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Volume 21 No. 34
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Big tennis events see their attendance decline

It hasn’t been the smoothest spring season on the U.S. tennis circuit.

The Miami Open and BNP Paribas Open, the nation’s two largest tournaments outside of the U.S. Open, both suffered attendance declines this year and face major off-court issues as well.

Empty seats for the BNP Paribas Open women’s final (above) and a Miami Open men’s semifinal.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
While the popular BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells had expected to grow at the gate, it instead saw its first attendance drop in a decade, as the gate was down 4 percent to just over 438,000 fans. Meanwhile, the Miami Open saw a 2.5 percent drop to just over 300,000 fans, a level roughly matching what the gate there was eight years ago.

The drop in Miami comes as the tournament struggles with whether to stay in its current location. This year’s BNP Paribas Open, meanwhile, was rocked by what were seen as sexist

comments made by the tournament’s director, who subsequently resigned.

Still, tennis insiders see bright futures for the events, which have long been anchor tournaments on the U.S. and global tennis calendars. The tournaments were played back to back again this year, as they typically are, with the BNP Paribas Open running March 7-20 and the Miami Open running March 21-April 3.

“Miami has got IMG behind it, and Indian Wells Larry Ellison,” said longtime tennis executive Sara Fornaciari, noting the events’ respective owners.

In South Florida, the Miami Open lost a lawsuit that prevents it from expanding its footprint, though sources said the event is committed to staying in Miami at least through next year. There are another seven years remaining on the event’s lease.

IMG officials declined to comment. However, Donald Dell, another longtime tennis executive, noted the challenges faced by the event at its current location.

“IMG would greatly like to improve the event,” said Dell, who works for IMG rival Lagardère Sports. “The problem is, how do you improve the event if you can’t expand?”

Attendance rise and fall

Both the Miami Open and BNP Paribas Open saw attendance fall this year, with Miami's total its lowest since 2009.

Year Miami Open BNP Paribas Open
2016 300,952 438,058
2015 308,486 456,672
2014 306,842 431,527
2013 307,809 382,227
2012 326,131 370,406
2011 316,267 350,086
2010 312,386 339,657
2009 293,228 332,498
2008 297,011 331,269
2007 288,025 303,398
2006 272,033 270,453

Sources: Miami Open, BNP Paribas Open


Expansion has not been a concern across the country, where Larry Ellison has spent millions expanding Indian Wells (Calif.) Tennis Garden (SportsBusiness Journal, March 7-13 issue). This year’s BNP Paribas Open also heavily promoted the return of Venus Williams after 15 years, but it ultimately ended up with challenges both in the executive ranks and the player draw.

In regards to its leadership, the event has lost its top two executives in a matter of months. Steve Simon, who had been tournament director and COO, left last fall to become CEO of the WTA. His successor, Raymond Moore, resigned following his comments about prize money for men’s and women’s players. Simon and Moore were seen as key to the event’s growth in recent years alongside Ellison’s investments.

Moore before this year’s event predicted attendance would grow to 480,000 from 456,000. Instead, the gate declined to 438,058, though that’s still 100,000 more than the 2010 level. That happened for an event that was missing several marquee players from the field this year and lost several others from its bracket early in play.

“[P]layers do sell tickets, and this year for the first time in a long while we were missing Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova,” a tournament spokesman wrote in an e-mail. “Toss in 15 seeded players losing in the first/second round on the WTA side, Andy Murray losing early, and some poor weather on the first Monday ... and Friday [when Venus (Williams) returned] — and all of that impacted our walk-up this year.”

The bigger issue for the event now is who will run it, replacing the more than half-century of experience that was represented by Simon and Moore. The tournament began that process by elevating chief financial officer Steve Birdwell to chief operating officer, Simon’s old position. No decision has been made on who to replace Moore as tournament director.