Is Bigger Better?
March 27, 2011 -- Neither The Sony Ericsson Open nor the BNP Paribas Open are neophytes in the world of international tennis tournament competition. Both frequently have been called 'the fifth Grand Slam.' But opinions differ on this marketing-imposed distinction and the scramble to be positioned a breath away from a major -- the pinnacles of the sport -- doesn't seem to be in sight.
The Miami event, which comes on the heels of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, is the tennis industry's current focal point. It is also the elder sibling.
In the mid 1980s, Butch Buchholz envisioned a 'winter Wimbledon' tournament in south Florida, back when the Australian Open was played in December, not as it is now in mid-January. His tournament would be the first of the year; he wanted to capitalize on that distinction. The Lipton Corporation bought the pitch and became the title sponsor.
Buchholz wanted men and women players, too, although his idea met with resistance. Friends, potential corporate sponsors, and a few of the most prominent media spokespersons remained skeptical. "We don't need another combined event," the venerable tennis historian Bud Collins said back then. Today combined events are the most successful and demand-driven by sponsors, tournament executives, along with the ATP and WTA Tours, but who knew back in the day.
Buchholz, a former ATP player and former executive director of the ATP, finally found the perfect venue for his baby, as the owners of Boca West sold its property and left Butch without a venue to continue his newly-discovered success. Merret Stierheim, then the Dade County Manager and WTA Tour Executive Director, opened a magical door for Buchholz directly across the Rickenbacker Causeway, in Key Biscayne.
"You go over that bridge and it's like leaving a city and entering tropical paradise," Buchholz said at the time. "It had that postcard feeling I was hoping for. I also saw those 5,000 parking spots by the beach and thought, this is it."
So in February of 1985 the first balls were struck at the new, and perhaps final, home in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Soon big names such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Steffi Graf endorsed the site. They called it 'one of the best' on tour. Their voices, along with precise marketing ideals, fueled The Lipton, as it was called, until 1998.
"We went from being a public wart to the tours' feeling they should have more events like this one," Buchholz pointed out.
"It's earned its place in the world as the fifth largest tennis tournament, surpassed only by a Grand Slam," the Sony Ericsson Open website proclaimed. The distinction stuck as the tournament ran with it in all promotional efforts.
But out in the desert southwest Charlie Pasarell percolated ideas of his own. He, too, was a former tour player. He, too, was an entrepreneur chasing a dream of the perfect tennis tournament outside the majors.
His baby was born in Tuscon as an ATP fund-raising event, a humble-sounding beginning, in 1976. The ATP then moved it to the Coachella Valley, outside Palm Springs, Calif., where for five years it thrived. When the ATP considered a cross-country relocation, to a spot near Disney World in Florida, Pasarell stepped up to the plate. He lobbied the ATP successfully and persuaded the La Quinta Hotel to build a facility for the event in 1981.
Pasarell promised to make the event 'even better' as he became the tournament director. Soon that setting was too small and a new venue sprang up at the Grand Hyatt in Indian Wells. But in 2000, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden was constructed -- a 22-court, 89-acre complex destined to become the Mecca of the spring hard-court season.
The line was in the sand, whether in the Coachella Valley desert or on the beach a minutes walk from the Crandon Park venue. Palm tress or cactus, water or desert, moist heat versus dry.
Charlie Pasarell and now Raymond Moore, the geniuses and driving forces, as well as CEOs of the Indian Wells event, grew their business venture to such heights that big-money investors from China and other Asian countries offered to buy it. They were tempted, too, to sell and move on. However, they stood their ground bound by a common vision to leave a legacy for the sport they both loved.
But dreams and fuzzy feelings do not make a tournament. A stream of financial support and brilliant business savvy could, though, and Moore approached his friend Larry Ellison, the co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corporation. Forbes named him the fourth richest man in the world with a net worth of $39.5 billion, calculated earlier this month by the financial magazine. When Ellison agreed to buy Indian Wells lock stock and barrel in late 2009, the die was cast to infuse it with a stream of wealth and creative business ideas in the same way water brings brilliance to desert blooms.
Together Pasarell, Moore and Ellison made up their minds to challenge themselves in producing 'the best' tennis tournament they could for players, fans, and yes for profit, as Ellison probably doesn't invest his time and money without that incentive dangling in front of him.
According to an interview from the 2011 BNP Paribas, Pasarell and Moore manage the event, with Ellison's blessings. Charlie also told John Yandell of tennisplayer.net, "The passion, vision, and desire to make it the best is still here and we'll never lost that."
Luckily for fans and players, the love of the game drives the desert event.
Although Butch Buchholz retired from his positions in 2010, as tournament director of the SEO, new Tournament Director Adam Barrett is a businessman of high degree. During his reign he expects to exceed the 'needs and expectations of all Sony Ericsson Open guests,' where guests include the entire family of constituents: fans, players, media, sponsors, community supporters, and the WTA and ATP Tours.
And here's where the two competing tournaments diverge.
The Sony Ericsson Open, within its confined acreage because the city of Key Biscayne has not allowed any expansion, has become consumer driven entertainment. Its byline, "get ready to be entertained," tells all. The press releases position the tournament as one of the "most prestigious tournaments in the world," a separation from its bold stand as the 'the fifth Grand Slam,' and 'an international sports extravaganza,' with a daily stream of sport stars and big-name entertainers dropping by.
Meanwhile out west in the California desert setting of Indian Wells, Pasarell has made players his number one priority and fans second, according to his interview with Yandell.
Speaking from a player's perspective, Pasarell considers court speed (medium), court backdrops, the venue's environment, and player hospitality foremost. He doesn't pay appearance fees, opting instead to give players free hotel rooms and healthy food selections in the spacious cafeteria. The SEO also serves the best types of food to players, as well as the media. Nutrition is a basic building block of all tournaments, naturally.
Pasarell thinks like a player, too, which is probably a part of the impetus to install Hawkeye technology on eight of its show courts this year. No other tournament -- Grand Slam or otherwise -- has that extensive coverage. Players overwhelming appreciate Hawkeye, as it removes any questions from their minds about errant calls from linesmen. With only two courts touting this innovation, Miami certainly lags. But does it establish a better tournament?
When attendance records are compared, the two seem equally adept at enticing ticket sales. In 2010, the Sony Ericsson Open boasted an attendance record of 312,000 while the BNP Paribas scored 340,000 fans through the gates. Considering just the size of their center courts -- Indian Wells sits 16,100 (second biggest in the world) and Crandon Park seats 13,300 -- the SEO could have a relative edge.
The BNP Paribas recorded 350,000 fans earlier this month. We'll have to wait to see if the same numbers grace the Miami event.
The spectacular setting of the Coachella Valley provides a stage for spectators and players to enjoy a spring tournament of cooler temperatures, dry air, and breathtaking colorful landscapes -- in irrigated spots. In Miami the moist heat, warm winds, and swaying palm trees distinguish this cozy setting along the Atlantic Ocean.
Indian Wells has its population of retirees and Hollywood celebrity visitors that zoom east on I-10 for a day or evening, but it doesn't have much cultural diversity. Key Biscayne is a haven for South American influence, sometimes called the Grand Slam of South America. Rafa is not only the number one player in the world, but in Miami he is a beloved citizen adored by a treasure trove of fans that devour his every move as something close to spiritual.
We could hire Gallup or USA Today to conduct a survey of fans, asking the obvious question -- which is the bigger and better tournament? The BNP Paribas has more hours of TV coverage; in 2010 it was 2400 hours. The SEO began television coverage on Tennis Channel yesterday, a week into its schedule. It won't catch up.
As the sun wanes in Crandon Park and Juan Martin del Potro, the rebounding Argentine, takes to stadium court across the net from Robin Soderling, you can hear the enthusiasm rise for del Potro. The stadium has the atmosphere of a Davis Cup tie. Big hitting tour pros like Soderling and del Potro excite all fans, though, no matter the venue. But in South Florida the roars of 'ole ole ole ole' resoundingly favor del Potro point after winning point.
Maybe it's just a matter of perspective, then, that defines 'bigger' and 'better,' which is always the case for fans and tournament officials that have much more at stake. The shows evolve. The experiences continue to improve, which can mean only one thing. We are the winners in the battle for best.