IN FEBRUARY, sports enthusiasts were in for a treat when two Indian sports stars launched their own brands focusing on apparel and footwear—on the same day, and with similar-sounding names. While cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, in association with New Delhi-based sports management firm Rhiti Group, launched his active lifestyle brand Seven, tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi set in motion his sports brand Zeven in partnership with Hemchandra Javeri, the former country head of Nike, south Asia.
The amazing coincidence apart, this is not the first time Dhoni, Bhupathi or any sports star has entered into the world of business and taken a shot at entrepreneurship—some of them with mixed successes—as they look for alternative career paths beyond the playground.
Bhupathi turned entrepreneur way back in 2002 and is the founder of Globosport group of companies, which has grown to become India’s premier sports and entertainment conglomerate. In 2014, he founded the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), a unique team-based tennis league that has revolutionised the game’s traditional etiquette in order to attract a new audience to the sport.
The 12-time doubles and mixed doubles Grand Slam champion also runs the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies (MBTA). Currently, the MBTA runs over 25 centres spread across the country.
Commenting on his latest venture, Bhupathi says, “I have been playing in China every year for the past two decades and have seen first-hand how local sports brands have grown there, be it Li Ning, Anta or 360. They have all created some serious value. In India, we don’t have a single home-grown sports brand that has a multi-dimensional offering, so it was always at the back of my mind to do something like this. Since the opportunity is apparent, the gap was execution and that’s where Hemu’s (referring to co-founder Javeri) years of experience at the highest level in retail come in.”
Limited-overs captain Dhoni made his debut in the world of commercial fitness in 2012 by launching a chain of gyms under the brand SportsFit World. A year later, Dhoni joined the likes of tennis legend Roger Federer and football star David Beckham to launch his own signature brand of international perfumes named ‘7 by MS Dhoni’. Besides, Mahi—as Dhoni is fondly called—is also the co-owner of Ranchi-based hockey club Ranchi Rays (along with Sahara India Pariwar), a franchise of the Hockey India League; and co-owner of Chennai-based football club Chennaiyin FC (along with actor Abhishek Bachchan and Vita Dani, the niece of industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani), a franchise of the Indian Super League (ISL). In 2012, Dhoni also co-partnered with Telugu film superstar Akkineni Nagarjuna to buy Mahi Racing Team India, a team of FIM Supersport World Championship, a motorcycle racing competition.
Explaining the story behind his latest venture, Seven—often called his lucky number—Dhoni says, “When I started as a goalkeeper, I got jersey number 22. I took it. When they asked in cricket, I started looking for one with which I could relate to. My birth date is July 7 and the first time I got to bat was at number seven. So I decided that would be my number.”
From talent management and endorsements to films and then retail, it was an obvious transition for us, says Gaurav Bahirvani, joint president, global communications, brand and strategy, Rhiti Group. “While there are several international brands that are available in the Indian market, there is not a single Indian brand targeting the youth to promote an active and healthy lifestyle, which is what Seven is all about,” he offers.
Seven aims to be a ‘mass-premium’ brand. “We want to inspire and bring about a healthier way of living in India and eventually across the world. Our distribution has been specifically designed to cater to this goal. Our pricing strategy fits the well-informed youth of India and the rest of the world,” explains Devtosh Jha, business head, RS Seven Lifestyle, the retailing arm of Rhiti Group that is behind Seven.
Many other sportspersons have also ventured into the world of business. In April last year, Indian Test skipper Virat Kohli launched his chain of gyms and fitness centres called Chisel in association with New Delhi-headquartered franchise solutions company Franchise India. The firm plans to launch a total of 75 centres in three years. Kohli’s investment in the chain is almost R90 crore, as per some reports. A year earlier, in 2014, Kohli launched his first fashion brand Wrogn. He is also co-owner of the ISL football club FC Goa.
Before Dhoni and Kohli, there was Sachin Tendulkar. The Indian batting legend reportedly has his money in sporting franchises such as the ISL side Kerala Blasters and IPTL’s Indian Aces, besides other varied business interests like travel portal Musafir.com, celebrity fashion and memorabilia firm Universal Sportsbiz, and gaming and entertainment venture Smaaash Entertainment.
Tendulkar began his entrepreneurial journey during his playing days—his first restaurant, Tendulkar’s, was inaugurated in 2002 in Mumbai. He started the venture in partnership with well-known hotelier Sanjay Narang. Two years later, Tendulkar’s second restaurant called Sachin’s made an appearance in one of Mumbai’s northern suburbs and in Bengaluru. However, despite his iconic stature, success did not come his way in this arena, as both ventures had to shut shop a few years down the line. There were reports that he was planning a comeback in hospitality, but no projects have been announced so far.
Several other cricketers who tried their luck in the hospitality sector met with a similar fate. Former Indian cricketer Sourav Ganguly’s ambitious Sourav’s: The Food Pavilion restaurant in Kolkata lasted only for seven years—from 2004 to 2011—in a city that literally worships him. Former Indian opener Virender Sehwag, too, started a vegetarian restaurant called Sehwag’s Favourites in Delhi in 2005, only to shut shop around three years later.
Although entrepreneurship seems to be a natural progression for sports stars looking for an alternative or parallel career or as a post-retirement package, can they make good businessmen after all? “Given that sportspersons in India emerge despite the lack of a systemic approach and support structure, I definitely believe that they can adapt and succeed in business as well. In fact, the similarity between what sportspersons go through and what businesses face is the foundation on which we have based our venture on,” says former Indian skipper and leg spinner Anil Kumble, who turned to entrepreneurship after bidding adieu to all forms of cricket and launching his sports training and consulting company Tenvic in 2011. The name Tenvic is inspired by his 10-wicket haul against Pakistan at the Ferozshah Kotla grounds in New Delhi in 1999.
Talking about his foray into the world of business, Kumble says, “Tenvic came together because we believe sports can make ‘the difference’ and, having come from strong sporting backgrounds, we understand the needs of the sporting ecosystem. India has a lot of potential to develop sports at the grassroots level and that’s where we wanted to make a difference by bringing in a structured, organised and standardised approach, wherein children can take up sports. Tenvic looks at bringing in a sporting culture into India and create interest for sports among individuals.”
Bhupathi thinks there is a big difference between a business venture and entrepreneurship. “Lending your name to a venture or investing money into a business is very different from starting something from ground zero, funding it, raising capital and being part of the growth. I think the sports fraternity in general builds a very good network, so it’s important to think of what comes after,” he explains.
Talking about Zeven’s business model, Bhupathi says, “Our focus will always be on making great products tailormade for the Indian consumer at affordable prices. You will appreciate that such a brand will need patience, continued effort and investment, so we visualise a five- to seven-year break-even period. Our target audience are the 200 million middle-class people who are now ready to adopt an Indian brand dedicated to sport.”
In the long run
Is it okay then to pin all hopes on just one’s stardom to build successful businesses? And what is the right ingredient to run a successful business set-up? As per Kumble, businesses are built on genuine passion, a belief in one’s core offering and the intent to see it through all the way despite ups and downs. “It is essential to learn from the market and adapt. Having partners who share your vision and a good core team to execute the same is also important,” he explains.
Bhupathi agrees. “I feel the ingredient for a perfect business recipe for a sports star is to have good partners. In Zeven’s case, I got Hemu,” he says. Going forward, Bhupathi wants Zeven to represent and lead a revolution in Indian sports, “a revolution where every Indian of every age starts playing sports,” he says. “All our programmes are geared to catalyse Indians to play. Our research tells us that consumers have the appetite, but because of high costs of sports products, especially footwear and apparel, they have been unable to participate. Zeven now makes sports affordable,” adds Bhupathi.
Sports stars and their business interests
* Chisel, a chain of gyms across India
* Wrogn, an online clothing line
* Youwecan Ventures, a start-up fund. It invested an undisclosed amount in mobile beauty and wellness platform Vyomo in a seed funding round recently
* Zeven, a sports apparel and footwear brand
* Globosport group of companies, a sports and entertainment conglomerate
* International Premier Tennis League, a unique team-based tennis league
* Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies, which runs over 25 tennis centres spread across the country
Mahendra Singh Dhoni
* Seven, an active lifestyle brand
* SportsFit World, a chain of fitness centres
* Chennaiyin FC, a franchise of the Indian Super League
* Mahi Racing Team India, a FIM Supersport World Championship team
* Ranchi Rays, a franchise of Hockey India League
* Kerala Blasters, a franchise of the Indian Super League
* Musafir.com, an online travel agency
* Universal Sportsbiz, a celebrity fashion and memorabilia firm
* Smaaash Entertainment, a sports-based virtual entertainment company
* Kapil Dev’s Elevens, a restaurant in Patna
* Dev Musco Lighting (in partnership with Musco Lighting), which installs floodlights in major stadiums and sports venues in India
* Tenvic, a sports training and consulting company
* Dine Fine, a fine-dining restaurant in Pune
* Banquet Foyer, a corporate catering facility in Pune
* Toss, a sports lounge in Pune
* ProSport Fitness, a fitness and strength training centre in Mumbai
* Professional Management Group, a sports marketing and management agency
* Mumbai Masters, a franchise of the Indian Badminton League
* Sehwag International School in Jhajjar, Haryana
* Uttar Pradesh Wizards, a Hockey India League franchise team
* iTiffin, a Bengaluru-based start-up that delivers healthy meals
Bowled out: Business ventures started by Indian sporting icons that didn’t score
* Tendulkar’s, a restaurant in Mumbai
* Sachin’s, a café in Mumbai
* Sehwag’s Favourites, a restaurant in Delhi
* Sourav’s: The Food Pavilion, a restaurant in Kolkata