Executive Point: Steve Simon, Tournament Director, BNP Paribas Open
Played over two weeks each March, the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, Calif. is the largest combined WTA and ATP World Tour event in the world. In 2014, more than 431,000 attendees contributed to a total gross economic impact of nearly $374 million to the Coachella Valley — a 29 percent increase over 2011.
In December 2009, Oracle Corporation Executive Chairman and Chief Technology Officer Larry Ellison became owner of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and the tournament that is widely regarded as the fifth major. Its management team is led by CEO Raymond Moore and COO Steve Simon, who has been the tournament director since 2002. We recently sat down with Simon.
TI: We read that you were introduced to tennis at age 10, while growing up in Arcadia, Calif. What was it about the sport that hooked you?
Simon: My father introduced me to the game, and I loved it right away. I was a sports nut as a kid, and there was something about striking a tennis ball that was a lot of fun. Like anything, when you start to see a little success, you evolve in that direction.
TI: You played tennis in high school, college and on the satellite tour. How important were those experiences in your current role as tournament director?
Simon: I never had the success of the players on our stadium court, but I do understand what they need in order to compete at the highest level. In the beginning, I drove other tournament directors crazy with all my questions. As I learned more, I enjoyed the job more.
TI: How did you initially get involved in the business side of the sport?
Simon: I had met Charlie [Pasarell] and Raymond [Moore] as a sponsor, and they brought me over in 1989. I was parting ways with Adidas after six years and looking for a change. I could have always worked as a teaching pro, but the idea of being on the business side was intriguing. I’m still very appreciative of the opportunity they provided me.
TI: In 2014, the tournament garnered rave reviews for its $70 million expansion project. Describe some of the improvements.
Simon: Our 16,100-seat show stadium is special in its own right because it’s the second largest in the world [behind Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center]. Now we have a beautiful new 8,000-seat stadium with great sightlines and sound. We introduced four new practice courts and three restaurants, plus another 19,000-square-foot shade structure with video walls.
TI: This is the only event that provides the Hawkeye line challenge system on all match courts, including the qualifying rounds. What is behind this investment?
Simon: I believe it’s important that every player has the same tools available in competition as everyone else. I know it isn’t possible financially at many venues, but we felt it was an important fairness factor. Mr. Ellison supported the investment. It’s a nice enhancement for the fans, too.
TI: The BNP Paribas Open is unique because of the green space for the players, outdoor amenities and general ease. How do you achieve such a relaxed vibe?
Simon: We’re different because we’re not in a major metropolitan area; we’re a true destination event. The players want to win, but Southern California has a laid-back atmosphere that allows them to enjoy the weather, the great crowds, and this great event. They practice, play doubles and maybe a little golf on their day off.
TI: Let’s talk about the business side.
Simon: The growth of ticketed patrons and sponsors is interrelated, because you need to draw big crowds in order to increase sponsorships. We’re proud that we’ve had a very long history and high retention rate with our sponsors.
The other side is prize money. As we grow and do better, the athletes should do better as well. If players feel like they’re being treated fairly, they’ll continue to support us. Everything is interrelated, and the key is figuring out how to create an enhanced experience for the players, fans, sponsors, media, staff and volunteers. [Editor’s note: The BNP Paribas Open awards more than $10 million in prize money. In 2014, the women’s and men’s singles champions each earned $1 million.]
TI: Do you have any advice for other tournament directors in terms of reinvigorating their events?
Simon: I’ve always said if you’re doing the same things that you were doing two years ago, you’re going backward. You’ve got to evolve and change. It’s not exactly reinventing, but more like staying current and adjusting to consumer demands.
See all articles by Cynthia Cantrell
About the Author
Cynthia Cantrell is a contributing editor of Tennis Industry magazine.
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