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Creating a Kabaddi league was never about money. It was about having fun: Anand Mahindra

The industrialist chats about sports, motivation, and the success of the Pro Kabaddi League.

other sports Updated: Sep 15, 2018 09:47 IST
Sanjjeev K Samyal
Sanjjeev K Samyal
Hindustan Times
Mahindra,Anand Mahindra,M&M
The Telugu Titans battle the Patna Pirates in a PKL match in Mumbai, in 2016. Industrialist Anand Mahindra is part owner of Mashal Sports, the company that came up with the idea of the Pro Kabaddi League. The sixth edition of the league starts on October 5. (HT File Photo)

The mural, all seven panels of it, is reminiscent of the work of Mexican great Diego Rivera. It shows Mumbai in all its glory. One panel shows all the iconic landmarks of South Mumbai. Another, the peak-hour commuting. And a third is about the new infrastructure which Mumbai got in the last few years.

Almost ceiling height, the mural, by Mumbai artist Sudhir Patwardhan, hangs in the foyer of the HQ of the Mahindra Group in Colaba, a stone’s throw from the Gateway of India (if you have a strong arm, that is).

The mural says as much about Anand Mahindra as it does about Mumbai. Mahindra, a young and trim 63, is a CEO with interests that range far beyond the business interests of the conglomerate he heads.

He is interested in music, although he claims this has to do with business in a lateral sort of way – the main market for the tractors Mahindra sells in the US is ‘Blues territory’. Still, the annual Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai is the closest India has come to Blues (or, for that matter rock) music greatness. Buddy Guy has performed in it. As have Derek Trucks, the slide guitar prodigy, and Susan Tedeschi, his singer-wife.

Mahindra is interested in cinema and theatre (there’s the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards).

He is interested in technology and what it does to society – he has a team working on a possible alternative to Facebook, riffing off a conversation on Twitter (he has 6.74 million followers) in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Nothing may come of it, but it’s refreshing to see the chairman of a hoary conglomerate get excited by ideas that don’t really mean anything in terms of business – at least, not for him.

Indeed, Twitter is also the source of another of Mahindra’s brainwaves. Following another controversy, this one concerning jeweller Nirav Modi who allegedly defrauded a bank and fled India, Mahindra got into a conversation on the social media platform on the possibility of buying Rhythm House, the iconic Mumbai music store that shut shop in 2016, making way for one of Modi’s glitzy stores, and which has since been seized by the authorities. The idea is to convert it into a public place – perhaps for performances. Again, nothing may come of it, but you get the drift about the kind of man Mahindra is.

“It is the experiences you create in a society in a very diversified way – that’s what drives me,” he says.

That lengthy prelude is necessary to understand what Kabaddi means to Mahindra and, more importantly, what Mahindra means to Kabaddi.

The second is especially pertinent because, in some ways, it’s Mahindra’s approach to ideas – putting them first, ahead of ownership and business – that’s perhaps responsible for why, as the man himself puts it, the sport has suddenly become “fashionable” for boys in posh “South Mumbai schools”.

Mahindra is convinced that if he’d set up the league with an eye on money and valuation, he would have failed. ‘I wouldn’t have sold it to Star... and Uday [Shankar, Star India chief] wouldn’t have put his heart and soul into it,’ he says. (Mint File Photo)

For those not in the know, Mahindra is part owner of Mashal Sports, which is the company that came up with the idea of the Pro Kabaddi League, which is now in its fifth year and sixth edition (this year’s will start in October).

This isn’t about one of the Mahindra group companies sponsoring a league or owning a team. Mahindra says that is something each company decides, based on whether it makes business sense for it. That’s why SUV and tractor maker Mahindra & Mahindra exited football (it used to have a team), he explains. And it’s probably why Mahindra wasn’t too keen on owning an IPL team.

The story of how Mahindra hit upon Kabaddi has been told before, but merits repeating. He had been thinking about Kabaddi. As had been his brother-in-law Charu Sharma, a sports commentator and the first CEO of IPL team Royal Challengers.

There were good reasons to choose Kabaddi.

“There are a lot of theories about why the other sports leagues are not working in our country. It’s because Indians cheer only for global champions. You will never get real conviction unless you have Indian heroes who are world-class. We talked about all this…” says Mahindra, recalling the time he contemplated which sport to back.

“Charu had mentioned it to me after the Doha Asian Games in 2006, how people had been thronging the Kabaddi venue, and it stayed in my mind,” he adds. “I felt it had tremendous potential with a great rural appeal.”

Mahindra was still mulling over the idea when a chance meeting with former IPL czar Lalit Modi gave impetus to it.

“We were doing a basketball event with the NBA at that time and Heidi Ueberroth, then president of NBA International, said she wanted to meet Lalit Modi. I fixed up a meeting. Lalit being Lalit was notoriously late. As we waited, I happened to ask Heidi if she had heard about Kabaddi. And I was taken by surprise when she replied in the affirmative.” How come, he asked.

“I surf the channels when I am in India and it is a fabulous sport because it has got big guys, it is very fast, is aggressive, and it is compact. It is a short game, it is made for TV. It’s like basketball. You are crazy to have not popularised it,” she said, according to Mahindra. “Later, when the Pro Kabaddi League kicked off, I told Heidi, ‘you are a co-conspirator in it’.”

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CHECK OUT THE BODY-SLAMMING ACTION

GAINING GROUND
  • The Pro Kabaddi League’s inaugural edition was held in 2014 with eight teams. The 2017 season featured 12 teams, with the broadcaster claiming an increase in viewership of nearly 56% over the first season.
  • In the first edition, India’s then Kabaddi captain, Rakesh Kumar, attracted the highest bid, of ₹12.80 lakh.
  • The Season 6 auction, held this May, saw the Haryana Steelers sign Monu Goyat for ₹1.51 crore. Rahul Chaudhari got the second-highest bid, of ₹1.29 crore, from the Telugu Titans.
  • Deepak Niwas Hooda and Nitin Tomar bagged ₹1.15 crore each from Jaipur Pink Panthers and Puneri Paltan respectively.
  • The Iranian player Fazel Atrachali was signed by U Mumba for ₹1 crore.

There was another factor as well – how Mahindra evaluates new ideas when it comes to sports.

“When IPL succeeded, a number of people came up to me with the question, how come Mahindra doesn’t have an IPL team? I still get told today that Mahindra should have a team. For me, if you are doing it for yourself then you are doing it for vanity. [Then] it is not so much about sports. Now that we have a Formula E team, everyone is saying why don’t you buy a Formula One team? But I like to do things which are new, different, and possibly, the future. That’s why Formula E!”

It doesn’t hurt that Mahindra & Mahindra has a significant play in EVs (electric vehicles) and would like to do more. “When this generation of kids grows up, it may not even remember the sound of a petrol car,” he says.

Kabaddi ticked this box. It was interesting to Mahindra simply because it was very different. “That’s what drives me… something different, off the beaten track.” The more he thought about it, the more Mahindra was convinced.

“I will say the experience of watching Kabaddi live is… the sound is so violent. When you hear body on body, bone on bone sometimes. There’s nothing to replace the experience of watching it live, seeing the physicality of it. When you are in the arena, then you realise how difficult and physical a sport it is.”

But there was still a missing piece. Amplification. That fell into place when Mahindra met Star India chief Uday Shankar for a lunch when both were on a business trip to New York.

Shankar listened to Mahindra, but had an offer to make. “We will really promote this, provided you let me invest, become part-owner,” Mahindra remembers him saying. According to Mahindra it was one of “the quickest decisions I made in my life. I sat there and thought ‘I am not doing this for money, I like things to succeed’”.

In his experience, he adds, in business, normally, someone has to be in charge, 50-50 never works. “Right there, I made the decision and told him, ‘Uday, I will let you in but on one condition – you take the majority on day one’.”

Star stuck to its part of the deal. It went all-out, even finding cameramen and producers from England and Australia who had covered rugby, another contact sport.

Interestingly, much like Mahindra and Shankar – and also, perhaps, because of their involvement; both are influencers in their own right – several companies and celebrities invested in Pro Kabaddi franchises when the league was formed. This includes: U Mumba (owned by Unilazer Sports, Ronnie Screwvala), Jaipur Pink Panthers (Abhishek Bachchan), Patna Pirates (Rajesh Shah) and Bengal Warriors (Future Group).

“We were struggling to get the right franchises for the league and I was calling my friends in the corporate world to buy teams, telling them how I was in it for fun and how much fun it would be,” says Mahindra.

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A CONTACT GAME: AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT IS HIGH

The payments to the players was still a far cry from what cricketers in the IPL receive.

When the Pro Kabaddi League was launched in 2014, Rs 12.80 lakh (for the then captain of the Indian team, Rakesh Kumar) was the highest bid for a player. That’s changed. In the latest auction in May, five Indian players and a foreigner went for more than Rs 1 crore.

The foreigner is Fazel Atrachali, from Iran, who attracted a bid of Rs 1 crore. Indeed, Pro Kabaddi can stake a claim to the success of the Iranians in the sport.

Their teams (both men and women) beat India’s at the recent Asian Games in Jakarta. The two Indian teams were the defending champions. “The most satisfying thing for me is when you see the village boys making money,” says Mahindra.

But Mahindra also sees a larger (and not so well-known reason) as to why the league worked. “After the league happened, Lalit Modi sent me a message, ‘Anand, you have created a billion-dollar business, don’t sell this’. I didn’t want to tell him I had already done so. The key is, I didn’t get into it to make money; that is why it also worked,” he says.

Mahindra is convinced that if he had done it for the money, for the valuation, he would have failed. “I wouldn’t have sold it to Star; I would have given 5 per cent, and Uday wouldn’t have put his heart and soul into it.”

First Published: Sep 08, 2018 17:40 IST