THE SPORTS INDUSTRY in India has entered an interesting phase. Ten years after the launch of the successful Indian Premier League (IPL), the landscape has grown multi-fold, embracing the growth of many sports other than cricket. Sponsorship numbers are northbound, participation is on the rise, and more stars are emerging every day – each aspect adding to the ecosystem, which augurs well for the business of sports. The industry has reached this milestone through the unstinting efforts of many professionals, administrators, entrepreneurs – all who have made a difference and contributed to the success story. SportzPower will celebrate these winners through TRAILBLAZERS, a regular column which will capture their accomplishments outside the arena, showcasing how they made a marked difference to India's sports business.
We start the journey with RAVI KRISHNAN, a name synonymous with the entry and growth of IMG, and sports management in the country. Krishnan was immersed in sports business much before the industry knew what it was all about. Very much a part of the domain, Krishnan's unbeaten innings is the story of sports and entertainment management in the country.
IT MIGHT BE some kind of karmic connection that has ensured Shane Warne is back with Rajasthan Royals, a decade after leading the unheralded team to an improbable victory in the Indian Premier League's inaugural edition in 2008. But there was more to it than fate when RR picked up the celebrated Australian leg-spinner then as their captain-cum-coach. Pushing 39 – hardly the age for a cricketer to be anywhere near a T20 game – Warne first had a talk with his long-time friend, school and St. Kilda cricket club mate, Ravi Krishnan, to take on the role. For Krishnan, then vice-chairman of the Royals, it took some persuasion to convince the franchise's top management to go with the player often termed as 'the best captain that Australia never had'.
When the decision was finally made, Manoj Badale, close friend and owner of the franchise, quipped that if the choice backfired, "it will be on your head", recalls Krishnan. While for most it would have been a challenging moment, for Krishnan it was one more of the many courageous moves that have defined his spectacular success in the sports industry.
Raghu Iyer, former CEO of Rajasthan Royals, and later CEO of Rising Pune Supergiant, puts in perspective the important role played by Krishnan in getting Warne on board. "Ravi worked closely with Manoj in putting the team together. He was responsible for talking to Warne and persuading the management to bring him in. Under Warne, the Royals was a different team, and the team's victory changed the face of IPL."
Warne is effusive in his praise and says "it is a pleasure to call him a friend", and feels Krishnan was a major reason why the Rajasthan Royals won the IPL in 2008. "Without his backing, it would not have happened. I think his personality is what makes Ravi the great guy and friend that he is. He always looks at the positive side of things and is always willing to help others. He is very very loyal and supportive."
Krishnan thinks Warne's impact on making the IPL a success is not fully appreciated. "From being the only Captain/Coach, to galvanising a team of seven nationalities, to motivating both new and established players and catalyzing the careers of future stars like Jadeja, Watson, and many more – the ripple effect was phenomenal.
"The entire experience that year was 'once in a life time'. Manoj put together a formidable strategy and led the franchise off the field superbly. It was a real lesson for me in Leadership and Management."
GROWING IMG INDIA
For many, the IPL was the beginning of the growth of the Indian sports business, but not for Krishnan, who moved from Australia in 1995 as part of a four-member IMG team to set up the world's largest sports management company's operations in India.
IMG was a behemoth in sports, but the one-sport India was uncharted territory. Even cricket, religion to the masses, was not being monetized effectively. IMG got a taste of India through their production division Trans-World International (TWI), which bought the television rights to the 1992–1993 England tour of India from the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
When Krishnan and team set up base, it meant starting from scratch, and more importantly, thinking big. Cricket was a good entry point and the launch of the Sahara Cup in 1996 made their intentions clear. The big-ticket series between arch rivals India and Pakistan at a neutral venue in Toronto brought in big bucks to the sport, which was further enhanced by Sahara's record-breaking India team sponsorship deal in 2001, a deal done by IMG. The success of the Sahara Cup even prompted Mark McCormack, the legendary founder of IMG, to state that the series was one of IMG's greatest successes worldwide.
"Putting together the Sahara Cup was an amazing experience. The audacity of doing an ICC-sanctioned event, in Toronto of all places, to revive India-Pakistan cricket after a hiatus of 10 years was the brain child of my bosses Bill Sinrich and Andrew Wildblood (who was also the chief architect of the IPL along with Lalit Modi). That was my first lesson in making the impossible possible. I remember going into meetings, in India with Andrew, to sell the sponsorship and being almost ridiculed by 99% of the companies we met. But this is the thing about events, you don’t need everyone behind you, you just need enough believers to make it viable. We closed the deal with ESPN Star, Sahara, and then we were well on our way. I remember coming back to India from Toronto, after the first series, and the amount of people that were talking about what we had done left an indelible impression," says Krishnan.
GETTING INTO IMG
McCormack's praise was a memorable moment for Krishnan, as his entry into IMG hadn't been an easy one. "The first time I ever heard about IMG was when I played in the Australian Open in 1985. My mother showed me a profile piece on McCormack that was in one of the leading newspapers. I am pretty sure, I was thinking 'maybe he can manage me one day' and my mother was thinking 'maybe he can give my son a job one day'! It’s funny how things turn out."
When an injury curtailed his aspirations to pursue a professional career as a sportsperson, Krishnan's determination to continue in the sports industry saw him earn a degree in law from the high-profile Monash University in Melbourne.
He pursued his passion by writing to IMG London for a job, confident that the combination of sports+law would open doors. But, contrary to expectations, there was no enthusiastic response. Not one to sit around, Krishnan packed his bags and travelled around, teaching tennis in Malaysia and Israel, and English in Korea. It was in Malaysia that he got introduced to Tim Wright, a senior executive from IMG London who managed Michael Schumacher. Following meetings in London and Hong Kong in May 1995 with Sinrich, Wildblood, and Breck McCormack (Mark's son and head of IMG Asia), Krishnan got his dream job, and in five months he was flying into Mumbai to set up IMG India. Within four years, Krishnan had made a mark in a new and tough market, and was elevated to the position of Managing Director.
According to Ashutosh Khanna, Senior Client Partner, Global Consumer Markets, Korn Ferry, there are very few with a better understanding of the sports business in India. "Most important is the fact that Ravi delivers what he promises. Some of our clients during my advertising days worked with him, and they only had praises for Ravi. While others only talk, he walks the talk." Khanna was earlier the Chief Operating Officer at Grey Worldwide, during which time he did business with Krishnan in the sports domain for the agency's clients.
MORE THAN CRICKET
Apart from cricket, the focus was also on growing the portfolio in other sports, especially tennis and golf. A tennis player himself, having competed in the Australian Open Junior Championship in 1985 and '86, Krishnan understood the nuances of the sport and its players.
When IMG decided to launch an ATP tournament in India, the hard part was managing the commercial aspects. The fact that this event has now completed its 23rd edition is testimony that Krishnan & Team laid a strong financial foundation on which an ATP World Tour 250 still continues to run in the country. Incidentally, it is the only ATP event in South Asia.
Selling the title rights was not an easy task in 1996. It started with McDowell for one year, followed by Gold Flake for three years from 1997, when the tournament moved to Chennai from Delhi. The prestigious Tata group then took on the lead sponsorship for a three-year period.
From establishing strong relationships to managing the commercial interests of properties run by IMG, Krishnan's ability to work with administrators of the sport came to the fore when, from 2005, he worked with the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) and tennis legend, Vijay Amritraj, to get the state government to partner with the event and ensure it continued in Chennai for the longest period – a total of 21 editions.
Ravneet Gill, Managing Director, Deutsche Bank, elaborates on this quality. "I have known Ravi and worked with him for more than 12 to 13 years now. He has this rare ability to build relationships and nurture them. This is very evident from the goodwill he still carries from the relationships that he has built over the years."
BRINGING FASHION TO THE FORE
Having established himself in the sports arena, Krishnan also started focusing on growing fashion, one of the strong domains for the company worldwide. Here again, the ability to partner with experts, build a capable team, ensure the financial viability of the property, and deliver an event on a global scale came easily to the lawyer-turned-sports and entertainment management professional.
"I am lucky to have been involved in many firsts… Getting the first Fashion Week off the ground for the FDCI (Fashion Design Council of India) was incredible experience. Many had tried before, but could not raise the money to do it at the level that was required. Taking inspiration from the Sahara Cup experience, we secured the rights and then were able to get it off the ground in the time period specified. For me, it was gratifying for many reasons, including the fact that it was the first fashion event that IMG had holistically implemented, from commercial to operations to creative. We turned a profit the first year, and the media reaction was phenomenal, which set the stage for future growth."
Krishnan struck the landmark deal in 2000 with a Hindustan Unilever brand, and the first Lakme India Fashion Week set the pace for the growth of the fashion space within the country. But it was not all 'roses on the ramp' for Krishnan. In fact, one of the most testing episodes in his long stint with IMG has been the split with the FDCI in 2005, when negotiations on the professional terms broke down. From running the most high-profile fashion event in the country, overnight IMG was left without the iconic property that they had helped create, develop, and nurture.
This rift gives rise to a case study in sponsor relationship and management, not to forget the art of creating a long-lasting property. Krishnan explains how IMG managed to turn the crisis into an opportunity. "I called Anil (Chopra, head of Lakme) and said: 'When they (FDCI) try to do to you what they did to us, call me. I have a plan'. Sure enough, Anil called me later and we went on to partner with Lakme by creating a co-owned property. I am especially proud of the fact that the event continues successfully to this day even after I left IMG in 2011, and Anil left Lakme. You know that you have built something robust when it can survive, and thrive, without the presence of the main architects. The ATP event is another example of this. It’s phenomenal that it’s been running in India for nearly 25 years and will continue to do so."
Krishnan talks about the power of persistence. "One of the things that I feel is part of my personality is to persist if I see an opportunity. I remember, at the last meeting with the FDCI, when we were negotiating our renewal they had all but told us that they would not be continuing on contract. This was after we had done a phenomenal job. Politely, yet firmly, I told the Board Members present, whom I still consider friends, that if we were not to be renewed that we would, having invested so much ourselves, continue to play a major role in fashion in India. One of them looked at me directly and said: 'You will do nothing.' But we were certain about being an important player in the space, and once Lakme came on board there was no looking back."
This intrinsic involvement with the fashion industry came to good stead for Krishnan in the sports domain. Long before sportainment became a buzzword, the ATP Open in Chennai was witness to many a fashion and charity night where global tennis stars strode on the runway with top models. This potent cocktail of sports and fashion from the IMG stable could only be possible through the strong relationships running across both industries.
Gill highlights this factor. "Ravi is always pushing the envelope for achieving better and bigger. He will always go beyond the brief, always thinking for you. Add to that a very high standard of professionalism, and deep knowledge of the sports and entertainment business."
Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, one of India's largest business conglomerates, concurs. "Ravi is one of the most result-oriented and practical businessmen I know. When he does business, you can be sure no time will be wasted in defining and achieving outcomes. In addition, he clearly excels at building and maintaining a large network of social and business relationships."
Over the 18 years he was associated with the India and South Asia operations of IMG, apart from establishing and consolidating some of the landmark properties in sports, what is notable is also the amazing number of professionals who have gone forth from his team to now lead some of the well-known organisations in the business. Be it a Yannick Colaco heading NBA India, Tuhin Mishra co-founding Baseline Ventures, or Zubin Sarkari who launched his own company Glamrs, they and many more sharpened their skills under the tough professional systems that Krishnan ran in IMG. The focus on excellence in all aspects was the driving force behind any activity, and most who were fortunate to be part of IMG India developed into a better professional.
Khanna is not surprised. "Look at the professionals that have come out of the IMG stable. He is almost like a magnet that attracts great talent. He has helped develop a lot of achievers, and each one has only grown under his guidance."
Tuhin Mishra, Managing Director & Co-Founder at Baseline Ventures Pte Ltd, who worked with Krishnan at IMG, says "he is a go-getter, and at one level, Ravi is a visionary. He was passionate about everything that he took on, and an important factor was that he got into the details of each aspect of an event or property that we managed. He also has great equation on a first-name basis with many leading brand and company heads, which worked very well for the business."
Krishnan attributes his skills at talent management to the wide range of mentors he has had. "I am lucky to have worked with so many talented people throughout my career. I consider myself to be more of an intuitive leader than manager, and it’s the latter that I continue to work on. I have drawn inspiration, over the years, from a variety of people with whom I work, including Mark McCormack, who I was lucky enough to spend quality time with, Sinrich and Wildblood who were my direct managers and mentors at IMG, and people like Anand Mahindra, Ravneet Gill, and Manoj Badale who have been incredibly generous with their counsel to me over the course of my career.
"I am incredibly proud of the achievements of many of the individuals that have worked with me over the years. I can hardly take credit for their success. I am sure many of them would have risen to the top in any case. Nevertheless, I think IMG and Stepathlon (his entrepreneurial venture) are great breeding grounds and the number of individuals that are leading various organisations or driving their own businesses is testament to that. If I have played a small role, then that’s very satisfying."
THE NEXT STEP
A leap into the entrepreneurial world in 2012 with Stepathlon Lifestyle, a global wellness company, seems almost a logical step for Krishnan. "I became an entrepreneur quite late in life. It’s been an incredible journey of both frustration and satisfaction. It’s one that continues and I feel like the best is yet to come."
The company, however, is already a pioneer in the wellness space. It has grown to gain participation from more than 384,000 employees from 722 companies across 65 Countries and 1,010 cities/locations for its unique mass participation initiative. It has positively impacted people in organizations across the world including Marriott, HDFC Bank, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Godrej, UB Group, Star Network, Sony Pictures, GSK Pharma, and ATC India.
With Stepathlon, Krishnan continues his association with sports and has an affiliation with India and cricket's most high-profile athlete, Virat Kohli, for their 'Stepathlon Kids'. This initiative revolves around youngsters between the ages of 8 to 12, with an aim to focus on their health and future. Krishnan's success with his venture validates the sports marketing approach he brings to the wellness industry.
In the locker room, one hears of many more sports-related ventures in the making, and it should come as no surprise when Krishnan announces it. Always watching the ball and prepared to get on the front foot, be ready for some new winners.