SBJ/March 11 - 17, 2002/Opinion

Lessons in austerity from Indian Wells

The subject of economic belt-tightening seems out of place in Indian Wells, Calif., where the annual professional tennis tournament that bears the community name is unfolding. Sure, a recession may be on, but the desert sun shines as brightly as usual, spectator tans are up to par and a Lexus still qualifies as an economy car in the parking lots that surround the tourney site.

Nevertheless, up in the offices, Charlie Pasarell is talking about the need to save a dollar whenever possible. "These are difficult times for everyone in the sports business," he says. "We hope that they're short lived and that conditions will return to normal soon, but we can't count on that. We have to be smarter, more aware of where we put our resources."

Then a thought occurs that causes his voice to rise. "You know," he muses, "it just might be that we'll learn a few things that will make the good times better when they come back."

The ability to look on the bright side has been an asset for Pasarell over the years, but it's not his only one by any means. A national No. l in his sport for a time during his 1960s playing career, he's living proof that the words "dumb" and "jock" needn't be linked inextricably.

He went into resort development when his racqueteering days were over, and then into tennis-tournament promotion. He began running a men's pro event in the Palm Springs area in 1981, added one for women in 1989, and to their mutual prosperity persuaded the two tours to appear jointly in his precincts beginning in 1997. The boys-and-girls-together format produces a sum that exceeds the value of its parts, and should be more widely adopted.

Pasarell topped himself when he and his partner, fellow ex-pro Ray Moore, put together a group that raised more than $70 million to build the Indian Wells Tennis Garden to host their annual, two-week fest. Opened in 2000, the palm-lined, three-stadium installation is the sport's niftiest U.S. complex west of Queens, New York. It's made niftier still by the fact that no public money other than for infrastructure improvements and naming rights went into its construction.

Entrepreneurial spark doesn't ensure exemption from the vicissitudes of one's trade, however, and in the past year Pasarell & Co. has been hit by the double whammy of the recession and the bankruptcy of ISL, the Swiss-based marketing concern that underwrote many facets of the ATP's 10-event Masters Cup Series, of which the Indian Wells men's component is a part. In addition, his sponsorship deal with Newsweek magazine lapsed after 2001, leaving another void.

Characteristically, though, the Puerto Rican native got busy instead of blue. Hiring two new marketing staffers and shifting the duties of several others in that direction, he helped form a partnership to replace ISL in overseeing Masters Cup television arrangements, landed Pacific Life Insurance Co. as his title sponsor and rounded up some local endorsement commitments. His non-ticket-sale-related revenues last week and this one probably still won't match those of some past editions, but economy moves such as travel cutbacks, and deferring some expenses, allowed the event to maintain prize money levels (of about $5.l million) and spectator amenities.

Further, he says that the overhaul will bring lasting changes to his mode of operation no matter what the future holds. "ISL's blanket approach sounded good, and worked well enough while it lasted, but we won't be getting hooked up like that again," he vows. "We'll be making all our own deals from now on, and blowing our own horn. I think we can blow it better than anyone else can."

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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