Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is the fifth richest man in the world. And he hasn’t been shy about spending his fortune, estimated by Forbes to be $43 billion.
He’s bought a yacht that's five stories high, his own Hawaiian island, and a tennis tournament that’s going on right now in the Southern California desert near Palm Springs.
At first, the tennis world saw Ellison and his bank account as a boon.
The Indian Wells, Calif., tournament was on the verge of moving to Doha or Shanghai four years ago when Ellison bought the event and the 54-acre facility where it's played. Ellison was hailed as a savior, a hero...even Santa Claus with a tennis racquet.
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 to the desert. 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.”
Ellison’s support has been more than just shouts of encouragement from his courtside seat. He wanted to give players a raise, a $1.6 million bump in prize money.
The Women’s Tennis Association quickly approved the increase. But the men’s tour -- the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) -- 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 two-week 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. 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.'’’
But the CEO of Indian Wells’ tournament, Raymond Moore, says other events are just being stingy.
His event just announced a $70 million expansion that includes building a second stadium, with a Nobu sushi restaurant courtside.
“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,” said Moore. “They just choose not to.”
Moore says he doesn’t have a blank check from Ellison.
“He didn’t get to be the fifth-richest man in the world by just throwing money out the window, said Moore. “These are calculated business decisions.”
Moore says the decision to increase prize money was made as a defensive measure.
There had been rumblings from players about wanting 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.