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09 Jan 2017

Steve Kelly on Sports: Change Is in the Air at March's BNP Paribas Open Tennis Tourney

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Tournament owner Larry Ellison enjoys the show at last year's BNP Paribas Open. Tournament owner Larry Ellison enjoys the show at last year's BNP Paribas Open. Kevin Fitzgerald/CVI File

It is the biggest local sports event of the year, bringing thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the Coachella Valley—and the BNP Paribas Open will return to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 6-19.

The event is a Masters 1000 event—meaning it’s one of the nine most prestigious tourneys after the four Grand Slam events and the ATP World Tour Finals—on the men’s ATP Tour, and one of the esteemed premier tournaments on the women’s circuit. Those designations ensure that the top players in the world come—including Serena Williams, who returned in 2015 for the first time since a controversial exit in 2001. Total attendance could hit the 500,000 mark this year; only the four Grand Slam events have more visitors.

Last year, the event was again marred by controversy when then-tournament director Raymond Moore made what some considered to be disparaging remarks about female players during a press conference. Moore was forced to resign as tournament director, and in an unusual move, the tournament’s owner, billionaire tech guru Larry Ellison, last June selected Tommy Haas—an active German pro player who now lives in Los Angeles—as the new tournament director. Haas is currently getting ready to play in the Australian Open (taking place Jan. 16-29). This creates the intriguing and highly unusual possibility that Haas could play in a tournament that he’s directing come March.

“Tommy is definitely excited (about) joining the team, and it has been a nice transition to the other side of the game for him,” said Steve Birdwell, the chief operating officer of the BNP Paribas Open. “Tommy is focused on learning as much as he can. He will concentrate on strengthening existing relationships to create more meaningful interactions between players, sponsors and fans.”

There have been major renovations to the main stadium at the Tennis Garden, which first opened in 2000.

“We have upgraded concessions as well as all our luxury suites,” Birdwell said. “There are new restrooms as well. The walkways and concourse have been enclosed, freeing up over 100,000 square feet of space.”

Birdwell said that despite the worldwide appeal of the BNP Paribas Open, locals are important to the tourney organizers; in fact, locals receive discounts (along with seniors, students and military personnel), and Birdwell pointed out that admission is free on March 6 and 7, the first two days of the tournament.

While American men’s tennis has been in decline for a while, the BNP Paribas Open continues to grow—in part because it has become more of a festival-type event, with many ways to entertain tournament-goers both inside and outside of the main stadiums. Plans for a tennis museum are also in the works.

For more information on the BNP Paribas Open, visit www.bnpparibasopen.com.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.

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