Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

In sport, no two days are the same: Suhail Chandhok

Acclaimed broadcaster and CEO of U Mumba, a brand that houses three sports franchises, Chandhok shares his perspectives on how to build the Indian sports ecosystem

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jun 10, 2024 02:19:17 PM IST
Updated: Jun 10, 2024 02:37:28 PM IST

In sport, no two days are the same: Suhail ChandhokSuhail Chandhok, Co-founder, Yuva Kabaddi Series and CEO of U Mumba
His father was a rallying champion, brother one of the two Formula One drivers in the country, and he himself has played quite a bit of cricket before injury cut his career short. But Suhail Chandhok continues to flourish off the field. Most sports fans would be familiar with Chandhok as a sports presenter, most recently during Indian Premier League (IPL) and the French Open. But his involvement with sports goes much beyond as a broadcaster.

Chandhok has co-founded the Yuva Kabaddi Series and is now the CEO of U Mumba, which houses three sports franchises—kabaddi, table tennis and chess. In an episode of Sports UnLtd, Chandhok shared his plans to scale up U Mumba, and his perspectives on the growth of the Indian sports ecosystem. Edited excerpts:

Q. As the CEO of U Mumba, you have three sports franchises to work with. How do you plan to draw on your long stint in sport and build up the brand?
When you look at sport through various lenses, you gain a lot. Talking to cricketers who move towards the commentary box later, you hear some of them say ‘I wish I commentated while I was still playing because you have an outside-in angle’. For me, having now had the 360-degree experience of being a sportsman, a broadcaster and also having a role in the business side of sport, I draw on various experiences at various times for U Mumba—whether it's sponsorship management, whether it's the right brand values that we want to portray, whether it's how to actually run the culture of our franchises and how to emit that through our athletes. I'm glad I had the experience of being an athlete myself, and the respect that, therefore, comes with it, I don't need to come in and explain how or why I might have a certain knowledge or a learning. The best part of growing through sport is that you're always learning—in sport, no two days are the same.

Q. What scaling-up lessons have you learnt from the IPL, given that it’s one of the most valuable sports leagues in the world?
As a player in the IPL, the initial eye-opening lesson that you get is in professionalism, and a jump in the level of all sorts, from you turning into a brand suddenly to being around people you’ve always admired. I remember walking into the RCB dressing room in 2009, when Anil Kumble was the captain—I went to my first net session and faced him, the guy I used to imitate bowling at home. And you have to put that aside because you're now an equal. So, for anyone that comes into a franchise at U Mumba, how to make them feel a part of that culture straightaway, how to run a club professionally from the get-go are such a big aspect.

When you look at the scale of operations of an IPL squad, it's massive…and at Pro Kabaddi, we’re still operating at one-tenth or one-fifth of that, Ultimate table Tennis (UTT) even smaller. The Global Chess League is actually very easy because the athletes are such a breath of fresh air to deal with. But it’s the kabaddi franchise with which we can draw the closest parallel to an IPL team in terms of brand building or operations or management. [From IPL, you learn] the athlete management culture of the club, how you bring a unit together and keep it together through wins and losses through the course of the season, you understand how each and every person within that change room or the entire brand of your franchise has a massive role to play.

Q. As the CEO, how would you define the identity for Brand U Mumba?
Number one, energy, honesty to your craft. B, loyalty as well to a team which is very hard to come by today. We're living in a world where you're always seeking another, better opportunity and there's always going to be another club or a franchise that wants to lure you away once you start doing well. Especially given the rules around the kabaddi auctions, it's very hard to retain players. The players should vibe with why you want a certain player to be a part of your club. And then, youth. I’ve co-founded the Yuva Kabaddi Series and I see a lot of young talent coming through the ranks as well, so to be able to give them a platform and back them is very important. Because the No. 1 thing for most sportspersons in the world is security—you want to be able to give a sportsperson security, be it pay or a place and role clarity within a team. You see that with successful teams—an IPL team that doesn't make wholesale changes match after match is usually towards the top end of your points table. And finally, I think Mumbai is a melting pot of cultures and I'd love for that to reflect at U Mumba.

Q. Your father-in-law, Ronnie Screwvala, who owns these franchises, is a respected entrepreneur and has scaled multiple enterprises, currently upGrad. Does he have a word of advice for you when it comes to building the brand?
Ronnie is someone I knew and looked up to before he became family. Along the way, we would chat about kabaddi on the sidelines of the Pro Kabaddi league way back around 2014-2015. I always saw him as someone with the Midas touch. Quite often, when you see the rewards or the external side of someone you don't quite understand how s/he does it. The number one thing that I’ve learnt from him is time management. He does a thousand things, but he does them with precision and clarity. That's something I've had to learn and unlearn—suddenly now, when I wear different hats in a single day, I think the Google Calendar has become when my best friend. Second, we had two very clear-cut conversations. A: He said that whenever there's anything to do with finance or business, please feel free to come to me. B: I trust you because you know sport more than I know, and you’re accountable for every decision. You're accountable for the losses and the wins—they are on your head. So, that’s real clarity of roles and the security of knowing I've come in where I'd like to believe my contribution is as equal to someone else's.

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Q. Kabaddi as a sport is fairly well-spread by now, thanks to 10 seasons of Pro Kabaddi. How do you plan to grow the other two sports franchises, especially chess, since it’s never been a visual sport that can take it across to households through TV?

That’s pretty much what I thought about chess as well. And all of that was completely turned on its head when I met the players and went through a season of the Global Chess League. Like most people, I know the basics of chess, but I didn’t understand the nitty-gritty well. One of the biggest understandings for me is that the appetite for chess, especially from a youth perspective, is tremendous. The number of kids I saw come up to players and just wanted to talk to them was incredible. Even I was gripped with the game, and it wasn’t from the chess board as I wouldn’t understand head or tail from the board—it was because of certain elements with the broadcast, like a meter showing who’s ahead or explaining the moves via commentary. There are now tools that have been brought in through algorithms and computing that is allowing viewers to understand why someone is making a move and who's ahead as a result.

Q. Chess is typically a solo sport. How did you bring the players together as a team?
Coming in, I was told by consultants around the chess world that don't talk to the players after a match, don't talk to them before a match, they don’t engage. But, slowly, we broke them out of that as well because our learnings from the cricket and the kabaddi world is that a team, whether you win or lose, has dinner together. That was my one rule for our team members. I use Sasha [Alexander] Grischuk as an example. He says he's been part of more than a hundred team events. He came to us and said I’ve never enjoyed myself more than I did with this team and I hope you will retain me.

One of the most beautiful moments during the league came when we were in a tight situation trying to make the final. On that day, I saw teamwork like I've never seen even in a team sport. Every match in the GCL counted towards the Elo ratings of the players, so doing anything else apart from going for a win affected their rating. But, suddenly, I saw a few players from the team like Grischuk, D Harika standing up and walking around, even when their match is on, to have a quick look at the board to see what position everyone’s in. And then each of them actually started playing for the team saying I could have gone for a win there, but we were okay on a couple of other boards so I can play safe and go for a draw. In the world of chess, even siblings don’t share secrets and, here, we had team meetings, even though each person will go on to play the other at some other tournament.

Q. Of the three in your portfolio, which sport brings you the best bang for the buck?
Pro Kabaddi became profitable very early on, in Year 1 and 2 itself, because what was an investment back then was relatively small to the investment you see in other leagues. The way it blew up has made kabaddi the most profitable. Having said that, the scale of operations has also increased and, therefore, the costs have also increased. You're looking at much larger squad sizes, at Rs4.5-5 crore, you are looking at much larger player purses. Then there are operation costs, you have a pre-season camp to run. In some sense, as the costs are now scaling up, we have to find ways to unlock more revenue streams. One of the biggest things is always going to be media rights, but, going forward, how does that unlock itself from a separate digital and TV media rights structure? A massive positive is we’ve had our biggest year in terms of sponsorship revenue last season. So, kabaddi is always going to be front and centre in terms of revenue creation.

It's also the second sport in terms of viewership, after the IPL, and that helps in penetration through to Tier II and III—it's a very direct to consumer route and I can’t think of a cheaper method to do so. When you look at the price you're paying—like advertising costs—for kabaddi vs IPL, and the kind of viewership that you are getting in return, that’s bang for the buck.

Table tennis is a growing sport and it will continue to grow because we're getting more and more athletes now representing India on the world stage—it’s going to take time from a commercial perspective, but it's heading on the right track. And finally, I think chess is going to be very lucrative going forward—it’s incredible the number of brands that have already reached out to us.

Q. You’ve co-founded the Yuva Kabaddi Series, a grassroots kabaddi movement. Tell us a bit about that.
I met Arvind [Sivdas] and Dhanya, our co-founders, way back at various conferences. Arvind used to be a consultant with one of the Pro Kabaddi teams and also worked with Chennai Super Kings for their auction., and Dhanya comes from a deep tech, science background. We started by building out the Cricinfo of kabaddi, back then called Kabaddi Adda, but we had to pivot during Covid. But today I think we are where we need to be—with a physical asset which serves the kabaddi ecosystem and is the bridge between amateur kabaddi and Pro Kabaddi. The reason we started is to be a feeder to Pro Kabaddi.

When we began, kabaddi was a very haphazard sport. There were tournaments that would happen in random locations and last minute. For Pro Kabaddi teams, imagine how difficult it would be to attend local tournaments and scout. There’s suddenly a tournament sprouting up in the middle of Karnataka or Salem in Tamil Nadu or in Sangli in Maharashtra, what have you, prize money is thrown in suddenly and you don’t know which players are going to turn up. For us, it was a case of organising the ecosystem and then setting up a professionally-run structure so that players earn a livelihood. One of the first things we did was to ensure that everyone involved—from the player to the referee, the physiotherapist and volunteer—gets paid. We got a great broadcast team as well, who’ve been involved with ICC events, and we’ve also had the backing of Fancode and Dream11, who came in as early partners.

The largest chunk of our revenue goes back into the ecosystem to do more for the players. We're constantly evolving the product as well and trying to see how we can iron out issues. We end up doing close to 200 days of Yuva Kabaddi Series in a year. I’ve spoken to a lot of Pro Kabaddi CEOs who’ve thanked me for giving them a platform to scout players from. We've had more than 90 players over the last couple of years alone that have moved to Pro Kabaddi.