It is the spring of 1974. The New York Yankees baseball team is training in Florida. They have acquired a 30-year-old named Lou Piniella. All is well. But there is one problem. Piniella’s hair is long. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ legendary all-powerful owner, wants his players to wear their hair short.
Piniella defends his mane with the example of a man who was not much of a baseball player but was special in other ways. Jesus Christ.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ had long hair, and things seemed to work out for him,” Piniella tells Steinbrenner.
The Boss, as Steinbrenner is known, takes Piniella to a swimming pool nearby and says, “If you can walk on water, you can wear your hair any way you want.”
Steinbrenner, further immortalised by the comedy Seinfeld (where he appears as a character), is a prime example of a breed that has added flavour (and money) to sports—the team owner. Team owners are often powerful, larger-than-life people whose force of personality adds to the cult of the franchise they own. Many of them are as recognisable as the stars themselves, and become integral to the sport. Kerry Packer monetised cricket before anyone else did and every time Virat Kohli cries ‘Alive is Awesome’ he should say a silent thank you to Packer. Bernie Ecclestone’s white mop and Andy Warholish presence is as synonymous with Formula 1 as the eruptions of champagne on the podium. Pakistan’s Shahid ‘Shad’ Khan is the unlikely, and increasingly popular, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars American football team. It is true that not all sports owners are admired. The terraces at Old Trafford detest the Glazer family, which owns Manchester United. And Balaji and Venkatesh Rao of Venky’s are deservedly booed when they show up for games at Blackburn Rovers, a club they own but have run so badly that they have embarrassed India. But by and large owners are assets, crucial and fascinating components of a sports franchise.
For many years, Indian sport was devoid of charismatic sports owners. There was not much in Indian sports to own. There were horses, sure. And Dr Cyrus Poonawalla with his hat and cigar made an interesting sight. But that’s about all. Then came the Indian Premier League (IPL). Indian sport now had a Gulfstream full of glamorous team owners. Everyone was curious about them. How would these high achievers in business and the glamour world do in their new venture? How were they to work with? What did it mean to get that compensation cheque from, say, the Kolkata Knight Riders? (The KKR cheques are reportedly signed by Gauri Khan, wife of Shah Rukh Khan, one of the team’s owners.)
Initially it was a frantic existence for all teams. Everyone was bouncing off the wall. Money had been invested. Everyone wanted instant results.
Neil Maxwell, who was CEO of the Kings XI Punjab, owned by Ness Wadia and Preity Zinta, said during the inaugural IPL in 2008, “I think cricket taught actors and industrialists a bit about winning and losing. You don’t win a title at the first game, you have to build a culture and peak at the right time. Once everyone accepted that, it made the journey less stressful and more enjoyable.” One thing hasn’t changed with the team—Zinta could still take the award for Most Talkative Owner. On a flight between venues, she sat in front of Adam Gilchrist, current skipper of Kings XI Punjab. She spent almost the entire duration of the journey turned in her seat so she could face him, prattling on about this and that.
Harsha Bhogle, cricket journalist and advisor to the Mumbai Indians in IPL 1, says, “Initially the owners came in with a corporate point of view. Targets were set. And if the targets were not met, the captain or coach would get a phone call.
This was difficult for players because till now they didn’t have to explain their actions on the field to people outside cricket.” Bhogle adds, “[Team owners] also had little experience of running cricket teams. The one team that did have experience was Chennai Super Kings. That is because India Cements (which owns CSK) has competed in domestic cricket for years. So their approach was hands-off.”
The same was not true of other teams; for them, dealing with owners was fraught. You had to win. You had to be patient if the owner, now suddenly a cricket expert, called demanding why you did or did not make a certain tactical move. You had to show up at the party after the game, so the boss didn’t get offended. And you had to be able to have fun because not all owners are bosses from hell.
Sourav Ganguly gave a clue of what it takes to be an IPL team captain during a function in Mumbai last year. Asked what was easier, captaining India or an IPL team, Ganguly said, “India was easier. No one called me before and after every match asking why someone did not bowl the slower one in the 18th over.” This was clearly a reference to SRK, a man who once described himself as ‘Dilli ka goonda’ (a thug from Delhi). In Chak De! India, Shah Rukh tells a rebel player that every team has room for only one goonda, and in that team that place was his. The situation was somewhat similar at KKR too, with the principal characters being Shah Rukh and Ganguly.
The typical cast of a sports strategy meeting would not include film and fashion folk. But at KKR, it wasn’t uncommon for the Morani Brothers—Ali and Karim—to be present at meetings. The Moranis are friends and business partners of SRK. A seasoned cricket marketing professional familiar with the workings of KKR recalls, “The meeting before the first auction (2008) went on from 10 pm to 3.30 am. It was a strange mix of people in the room—cricket professionals and nerds, including Ganguly, and very filmy folk like the Morani Brothers. It was a cultural mismatch that needed getting used to.”
When told about the comment Ganguly made in Mumbai, the person says, “Ganguly wasn’t always an angel. He would do his own thing on the pitch. One of the ideological clashes between him and the owners was over the team’s batting approach. Ganguly would rather they saved wickets and then accelerated.”
It is believed that KKR’s turnaround started three years ago. Shah Rukh realised that being too involved had not worked. The team had become such a joke that even someone as straight-laced as Rahul Dravid took digs at them. Dravid was on stage with Shah Rukh and a few others at the IPL Awards in Mumbai in 2010. Shah Rukh invoked KKR’s anthem ‘Korbo, Lorbo, Jitbo Re’. Dravid wondered aloud if ‘Jitbo’ was necessary.
Shah Rukh decided to step back a bit. Venky Mysore was hired as CEO and managing director in September 2010. The next year Gautam Gambhir became captain, while Ganguly joined the Pune Warriors. Winning the title last year has further relaxed SRK. The outburst at Wankhede, though, is a scar that will not go away soon. (A telling image from that episode is of Shah Rukh’s son, Aryan, sitting calmly on the turf tying his shoelaces with people around him nearly at blows with each other.) But even with the CEO and captain settled and the title won, Shah Rukh, it is believed, will not be completely hands-off. It is not his personality. But while this can be annoying at times, it is not without its virtues.
“He is very warm with the players,” a cricket agent with experience of working with Shah Rukh says. “It’s not that he speaks only to Gambhir or Kallis. He is equally pally with a Laxmi Ratan Shukla.”
Charu Sharma, who was CEO of Royal Challengers Bangalore for a few torrid months, singles out Shah Rukh for his generosity and for looking out for his players. “He would sign deals with a lot of companies so that his players got a laptop or a watch. Not that cricketers need these things, but it showed he was there for his team.”
Not all owners are like that. According to an employee of a Southern franchise, the owners of his team would remind players at the slightest opportunity that they had been bought. He says, “Players would be told, ‘Look, we own you’. If they were not around at parties, the owner would grumble. After one loss I told the players, ‘It’s okay. Tough luck.’ I got a big lecture about us being a proud team, making our own luck and all that.”
It would be okay to guess that of all the teams, KKR would probably have the most parties and that its players would be under the most pressure to attend. But that is not true. According to the cricket agent quoted earlier, “There is no pressure to attend parties. When KKR play in Kolkata, they have a party in the hotel nightclub after every game, win or lose. Typically it is the foreign players who come… for at least a drink. But if it is a significant win, then everyone comes. Last year, Pune versus Kolkata was a bit of a grudge match. Kolkata won and then even the Pune players came for the party. It was great to see the players mixing with each other.” Ganguly wasn’t at the party, however. This wasn’t because he was sulking; Ganguly stays at home when he is playing in Kolkata.
The Bangalore team has had some stormy times. A former colleague says patience is not the strong suit of owner Vijay Mallya. “The main problem was they did not understand the game,” says an ex-member of the Royal Challengers’ management. “They wanted to win right away. They thought it was a factory, where you put in money and the wins just start coming. Neither Mallya nor his hangers-on knew much about cricket.”
Mallya’s globetrotting and his varied business interests also meant that meetings with him were at zombie hours. “There were several occasions when we met him at 2 am or 3 am,” says the former employee. “He would land in Mumbai or Delhi at those hours, and the team’s support staff would have to fly in from Bangalore. The meeting would go on till five or six in the morning and we’d return to Bangalore. Mallya, of course, would have another meeting about some other business. That’s how he operates. When I joined RCB, I was told, ‘Be ready for late nights’.”
While most team owners have now ceded much of the cricketing control of their teams, the reverse has happened at Mumbai Indians. Nita Ambani was not directly involved in the beginning. But watching the team’s struggles during the 2009 IPL in South Africa affected her. She immersed herself in cricket and her husband’s team, calling the Wankhede her “workplace” in one interview with The Economic Times.
“Initially only Nikhil Meswani (executive director, RIL) would come for meetings. He wouldn’t ask any cricket-related questions. [The owners] were just getting a feel of things,” says Bhogle. “The third year onwards Nita Ambani has been very hands on. I don’t know how it has gone down with the players. But then she has made efforts to educate herself in cricket. She keeps an eye on the Pro 20 games in South Africa, the Big Bash in Australia.”
But this year, Mumbai Indians hired Anil Kumble (chief mentor) and John Wright (head coach). Names of that stature would not have come on board unless they were assured autonomy. It is possible that Ambani will still retain her say in cricketing matters, but will probably leave the final decision to the pros.
Besides, there are times when a team needs a hawk-eyed owner, somebody to occasionally fire them up. When the Deccan Chargers were losing repeatedly during the 2009 IPL, one of the owners wrote a sharply worded email to coach Darren Lehmann and key players. ‘The only thing charging about this team is the bull in the logo,’ was one of the observations he made. The Chargers ended up winning the IPL.
Consensus is that the owners are maturing (at least some of them). During the Pune Warriors versus Sunrisers Hyderabad clash on 5 April, a television anchor (with a fake Westernised, made-for-IPL accent) asked Pune and Sahara owner Subrata Roy about his style of functioning. “I talk to them sometimes, but not before a game. Maybe later. A little emotional, motivational, and a little… ” Roy paused. The word came to him. “…mental.” It is a word that perhaps sums up the IPL for everyone: the players, the fans and the owners.