The rise and fall of IPL’s boss

The man who created and ran the most successful sporting tournament in India is likely to lose his job.

Aakar Patel April 20, 2010

The man who created and ran the most successful sporting tournament ever in India is likely to lose his job by the end of this week.

Lalit Modi, who is 46 and looks 10 years younger, put together the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008. His idea was to marry cricket and Bollywood, the only two forms of mass entertainment in India. So he set up a Twenty20 league, backed by the Indian board of cricket, and invited bids for team ownership.

Three of these bids were won by Bollywood stars: Shah Rukh Khan in Calcutta, Preity Zinta and her then boyfriend (Quaid-i-Azam’s great-grandson Ness Wadia) in Punjab, Shilpa Shetty and her lover, later husband, Raj Kundra in Rajasthan. Eight teams were sold for an average of about $90m (Pakistani Rs7.7b) each for a 10-year franchise.

This year, two more teams were sold, this time for an average of $350m (Pakistani Rs28.35b). Shah Rukh has become richer by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2 years just by holding on to his Calcutta team, which actually performs quite poorly. If he stays another 7 years, Modi might make this one of the world’s biggest sporting leagues.

Despite his success, he is unlikely to remain in charge. Let’s understand why. One of those two teams sold this year was bought by a group of Gujaratis from Bombay, who picked their team’s home city as Kochi, in the southern state of Kerala. Why did they do this? Well, they said, because the team had been ‘mentored’ by India’s junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor.

What was unsaid was that a woman had been given a US$ 15 million stake. This woman, Lalit Modi revealed, was Tharoor’s girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar. This stake was given to her as 'sweat equity', which means free shares for effort. What effort? Selling advertising, according to the team, once the deal was revealed. But Ms Pushkar has never sold advertising in her life.

So were the Kochi team’s promoters trying to pay off Tharoor? It appeared so. But for what? Why would they want to bribe someone when they won the team bid through an auction? That hasn’t yet been explained. Tharoor lost his job on Sunday night, after he wasn’t able to explain his girlfriend’s stake to Manmohan Singh either.

Now, questions are being asked of Modi. In his short but fearfully heated spat with Tharoor, it came out that Modi’s relatives owned shares in 2 teams, Rajasthan and Punjab, and the IPL website and its mobile phone rights. Now the report is that Modi is going to be sacked. The board dislikes Modi because he is flamboyant. He set up his office in the Four Seasons, Bombay’s most expensive hotel.

He is driven around in a BMW, and is often seen signing autographs. He has made the official channel (Sony) cower, and they make reference to him in every match. Such hubris rarely escapes punishment, and it looks like it will come to Modi. This is a shame because, despite his stupidity and nepotism, he remains an organiser of world class ability.

No Indian has been able to put together a tournament of this quality, much less in such a short time. He could have continued his success for years, but Modi needlessly exposed himself in his war with Tharoor. Why did he want Tharoor out? Because he wanted no politicians to share in the IPL’s cash.

Many politicians are heads of their regional cricket boards: Narendra Modi, Laloo Yadav, Arun Jaitley and Sharad Pawar. Once they entered, it would be over for Lalit Modi. His problem was not Tharoor’s control of Kochi, but his own control of IPL. But he has achieved the reverse and the IPL might well be run by our politicians instead now, alas.

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