AT AGE 11, the manicured grass, rich history, players in white, venerable crowds, and the monastic silence of Centre Court at SW19, tennis’s most famous address, gripped Mahesh Bhupathi like nothing before: “I dreamt of playing there one day.”
Twenty-eight years and four Grand Slam wins later, the dream has changed. “At Wimbledon, everyone’s in a suit and tie, and clapping. But if I can start an element of the sport where we can bring in entertainment—fast-paced, Twenty20 tennis—that would be intriguing. That’s what I want to create.”
Bhupathi, doubles ace, has morphed into Bhupathi, herald of change. Not just any, but one who wants to upend the world of tennis. We’re sitting in the Mumbai office of Globosport, a brand consultancy he founded, which, among other things, advises companies (such as Procter & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive, and Nivea) seeking to associate with sports and entertainment. Bhupathi, who also runs tennis academies, and a movie production house, explains the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL)—his revolutionary idea to sex up tennis and make it more entertaining, and less unidimensional for both players and spectators.
He’s casually dressed in jeans and an azure polo tee that bears the Globosport logo. “If I could wear a T-shirt and shorts to a business meeting, I’d be a lot more comfortable,” he says with a smile. “But I don’t think that will be accepted.”
The jape is unusual for a man known to be an introvert. “It’s impossible to get him to speak three words in three minutes,” says dad C.G. Krishna Bhupathi, half in jest. “He’s done very few endorsements in his career and to just smile for Colgate, all of us [family] had to be at the shoot to coax him,” adds wife and Bollywood star Lara Dutta.
Colleagues and associates agree he’s not chatty at board meetings or business pitches but listens a lot, always follows the agenda, and, yes, is never late (even on Skype dates and telecons while playing across time zones). “In the worst case, he’s exactly on time,” says sister and Globosport CEO Kavita Bhupathi Chadda.
And sure enough, after that light-hearted remark about clothes, he spends the rest of the meeting with Fortune India listening patiently. He shows little emotion, other than a few signs of restlessness when he fiddles with the cross he wears around his neck. When he does speak, you can sense he’s weighing his thoughts before verbalising them.
For a standard IX dropout (he was always playing tennis), he’s unruffled by the volley of questions on prices, valuations, and finance. Confident returns and quick reactions are something you’re used to from a tennis ace, but this is a whole new ball game. And his responses tell you that he’s nobody’s fool. “Remember, this is the child who could cleanly connect with a tennis ball by the time he was standing, and was hitting all the strokes in the game by 4,” says Bhupathi Sr proudly, when asked about his son’s successes.”
EXAMPLES OF RADICAL THINKING in tennis are as rare as foot faults during a match. The game, originally called ‘lawn’ tennis, has since moved beyond green surfaces (blue clay? seriously?), racquets have evolved from wood to graphite and composite materials, and players are allowed to indulge in garish apparel (never at Wimbledon though). There was also the Open Era in the late 1960s, when professionals, who were earlier barred from playing the Slams and other major tournaments, were allowed to compete alongside amateurs. But the core rules and format of the game, set by the International Tennis Federation, haven’t changed much. And the sport continues to be dominated by Europe and the U.S.
Bhupathi, coming from a nation that has produced few champions, and indeed, barely plays the game, wants to storm that bastion of propriety. What began as a concept triggered off while watching an IPL match 15 months ago has undergone several iterations since. Most of IPTL’s innovations, such as a single set of tennis per match (with the first to win six games declared winner) to control the length of a game and make broadcasters happy, or auctioning players, have been inspired by leagues such as the Mylan World Team Tennis in the U.S. and cricket’s IPL. But these are precisely the sort of innovations that the game is crying out for, which will help it keep up in an increasingly competitive sports marketing world. And like the IPL did with Indian housewives, the IPTL too hopes to bring in new fans to the game.
But the revolution doesn’t end there. The tournament will be held across six cities in Asia. There may not be any linesmen on court; all decisions will be called by a software called Hawk-Eye. And Bhupathi’s biggest coup? He’s convinced the current line-up of top-ranked players to play in the IPTL.
He realises that all of this will raise a few eyebrows—and even potentially aggravate tennis associations. “There are enough people in the tennis world who do not want to see the IPTL succeed,” he says. (Remember, back in the ’70s, when Kerry Packer introduced pyjama cricket, those who signed up were initially blackballed by their country’s cricket boards. They included legends such as Vivian Richards and Imran Khan.) I ask if he’s referring to the official tennis bodies such as the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association. “You’re gonna have to go with what I say,” snaps Bhupathi.
“While we often hear that players are on the road too much, we will never push anyone. If you want to participate, train in Asia ahead of the new season, and earn money doing so, then the IPTL is for you,” clarifies Morgan Menahem, the league’s CEO.
Bhupathi’s willing to play iconoclast because he’s clear that tennis as a sport cannot be sustained in a one-country league, and certainly not in India, where cricket is seen as the sport. And so, IPTL is mostly about playing in Asia, which is the world’s third-largest sports market, pulling in revenues of $23.3 billion (Rs 1.46 lakh crore) last year, and expected to have the third-fastest growth rate at 3.9% in 2015, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’s outlook for the global sports market in 2015.
There’s hardly a name in world tennis not listed on his BlackBerry. “Maybe Steffi Graf,” he says. “But,” he adds after a strategic pause, “I know Andre [Agassi, her husband] and his team very well, so it’s easy for me to get to her.” And it’s through his numerous interactions with players, agents, and other people who matter in the world of tennis that he is successfully selling his big dream. Most top players, present and past, such as Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Agassi, and Pete Sampras have bought into it. Novak Djokovic has endorsed it as “revolutionary”. Tennis legend Boris Becker, who has reportedly invested in the league, is another name sure to add to the saleability of the league, as is Menahem, who doubles as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s agent. “Jo likes innovation in tennis and he views this as being one,” confirms Menahem.
The IPTL may have got off to a tremendous start just by getting the big names of world tennis to join, and that should guarantee a fairly high viewer appeal. However, this does not mean sizeable gate revenues, or viewership approaching that of cricket. Its business model could get challenging—at its core is the balancing of player costs with media rights and sponsorship revenues. “It’s always easy to overestimate broadcaster interest and sponsorship revenues, at least in the first three years. While the more expensive players can be given equity stakes in lieu of their appearance fees, the costs will still be difficult to balance for some years,” says Balu Nayar, former managing director of sports management giant IMG’s Indian arm, and one of the original brains behind the IPL.
Though Bhupathi refuses to reveal the kitty he’ll need to pull off his plan, or divulge names of potential sponsors, be sure he’ll need big bucks. Nothing short of that will induce tennis’s best-known and indeed, best-paid names to play during the off season (November-December) and risk injury, or for that matter, fatigue.
Played across time zones, IPTL will also be a logistical nightmare. But Bhupathi’s always been one to think big. “If you’re not overambitious in life, you always have to settle for mediocrity,” he says. “I try to apply that principle to business as well, as long as I feel I can deliver.”
That’s characteristic of him—huge ambition but a deliberate pace. Formally announced this May in Paris, what looked to be a year-end launch for IPTL has been pushed back by a year. “We’re trying to make sure that things are done right because we have only one chance of making it work,” says Bhupathi. “There are a lot of stakeholders and we will have to make sure they get excited by this in year one, otherwise we have a problem on our hands.”
SO WHAT DOES IT take for a guy like Bhupathi, the quintessential insider, to stake his reputation in an unusual idea? His sister calls him “street smart”, and his wife, “a multitasker who can change a diaper while answering e-mails on his BlackBerry” (they had a baby last year). And here’s a little-known fact: Bhupathi is a consummate salesman who believes in the power of ideas and his ability to sell them. It’s a skill he’s honed over the years. “He can sell coal to Newcastle,” says Bhupathi Sr. When he was struggling to get sponsors for his tennis village for two-and-half years, it was son who managed to convince former Infosys CEO and co-founder Nandan Nilekani to commit Rs 1 crore for a year, having followed up on a chance meeting on board a flight.
Again, it was Bhupathi who convinced steel magnate Lakshmi Niwas Mittal to set up the $10 million Mittal Champions Trust, a nonprofit that assists athletes with Olympics ambitions. He not only sold the idea to Mittal, but also conceptualised, drafted, and registered the trust. The returns arrived in Beijing 2008 when shooter Abhinav Bindra, one of the trust’s numerous beneficiaries, won India’s first individual gold.
Given how he is, taciturn not loquacious, Bhupathi’s pitches tend to be straight, not long or complex. There are no overtly emotional appeals—just realistic, honest projections. “He’s very clear about things and I think people like somebody who’s straight-talking, gets to the point, and delivers what he claims he will be able to do,” says Lara Dutta, whose production house Bheegi Basanti Productions co-developed the movie Chalo Dilli with Bhupathi’s Big Daddy Productions and Eros International Media.
Chandra Sekhar Reddy, CEO of Sports365.in, a company that sells sports and fitness equipment, where Bhupathi has invested, says he is smart and confident, “but not diplomatic by the usual standards”. He has witnessed Bhupathi negotiating on the same side of the table. “He does a very aggressive sales pitch and makes sure that wherever he’s directly involved in selling, we don’t end up losing on execution.”
Earlier this year, Bhupathi met Andy Murray (current world No. 3) in London to secure his availability for the IPTL. At the time, Murray was looking for a new manager and he sought Bhupathi’s advice on some of the agencies wooing him. Murray texted Bhupathi as he waited in the airport for the flight back to India, suggesting Bhupathi meet Simon Fuller, his current manager.
Fuller is a heavy-hitter in the world of entertainment. He created the Pop Idol/American Idol franchises and his company, XIX Entertainment, manages celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, the Beckhams, and F1 driver Lewis Hamilton. Bhupathi is now working with Fuller to market Murray in Asia, including West Asia, though in his personal capacity and not through Globosport.
Fuller says, over e-mail, that he was “impressed immediately” with Bhupathi and calls him “a very astute businessman”. “Mahesh can see the potential in emerging markets and understands the power of sport and celebrity,” writes Fuller, adding that “tennis is in need of new global ideas” and Bhupathi identifies with that.
For a sports celebrity who has been adulated in his own country, and is used to be sold rather than selling, Bhupathi, to my surprise, doesn’t fight his characterisation as a salesman. “I consider myself a salesman. I’ve sold celebrities before [with Globosport] and equity in Globosport to high-profile investors [50% to Platinum Rye Entertainment, one of the world’s largest talent management and brand advisories],” he says.
Platinum Rye CEO Ryan Schinman says Bhupathi makes both sides in a negotiation feel like they’ve won. “A lot of people in business play checkers; Mahesh plays chess and he thinks about the impact on the client. He thinks a lot more about things over time.”
Bhupathi is also canny enough to know when to quit. Back in 2004, Globosport entered celebrity management after signing on Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan. But, once he figured that it was a commission-based industry where his earnings were directly linked to the fluctuating fortunes of actors, he exited in a few years. He remade Globosport into what it is today, working on a fee-based model.
The first avatar of Globosport also taught Bhupathi to deal with business letdowns. Many of the people he’d started the company with quit, taking clients away. A digital business he’d started collapsed. Kavita says, “It was all about betting on 3G, and content being more accessible. There was serious potential there, but the networks didn’t happen and we actually lost a lot of money.”
The upshot? Bhupathi now sticks to family and old pals when it comes to company positions, business advice, and discussing and vetting ventures. “He trusts easily, but also, because of that, he trusts very few people,” says wife Dutta. The conversations usually happen in places where Bhupathi is most comfortable: be it the billiards room in his father’s tennis village, the drawing room in his sister’s home, Airlines Hotel in Bangalore over a dosa, the golf course, or the BlackBerry group which has members from the Bhupathi and Dutta families.
The inner circle also includes Nitesh Shetty, chairman and managing director of realty firm Nitesh Estates, and Navroz C. Udwadia, CEO of hedge fund Falcon Edge Capital, who specialises in emerging markets. Both are former tennis players: Udwadia and Bhupathi shared a room in New York while sweating it out on the courts during their college days. Their inputs are more at the macro level. “These entail the usual checks, balances, and controls in business, as well as exercising financial prudence,” explains Shetty, who was also best man at Bhupathi’s wedding.
SO, IS BHUPATHI APPREHENSIVE that IPTL may finally not succeed? “There a risk of failure in everything you do. But I’m not going to dwell on that, because there’s no reason I would be working 24/7 if I thought it was going to be a failure,” he says.
Whether sporting history will herald Bhupathi as a Kerry Packer or a Lalit Modi—both revolutionaries of ‘cricketainment’ in their own right—remains to be seen. But for now, he shies away from the adulation. “They’ve delivered on their concepts and have something to show for it. A concept is a concept until you can deliver and execute. The IPTL, as of today, is about 14 months from the first ball being hit,” says Bhupathi.
Or as Platinum Rye’s Schinman says: “Bhupathi would like to be the next Richard Branson, but he just isn’t there yet. He is on his way.”