The Business Of Sport: Bhupathi scores an ace in giving a fresh spin to tennis

Mahesh Bhupathi added a fifth franchise to this year's IPTL line-up that also features debut appearances by Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori.
Mahesh Bhupathi added a fifth franchise to this year's IPTL line-up that also features debut appearances by Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Twenty years of strategising and outfoxing tennis opponents has taught Mahesh Bhupathi a thing or two about constructing winning points.

"I like the idea and challenge of creating something from scratch," he admitted.

So, at age 41 and with his playing career winding down, it seemed a natural move for the 12-time Grand Slam doubles champion to form the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), with its inventive format and fun-filled atmosphere.

"I feel like I've always had this entrepreneurial spirit, and the IPTL was something I felt strongly about right from the beginning," he told The Straits Times in a phone interview from Dubai, the penultimate leg of the multi-city IPTL.

Besides being the brains behind the mixed-team tournament, the Indian is also the founder of a sports management firm, a tennis training academy and a Bollywood production house.

SMASH HIT

We are able to bring someone like Roger Federer... to play a match in Singapore.
That's fantastic for tennis fans here and in the region.

MAHESH BHUPATHI, on IPTL's pulling power

He is excited by the progress made in the league's second "season". It began on Dec 2 in Kobe, Japan and concludes on Sunday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Last year's inaugural edition, which featured four teams, was picked up by 33 broadcasters covering 108 countries worldwide. It drew about 42 million viewers - the lion's share in Asia - over 12 days.

A fifth franchise, the Japan Warriors, were added to this year's line-up. And the player roster has expanded from 28 to 37, featuring debut appearances by Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori.

The IPTL has also made inroads into new markets, with ESPN televising this campaign to Latin American and Caribbean audiences.

Said Bhupathi, a former doubles world No. 1 with 52 career titles: "The support has been very good and there's been a lot of interest around the region.

"We added one team in 2015 and hopefully another in 2017."

 

That means his previously-stated target of eight teams by 2020 remains on track.

The Chennai native's optimism is well-founded.

The global sports industry - consisting of gate revenues, media rights, sponsorships and merchandising - has grown from US$121 billion (S$171 billion) in 2010 to US$146 billion in 2014, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

During that same period, research firm IEG noted that spending in tennis has increased from US$600 million to US$739 million.

Last year's three-day IPTL stopover here drew 27,250 spectators - a healthy figure, but one that Bhupathi knows cannot be taken for granted given the plethora of options for sports fans worldwide.

Already, it faces competition from the India-based Champions Tennis League and United States-based World TeamTennis.

Nevertheless, Bhupathi, who as a 14-year-old junior once lost 17 first-round matches in a row but refused to give up his professional dreams, is just as resolute about the IPTL's appeal.

"We are able to bring someone like Roger Federer, one of the greatest-ever players, to play a match in Singapore.

"That's fantastic for tennis fans here and in the region," he said.

"There were a lot of people who doubted us when we came up with this idea a few years ago. It's not been easy organising something of this scale across four or five countries but we've learnt a lot in the past year."

Brevity has become the byword for modern sports, with the likes of cricket, badminton, squash and table tennis shortening their playing formats to appeal to a younger audience whose attention span is measured in memes and tweets.

While Bhupathi refrains from calling it a natural evolution of sports, changes abound on how sports events are being packaged and sold to consumers.

"It's happening everywhere, not just tennis," he said.

"If you are able to create a product that people want, then there will be a demand for it."

Having blue-chip companies like Coca-Cola and Qatar Airways as the IPTL's title and presenting sponsors respectively lends confidence to the brand.

"It makes it easier to go out and speak to other companies and try to bring them on board," Bhupathi said, pointing to Singapore property developer OUE's over-$2 million backing of Singapore Slammers for the next three years as an example.

To the detractors who insist that the IPTL is a violation against the game's tradition, he is unswayed.

"Our target audience are families with kids. We're appealing to a different crowd.

"For the tennis purists, you don't have to attend."

Crucially, Bhupathi has the support of the elite players. The likes of Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Serena Williams ensure that the IPTL is impossible to ignore.

While top players have reportedly earned US$1 million for a night's work, Bhupathi disputes the notion that the IPTL's success is banked on its ability to retain these world-renowned talents.

He said: "I'm a Manchester United fan, so to me it doesn't matter who plays for the club.

"Players come and go. What's important is the club.

"In the same way, I hope to grow the IPTL such that people eventually are loyal to the teams and not just the players."

Such loyalty requires time, but for a man whose success on the tennis court was fashioned from assembling points one by one, Bhupathi is in no hurry to leave his legacy on the game.


•The Business of Sport is a monthly series looking at the movers and shakers of Singapore's emerging sports business industry

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Bhupathi scores an ace in giving a fresh spin to tennis'. Print Edition | Subscribe