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Open Season

How the former tennis champion Peggy Michel landed BNP Paribas as title sponsor of the Coachella Valley’s signature sporting event.

Courtesy of Ellen Alperstein, Palm Springs Life

Indian Wells Tennis Garden opened in 2000, hosting the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells presented by Newsweek.

It dawned cool and a bit cloudy in Paris that day late in September 2008. But four visitors from the Coachella Valley had a sunny outlook about their meeting at the formidable banking power, BNP Paribas. Charlie Pasarell, Raymond Moore, Steve Simon, and Peggy Michel were top executives of the tournament held each year in March at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Since 2002, it had been the Pacific Life Open, but the California insurance company had concluded its sponsorship. The IWTG suits were seeking a new title sponsor for an event that had grown since 1976 from a pro-tour byway in Rancho Mirage to a sporting spectacle drawing more than 330,000 fans in 2008 despite a history fraught with financial instability and the cannibalistic intentions of other sports impresarios.

The tournament brain trust hoped the meeting would culminate in a boffo deal that Michel, assistant tournament director and VP of sales and sponsorships, had been cultivating for months. BNP Paribas had long supported tennis worldwide, including the French Open, one of four Grand Slam tournaments. Partnership with Indian Wells would strengthen the IWTG’s financial footing and protect the tournament from poachers. It would juice the global prestige Indian Wells had been building long before its owners broke ground on the facility at the turn of the millennium. Michel, long regarded for her decency and sales wizardry, was this close to the biggest get of her life.

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Peggy Michel won three Grand Slam titles with Evonne Goolagong.

Then somebody saw a news flash: The U.S. stock market was in freefall. Trading would close that day, Sept. 29, with the largest one-day drop in history, dumping more than 
$1.2 trillion of value. Banks around the world were in shock, and those were the lucky ones. Some collapsed. On this day, four desert denizens were knocking on the door of Europe’s largest bank, hands out to support a place where the median household income was more than double the national average.

Margaret “Peggy” Michel was born in Santa Monica in a close-knit family of six kids. She was named for her mother, Margaret Duguid Michel, who, in the 1930s, was UCLA student body president, the first female to hold that office at a Southern California coeducational university. “Dugi” inspired her children to pursue their dreams.

Peggy pursued tennis. A two-time U.S. collegiate doubles champion and twice a finalist in singles, she was the consummate serve-and-volley player who is as rare in today’s game as snow in the desert.

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The BNP Paribas Open played under different names at venues in Indian Wells, La Quinta, and Rancho Mirage before landing at its forever home, Indian Wells Tennis Garden, in 2000.
After graduating with a degree in education, she went to Australia to work with renowned coach Vic Edwards. He paired her with Evonne Goolagong, and the two won three Grand Slam doubles titles in the mid-1970s — the Australian Open twice, and Wimbledon once. In Oz, Michel learned not only the finer points of the pro game, but how to navigate gracefully among big talent and equal expectations. “Mr. Edwards,” she recalled recently, “said, ‘When you’re playing doubles with Evonne, she’s going to get the accolades for winning, and you’ll be blamed for losing.’ So, I said to him, ‘Well, we’re just not gonna lose.’”
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The attitude served her well on tour, and when she retired into a business career that continues today. A career in which she moves among giants, avoiding the limelight many in her position find so nourishing.

In 1976, the American Airlines Tennis Games was a men’s tournament at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage. By 1981, its host was the La Quinta Hotel (now La Quinta Resort & Club), where Pasarell was director of tennis and part of a real estate development group whose appetite for growth was whetted by the modest success of what was called the Grand Marnier Classic, with prize money of $175,000 and three commercial sponsors whose names today no one would recognize.

Pro tournaments are operated by their owners, but their dates are sanctioned by the sport’s governing bodies — the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for men and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) for women. They are keen to hold the strongest tournaments with the best dates in the biggest markets. The ATP had been making noise about moving this plucky little event in a perceived California backwater to the tennis Valhalla of Florida.

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Hyatt Grand Champions

By the mid-’80s, the tournament had outgrown La Quinta. Former pro players Pasarell and Moore formed PM Sports to produce a top-tier tournament at an equally lofty venue. With financing to build a luxe hotel, followed by a big stadium in Indian Wells, they needed someone to sell hotel rooms at the incipient Hyatt Grand Champions (now Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa).

Peggy Michel was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents wanted her back in Southern California. One day, her father, Walter James Michel, was chatting with Pasarell, a fellow member of the board of directors of the Southern California Tennis Association. Pasarell knew Peggy from their days on the tour. He asked Walter what she was up to. On a handshake deal that was her contract for 24 years until PM Sports sold the tournament, Peggy was hired to sell hotel rooms, tennis packages, and a tennis fantasy camp in Indian Wells.

“Once we opened the new facility,” she said, “Charlie said he thought it would be better if I came over to the tennis tournament. ‘You’re very good at sales, so I want you to sell sponsorships and the suites.’”

Over the next couple of decades, Pasarell, Moore, and Simon were the visible movers and shakers, and Michel was a secret weapon, the big-brand escort into one of the Coachella Valley’s signature sporting ventures. Not a lot of people knew her, but they recognized Hugo Boss, Coke, Hertz, Enterprise, Baccarat …

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Peggy Michel, Charlie Pasarell, and Evonne Goolagong (Michel’s former doubles partner) at the former Hyatt Grand Champions, an early host of the Indian Wells tournament.

The tennis world paid increasing attention and respect to the well-run, player-popular tourney, but it suffered from an identity crisis. Between 1985 and 2002, the name changed 10 or 12 times, depending on how deeply into the sponsorship weeds you want to wade. (Are The Matrix Essentials Evert Cup [’92-’93], The Evert Cup [’94, ’99], and State Farm Evert Cup [’95-’98] one or three?) The tournament upgraded venues twice in that period; it faced more financial challenges and one notable player controversy that took 14 years to resolve.

In 1989, women joined the competition when the WTA sanctioned a lower-tier event the week before the ATP’s, and PM Sports strengthened the tournament’s stability by partnering with IMG, the entertainment management powerhouse.

In 1996, attendance reached 140,890 when men and women’s play were combined into one event — one of only six such tournaments in the world. A year later, both were series 1000 events, which rank just below the four “majors,” or Grand Slams. The numerical designation signifies the points winners earn to determine world rankings.

Apart from the majors, most people thought the Grand Champions was the pinnacle of pro play. But PM Sports lusted after a large plot of land just east of the Hyatt. In 1999, the ATP signed a deal with global marketing firm ISL to infuse $1.2 billion into the men’s tour over 10 years. Indian Wells’ share reportedly was $110 million for the term, and PM Sports/IMG purchased the property and developed the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Its Stadium 1 would seat 16,100 people, second largest in the world, with a multitude of outer courts and concessions over 54 acres.

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Women began competing in 1989 when the WTA sanctioned a tournament prior to the men’s event. The competition merged into a combined event in 1996.
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It opened in 2000 with the Tennis Masters Series Indian Wells presented by Newsweek. More than 187,430 people came to watch tennis where Mount San Jacinto loomed in the west and palm trees paid obeisance to the occasional wind. Forty-four suites ringed Stadium 1; Michel had sold 32 of them.

Attendance in 2001 topped 200,000 for the first time. But drama ensued. Claiming a knee injury, Venus Williams defaulted to her sister Serena minutes before their semifinal match. The capacity crowd and much of the media were loudly displeased. Serena was booed as she beat Kim Clijsters for the title, and her father, Richard Williams, called it racist. Neither Williams would return to Indian Wells until 2015.

IWTG was a huge hit, but so was the size of its debt service. The owners were forced to consider selling their sanction again when ISL declared bankruptcy. PM Sports/IMG had $40 million left on the stadium loan, plus all the other tournament and site expenses. Interests in Shanghai were lobbying the ATP for sanctioning rights. A few years later, Doha, Qatar, also with deep-pocketed promoters, was another suitor.

Some relief arrived with Pacific Life’s sponsorship in 2002, and by 2004, attendance was 267,834. Still, operating expenses the next year were $5.7 million when tournament revenue was $3 million. IMG, with 50 percent ownership, was committed only through 2006, and was receptive to the foreign offers.

“We thought we were going to be sold to China,” Michel recalled. “Then Raymond [Moore] got help from other businesses and the USTA. … We just kept fighting to save the event.”

IMG’s equity was assumed by outside investors including tennis stars (Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King), the U.S. Tennis Association, the publishers of Tennis Magazine, and the city of Indian Wells. By 2008, the last year of Pacific Life sponsorship, attendance at the Coachella music festival was 151,666 compared with 331,269 at the tennis garden.

“We thought we were going to be sold to China,” Michel recalled. “Then Raymond [Moore] got help from other businesses and the USTA. … We just kept fighting to save the event.”

In early summer, Michel went to BNP Paribas’ New York office to court the bank as title sponsor. Executive Michele Sicard was receptive to Michel’s proposal and wanted to visit a venue she’d never seen. Michel warned about the extreme summer heat and how dead the IWTG would be.

“She said she loved the desert,” Michel recalled, noting there would be no deal recommendation to Paris without a site inspection.

Michel’s team spent a month sprucing up Stadium 1 and its suites. It hung BNP Paribas signage around the court as if in mid-tournament and tarted up the lighting for a post-sundown command performance.

A couple days before the audition, Sicard canceled.

In her office, Michel cried, thinking, “Oh, they’re not interested.”

Two days later, Sicard called. The visit was back on. Michel’s show got rave reviews, and the tourney team booked their trip to France. In Paris, Peggy Michel seated herself across the conference table from Antoine Sire, then BNP Paribas head of group communications. She fingered the one-page pitch she had crafted on the advice of Sicard.

Indianwellstennisgardenerial

Sire opened the meeting: “You do know that you’re here looking for a sponsorship knowing what’s happened in the United States in the stock market? But go on, go on.”

If anyone could put lipstick on a pig, it was Sire, whom Michel found to be “the nicest gentleman, very genuine; he had a warmth to him.” After about an hour, Sire said that it would be very difficult, but that they would think about the sponsorship and get back to the Tennis Gardeners.

They walked back to their hotel in a glum mood.

That night, in a final appeal, Michel wrote a letter to Sicard, and stuck it under the door to her hotel room.

On Sept. 30, in a cab heading for the airport, Steve Simon’s phone rang. It was Michele Sicard. We’re in, she said.

More than 13 years later, as head of company engagement at BNP Paribas, Sire recalled that day, and Michel’s role: “Despite the very unfortunate timing of their visit to Paris in 2008, Peggy played an instrumental role in selling the tournament to us. Her experience — having been a player, and with the tournament since the beginning — was an important factor, but it was her optimism, vision, and ‘can-do attitude’ that really convinced us.”

The BNP Paribas Open contract has been renewed twice and expires in 2024. In 2009, assured that the tournament would remain in the desert, PM Sports sold it for a reported $100 million to tech magnate Larry Ellison. He has spent an equal amount on improvements to the IWTG. By 2015, the tourney hosted 456,672 spectators, more than the French Open.

“Yes, we’re the fifth largest [tournament],” Michel says, “but we’re … not in a major market, we’re in Indian Wells, California. It’s one of the most beautiful places to have an event … but [it] will always be very difficult.”

IWTG does not disclose contract terms, but title sponsors typically cover the prize money, and sometimes more, which appears to be the case here. The 2022 total prize money is slightly more than 2021, thanks to a contribution from the ATP: $17,748,393. Michel remains the BNP Paribas point person.

“Peggy is completely committed to the tournament,” said Jean-Yves Fillion, U.S. CEO, BNP Paribas, “but also to the sponsors and clients that she manages. It is this dedication and dynamic that has driven our successful partnership.”

She and Fillion are two of a kind — kind, aware, engaged.

Again, this month, Michel will escort Fillion around the tennis garden. He greets the ball kids, the officials, the player transport drivers. Last year, Michel reported, “He sat there and talked to every [volunteer] who was handling credentials and thanked them for all of their time and effort, told them he knew how hard 2021 was.”

Ya think? Rescheduled for October because of the pandemic, the tournament was COVID-canceled in 2020, the year after Michel sold all 44 suites for the first time. She called every sponsor and suite-holder and offered credit or refunds. Most took credits, and all returned in 2021, even though several of the sport’s biggest stars were absent and attendance dropped by about half. Still, unlike many other tournaments, the prize money remained at 2019 levels, and Michel sold three-quarters of the suites.

As always, this year Michel and Fillion will promote sport and education in the Coachella Valley in ways most people won’t notice. As always, Michel will be hustling for sponsors and suite-holders with the charm and integrity that have described her 37 years on the job.

“Yes, we’re the fifth largest [tournament],” she says, “but we’re … not in a major market, we’re in Indian Wells, California. It’s one of the most beautiful places to have an event … but [it] will always be very difficult.”

 

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