Before being the first Masters 1000 of the season, the BNP Paribas Indian Wells Open has known darker hours. Its ancestor, the Quinta tournament, almost disappeared. But Charlie Pasarell, its director between 1981 and 2012, has achieved the amazing feat of keeping it going and making it one of the unmissable moments of the tennis calendar. And a real monster in terms of business.
Almost fifteen million dollars in prize money, ranked as a Masters 1000 for over twenty-five years, won by Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Sharapova, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf and by every great champions of the last eras, almost half a million spectators at each edition….the BNP Paribas Indian Wells Open is one of the unmissable tournaments in the calendar. An ogre of the ATP and WTA seasons, which almost appears to be a mini Grand Slam tournament, as it is the first Masters 1000 of the season, in March, and is quickly followed by the Miami tournament a few weeks later. But if the Indian Wells tournament now has such a bright reputation on the circuit, it was very close from never existing in the first place, and owes its existence and development to one single man : Charlie Pasarell. A second-rank player in the 60’s and 70’s, Pasarell retired in 1979 but had perfectly planned his future. A member of the ATP’s board of directors since the 70’s, Pasarell became the head of the La Quinta tournament in 1981. He took over an almost stillborn tournament, as the ATP was already thinking of moving it to Florida after only two years of existence. In less than a decade, Charlie Pasarell managed to turn it into one of the highlights of the season, and turned the La Quinta tournament into the Indian Wells Masters we all know today.
A hotel to play tennis
The first edition of the La Quinta tournament in 1979 was anecdotal. The second one, in 1980, was stopped before the final. The ATP then only had one idea in mind, cutting the costs. The plan was to switch from the Californian sun to Florida, but Charlie Pasarell, who had just been named as the director of the tournament, vetoed the idea. He swore that he could develop the event, and had no trouble picturing a bright future for the tournament : « When I started taking care of this tournament, I felt that I needed to have a vision for the next twenty years, he explained in an interview in 2014. So I started to launch a few projects to make the tournament more competitive, and turn it into a big event. » His first mission ? Building a decent stadium, and Pasarell had a 350 room hotel and a tennis stadium which could welcome a few thousand spectators very close to La Quinta, in the neighboring city of Indian Wells. While waiting for the ending of the work, he managed to attract some big names at La Quinta. Jimmy Connors lifted the trophy twice, Yannick Noah defeated Ivan Lendl in 1982 in an epic final, and a few years later, in 1987, the new stadium was ready, and everyone could settle down in Indian Wells. Still in charge, Charlie Pasarell knew that he had already won his bet : « The prize money for the winner quickly doubled and went up to 700 000 dollars, and we found a sponsor to pay for it. » And quickly, even the hotel/stadium built in the 80’s became too small.
« At first, I looked at Las Vegas »
Especially as the women’s tournament arrived in 1989, and Pasarell quickly had to look for a new, more adapted venue : « Around 1994, we realized that we didn’t have enough space, enough parking spots, and enough rooms. At first, I looked at Las Vegas, but thankfully, we found something in Indian Wells. » The only problem ? The prices of real estate were completely mad at the time. But Pasarell made a deal with the IMG group, the global sporting events management group, and found the money to build the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, a giant complex which opened in 2000, and still welcomes the tournament nowadays. The total cost of the complex was 77 million dollars, the central court has 16 000 seats, and the complex covers almost 100 hectares. Still in 2014, Pasarell reflected on his immense ambitions, with the feeling of having completed his mission in the best of ways : « We didn’t only want to be the best tournament of the region, but the best of all. We became the biggest event of the region in terms of economic impact, and we’re close to reaching 350 or 400 million dollars of revenues per edition. All of this while starting from a small tournament, with 32 players, which took place in La Quinta ! » After supervising some final work to make the site even bigger, Pasarell stepped down and sold the tournament to the American billionaire Larry Ellison in 2012. « The best decision we ever took in terms of business », said the ex-player. Indian Wells can definitely thank its Indian chef.