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BILL DWYRE

Indian Wells shows signs of the times

Tennis tournament's new sponsor, French bank BNP Paribas, is mindful of fans' and sponsors' struggles, and has adjusted expectations. The goal is to make cuts people don't see, and to retain value.

March 11, 2009|BILL DWYRE

This year's prestigious event in Indian Wells is not so much a tennis tournament as a tightrope walk.

Some things will be the same.

The sun will mostly shine and the sky will remain mostly cloudless. People will come from Indio and India to soak up the ambience and lounge on Charlie Pasarell's plush lawn amid shade trees in the middle of the complex.

The best players, minus a pair of disgruntled sisters, will compete on the highest level in a tournament generally regarded as the fifth-most important in the world, right after the four majors.

Some things will be better.

Three years ago, the people who have put on this desert tradition since the mid-1970s were within weeks of taking their rackets and balls and moving the event to China. They were putting on a great event but were struggling to service loan debts. The game was in a final-set tiebreaker, but somehow, tournament chairman Pasarell and his able sidekicks -- Ray Moore, Steve Simon and Dee Dee Felich -- got new investors to come to the net.

Now, a new sponsor, French bank BNP Paribas, has come aboard and, with a history of financial stability and worldwide tennis marketing, seems to have solidified the foundation. BNP Paribas signed a five-year contract, with an option for five more.

"We've been here for 34 years," says Simon, tournament director, "and we want to be here for 68."

But some things are unpredictable.

Last year, 331,269 paid to see what was then the Pacific Life Open. In tennis, only the Australian, French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open attract more. Last year, the world only feared a terrible downturn in the economy. This year, it has one.

So Simon and his group, cognizant of corporate sponsors turning other sporting events into costly parties and public-relations disasters while taking contributions from taxpayers, are treading softly. BNP Paribas isn't getting any U.S. tax money, but it does have 30,000 employees in the United States, partly through its ownership of Bank of the West.

No matter what, common sense dictates moderation and respect.

"When we did the deal in December and announced it," Simon says, "there were no balloons going up, no fanfare."

Simon says the 331,269 attendance mark will not be surpassed this year but adds that advance ticket sales indicate 300,000 can be reached -- in this economy, a feather in their cap.

There remain challenges.

Simon says that suite sponsorship is down, that the amount of hospitality done in the suites may be less than in the past. He says it is hard to calculate what walk-up sales will be in the next 12 days, and also how much those who do buy tickets also will buy merchandise and eat meals on site.

The ticket prices were not raised, but they remain a stretch for the average guy. Upper deck seats average about $40, lower bowl seats from $150 to $175.

Simon says the goal is to make cuts people don't see, and to retain value. "If you give them something for $2," he says, "it will look like $2."

Traditionally, this tournament mostly gives quality tennis, and that won't change, starting with the women's main draw today and the men's Thursday. The top men are here, including Nos. 1 and 2, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have given their sport excellence and rivalry. Most of the top women are here too, including Nos. 2 and 3, Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic.

The Williams sisters, No. 1 Serena and No. 5 Venus, are not here, of course. They have not returned since Serena was booed while winning the 2001 final and her father accused the fans of yelling racist things. Serena made that final when Venus defaulted to her 10 minutes before the semifinals.

U.S. player Mardy Fish, who turned his career around at this event last year, coming in ranked No. 98 and beating Federer on the way to the final, acknowledges keeping his sport desirable and in perspective in this economy is not just the job of tournament officials.

"Players are extremely lucky," he says. "Our office is in the sun. We are our own boss."

He says he has noticed slightly smaller crowds at tournaments and says many of the top players will respond as best they can.

"The Americans know, Andy Roddick and James Blake," he says, "and so do Roger and Rafa. It's time to stand and sign, rather than sign and walk and sign a few more and walk."

Still, these are tricky days for sports events.

One suite-holder, a major bank, will use its suite and probably entertain. But it has asked that its name be taken off the door.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BNP Paribas Open featured matches

First day of main draw, women's singles; all courts begin at 11 a.m.; no night session.

STADIUM COURT

Kateryna Bondarenko, Ukraine, vs. Shahar Peer, Israel (first match). Jelena Dokic, Australia, vs. Jill Craybas, Huntington Beach (third match).

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COURT 2

Li Na, China, vs. Tamarine Tanasugarn, Thailand (third match).

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COURT 3

Nathalie Dechy, France, vs. Ekaterina Makarova, Russia (first match).

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