing is that the more they grew, the harder they had to work. Thanks to the changing game, the tournament proved to be as demanding and unpredictable as a robust infant. The recent, new demands for dramatically increased prize-money for the women - part of the pay-to-play deal cooked up by former WTA President Larry Scott, and others - was just the most recent example of how the stakes for Pasarell and Moore just kept rising.

The co-founders were quick on their feet, but not invulnerable. Over time, they created a consortium of 32 investors to provide financial backing, and the alliance came with all the expected problems. The first thing an investor in anything looks for is a good return on his money, and that led to high anxiety for Pasarell and Moore, because the rights to the tournament - the right to promote the event, in that calendar slot - is the most valuable component in any tennis franchise.

As Pasarell explained: "Because we're a privately owned company, some people have taken a run at acquiring us, maybe moving us to another part of the world. It might have been the Middle East, or China, to name a few places that produced backers interested in owning - and moving - this event. We had several offers made on us. Raymond and I, we needed to secure this event and keep it here. We don't want to have it lured away, have to send this event off to another part of the world."

But as the figureheads of a private company representing 32 investors, Pasarell and Moore were under constant pressure to respond to those inquiries, no matter how they personally felt about them. And they knew that if an offer were sufficiently attractive, their investors might go to war against them to force a sale. At the same time, over the past few years, Moore very diligently cultivated a new friendship with Ellison. As their relationship matured, Ellison's interest deepened. In a prepared statement released yesterday, Ellison said:

“Anyone who knows me knows that I love the game of tennis. I play it regularly, watch it frequently, and now look forward to being in Indian Wells every March to host the greatest players in the world. This tournament has an incredibly solid foundation, including one of the best venues and management teams, and I intend to build on that and continue the vision of being one of the greatest international sporting events worldwide."

The buzz for a long time now has been that Indian Wells was teetering, financially. Yesterday, Pasarell dismissed that as an "incorrect assumption." The tournament has been successful, financially, but self-interested investors always have one big question in mind, even when profits are rolling in - when's the right time to cash out?

In Ellison, Pasarell and Moore saw a potential savior - someone who could untie them from this wheel of accountability that had very little to do with tennis, and was often in conflict with their authentic, long-haul passion for growing the game. In paying off the shareholders and consolidating all the authority over the event in the hands of one man (Ellison) who probably won't be driven primarily by the rate of return on his investment, the co-founders were returning to their original way of doing things - even if they could no longer do it that way themselves.

Pasarell made a touching confession in the conference call when he said, "There's a little side of us that says, 'Oh, well, we sold our baby.'"

But it isn't like they sold it to a Madonna, or Angelina Jolie. Elllison is dedicated to keeping the event right where it is. He's a confirmed tennis enthusiast. And the co-founders will have comprehensive visitation privileges, because they've been retained to head up the management team.

They may no longer own the event, but then what parent actually "owns" his child?

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