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Stick the Volley

Sportsman Mahesh Bhupathi has ended many a tussle on the court with the drop shot. Now Bhupathi, the businessman, has to show the same finishing touch

Published: Sep 17, 2009 07:01:23 AM IST
Updated: Sep 17, 2009 11:14:17 AM IST

Chances are you already know who Mahesh Bhupathi is. You’d have to be pretty daft not to have heard of him in a nation starved of heroes that neither play cricket nor act in Bollywood flicks. So, let’s hazard a guess around what you already know of Bhupathi. He plays lawn tennis; gave up on singles a long time ago; is a formidable competitor on the international circuit in doubles and mixed doubles; his best times were when he partnered with Leander Paes; on the outside, he’s got another two-three years to go before he gets off the ATP circuit.

Now, let’s hazard a guess on what we believe you may not know. He holds a controlling 76 percent stake in Globosport — a sport and celebrity management firm with a fairly impressive roster of clients that includes Sania Mirza, Saif Ali Khan and Freida Pinto. The company now has annual billings of Rs. 100 crore, on which it earned a net profit of Rs. 4.9 crore.

“We have had issues in the past when celebrity managers wanted to leave…everybody is free to leave when they want,” says Bhupathi
Image: Namas Bhojani for Forbes India
“We have had issues in the past when celebrity managers wanted to leave…everybody is free to leave when they want,” says Bhupathi
Over the last couple of weeks, Bhupathi has been lobbying hard with a group of high net-worth individuals to raise $4 million to fund expansion plans. Equirus Capital, the investment banking firm advising him, is hoping to extract a multiple of 30. Whether investors will bite at these levels is not known. Nor is it clear whether they are convinced at all with Bhupathi’s proposition. But that is not the point.

The point here is this: He is most certainly not India’s richest sportsperson. That’s Sachin Tendulkar with a net worth in the region of Rs. 280 crore. His company, Globosport, is not the largest of its kind in the country either. That’s a fight between Percept Holdings and World Sport Group. But, Bhupathi is the only Indian sportsman to have built a business that has significantly impacted the space it operates in; is watched keenly by competitors and feared equally by them; and has attracted the interest of private equity players — because by all accounts, his company holds enormous potential to scale up.

It would be safe, therefore, to imagine Bhupathi as one of those hyperactive, fast talking, smooth, suave operators. Truth is he is anything but that. He seems almost sedate and talks exclusively in mono syllables. “He responds to six-line text messages with a hmmm,” says Sania Mirza, the highest ranked Indian woman tennis player whose career is managed by Globosport. His closest friend, Navroz Udwadia, an investment banker with Eton Park International in London, calls him “fierce”. They shared a room in New York while sweating it out on the courts during their college days. “Mahesh wouldn’t talk to me for days if we had a match coming up,” he recollects.

“He’s a shark,” says a senior executive from a rival firm who did not wish to be named. “I take that as a compliment,” says Bhupathi, poker-faced. “It is cut throat out there and this is how business is done. Atul Kasbekar [Bling Entertainment] is no less a shark than me, neither is Shailendra or Harinder Singh [Percept Holdings]. Everybody is a shark in this business. If I was planning to be a nice guy, I might as well run my tennis academy in Bangalore and be happy.”

It most certainly wasn’t serendipity that propelled Bhupathi into business. It was by design. Way back in 1999 after Bhupathi won the French Open Doubles with Leander Paes, everybody wanted a piece of him. Endorsement offers were knocking at his doors and he signed up for a few. But he terminated most of them nine months down the line. By his own admission, because people managing his endorsements operated less like professionals and more like mom-and-pop shop operators. “It was a very broker driven environment in which everything operated on relationships and mobile phones,” says Manish Porwal, CEO at Percept Talent Management. The industry was dominated by one-man agents and secretaries, who as ad man Kamal Basu of Saatchi & Saatchi points out, “…didn’t know their clients’ actual worth. They would either under sell or exaggerate their worth”.

Bhupathi figured if he could create an entity to manage the careers of sports people like him and operate it like they do in the West, he’d stand a good chance. More importantly, it could offer him a career choice when his playing days got over.

It wasn’t until 2001 though that he actually acted on the thought. A chance encounter with Anirban Das Blah, a former Ericsson Telecom hand, got them talking. They hit off well and a few months down the line the business took off. Their strategy was straightforward. Bhupathi would focus on getting sportspersons on the roster while Blah focussed on celebrities.

Between the two of them, they were pretty clear about one thing. Unlike the others who hankered after a group of cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, who dominated the endorsement space along with movie stars like Shah Rukh Khan, they would bet on emerging stars. Call it what you will — astute talent spotting, luck — they did well.

Globosport signed Sania Mirza when she was 15. A year later she won the WTA tournament in Hyderabad. A corporate client wanted a film star to feature in one of their ads, Globosport went to Saif Ali Khan — then, a bit star who wasn’t being managed by anybody. A couple of months later, Dil Chahta Hai hit movie screens. “We got lucky,” says Bhupathi. “When you have two clients like that, doors open.”

But don’t, even for a moment, assume Bhupathi was always lucky. Though he chose to stay away from cricketers for a long time because he reckoned they expected too much, he made some bets on players like Avishkar Salvi and Akash Chopra in the early stages of their careers. While both made it to the national side, they never hit the big time.

Last year, there was speculation that Globosport had signed on cricket superstar Yuvraj Singh in a deal completely out of character with everything it had done in the past. They promised him a minimum guarantee of Rs. 100 crore. Then, Yuvraj and Bunty Sajdeh, who headed the celebrity management business at Globosport, decided to strike out on their own. The two formed a new company called Cornerstones and Bhupathi woke up to the fact that in this business, the only assets you really have are people and the relationships you build with them.

ACE: C.G.K Bhupathi says his son's quiet nature hides a shrewd business sense
Image: Namas Bhojani for Forbes India
ACE: C.G.K Bhupathi says his son's quiet nature hides a shrewd business sense
“We have had issues in the past when celebrity managers wanted to leave…everybody is free to leave when they want,” says Bhupathi. “In hindsight though, I think it was good we didn’t go ahead with that deal [with Yuvraj] as the minimum guarantee would have been a huge liability on our books,” he rationalises.

Matters got worse at Globosport. “When Bunty left, what hurt us most was that there were other people who had schemed with him. We found from their emails they had been scheming for months, taking out our business plans and integrating them for their future business. It came to a point where it was not pleasant for anybody,” Bhupathi explains.

There are pressures on other fronts as well. Globosport no longer has an exclusive arrangement with Saina Nehwal — without doubt now India’s biggest badminton star. Her father was apparently unhappy with how she was being managed. Blah says, “We tried our best, but couldn’t get her enough contracts.” It’s a danger Bhupathi reckons he will have to learn to live with. He does all the hard work of spotting the right talent, grooming them, and when it comes to monetising the star, they bolt out of the stable to a competitor.

A lot of these problems, says a former employee at Globosport, will sort itself out if Bhupathi were around. “In the three years I was there, I met Mahesh thrice. He is sharp and understands business, but he needs to be around more,” says the exec who did not wish to be named. “I play 25 tournaments a year and am abroad most of the time. I’ll play my tennis for another two-three years. It won’t be forever,” says Bhupathi.

“You’ll be surprised,” says Mahesh’s father, C.G.K. Bhupathi. “My son who talks in monosyllables convinced Nandan Nilekani to invest in our tennis academy over a flight to London.” If you discount for paternal exaggeration, it took Mahesh six meetings with Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys. That included a dinner appointment on the night he lost the Wimbledon doubles semi finals in 2005. That was to muster Nilekani’s support in the form of a cheque for Rs. 3 crore to fund a tennis village his father runs in Bangalore. “I think it was his steely determination and passion for the sport that convinced me,” says Nilekani. He demonstrated the same persistence when he chased up with Lakshmi Narayan Mittal of Arcelor Mittal to fund a sports trust; and Roop Kanwar of Apollo Tyres to form the Apollo Tennis Mission to identify and nurture fresh talent.

While these initiatives don’t mean a thing to Globosport’s balance sheet, it serves to substantiate a pet theory sport analyst Harsha Bhogle has on why Bhupathi stands a good chance at making the most successful transition from sportsperson to businessman. “He isn’t a cricketer. Cricketers are used to being pampered and fawned upon. And doing business isn’t easy on the ego.” Bhogle’s point is a simple one. Cricketers, like most celebrities, are used to being sold. Not selling. And Bhupathi doesn’t wear the hat of a celebrity.

That is why it has got him this far. And he has plans. Like pushing Globosport into a digital world where celebrities are managed in the online space as well; for that matter, marketing them on mobile phones — the idea being that when somebody downloads a movie clip or a song that features them, revenues are generated; making movies; building sports infrastructure across the country that can accommodate everything from jogging tracks to basketball and tennis courts.

To do all of this though, he needs the tailwind a $4 million will give him. For that, the investors he has pitched to will have to acquiesce. A few weeks from now, he’ll know whether they’re on his side
or not. The ball, as they say, is not in his court yet.

(This story appears in the 25 September, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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