Larry Ellison is the fifth richest man in the world. And he hasn’t been shy about spending his money.
Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, bought a 5-story high yacht, his own Hawaiian island, and a tennis tournament that’s going on right now near Palm Springs. At first, the tennis world saw Ellison (and his bank account) as a huge boon. The Indian Wells tournament was on the verge of moving to Doha or Shanghai, joining the long list of American tournaments that have gone overseas.
Ellison bought the tournament and the 54-acre facility where its played in 2008. Since then, the BNP Paribas Open has become so popular it’s now known as the “Fifth Grand Slam,” and attracts close to 400,000 fans. Players like Rafael Nadal lavish praise on the tournament -- and Ellison.
“It means a lot for me, and especially for tennis, to have somebody like Larry who is supporting our sport,” Nadal said this week. “The players can say thank you for all his support.”
But other tournament owners are complaining. Turns out the billionaire has been spending too much for their taste. Last year, Ellison sought to give players a $1.6 million dollar bump in prize money.
The Women’s Tennis Association quickly approved the increase. But the men’s tour – the Association of Tennis Professionals – didn’t. The board, made up of half players and half owners, deadlocked. Players, like Britain’s Andy Murray, were stunned that an organization that's supposed to represent them would allow money to be left on the table.
“Obviously everyone was disappointed with the decision," Murray said. “My opinion is that if a tournament wants to increase its prize money, it should be allowed to. I don't see why we should be blocking that.”
After months of delay, the head of the ATP cast the tie-breaking vote, approving the prize increase before the start of the tournament. That was despite opposition from other owners who look at Ellison’s seemingly unlimited bank account with a mix of envy and fear.
“No one can stop Larry Ellison,” said Neil Harman, who writes about tennis for The Times of London. “It makes people very nervous.”
His event just announced a $70-million dollar expansion that includes building a second stadium, with a Nobu sushi restaurant courtside.
“In these times of austerity there isn’t the money there, so they’re saying ‘We’re going to be in trouble if we’re trying to live up to what Indian Wells is doing. We can’t afford it,' " Harman said.
But the CEO of Indian Wells’ tournament, Raymond Moore, says other events are just being stingy.
“I can name eight other tournaments off the top off my head who have the financial ability to increase the prize money if they wanted to,” he said. “They just choose not to.”
But at the end of the day, it's still a business, he said.
“He didn’t get to be the fifth-richest man in the world by just throwing money out the window, Moore said. “These are calculated business decisions.”
Moore said they increased prize money as a defensive measure. There had been rumblings from players who wanted to shorten Indian Wells so they could play more tournaments, and pick up more paychecks.
“We’ve changed that conversation," said Moore. “The conversation is no longer about Indian Wells reducing the number of days. It’s ‘Why aren’t all the other tournaments like Indian Wells?’”
Exactly the conversation other tournaments feared. Both the men’s and women’s winner of this weekend’s final will take home a million dollars.
Ellison is considering making next year’s purse even bigger.