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The IPL might have plumbed new depths,but its franchise model continues to influence other sports. Could an ambitious tennis league with a top-drawer star cast catch the world’s attention,asks Mihir Vasavda

On a lazy summer afternoon,while watching an Indian Premier League (IPL) match on TV,the idea of a similar event in tennis struck Mahesh Bhupathi. Fifteen months later,his dream project is close to reality. But even as the IPL action on TV shifts from the sports to the news channels,Bhupathi isn’t squirming in his seat. At least not yet.

It might seem that the last thing that tennis needs is another tournament on its teeming calendar. Nevertheless,even as Roland Garros kicked up its first dust,Bhupathi,along with his partners,formally introduced the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Paris. The IPTL is scheduled to begin in December 2014.

We’re still far,far away from knowing whether this league is actually a “revolutionary idea”,as Novak Djokovic claims,but players and pundits have been largely encouraging,rather than critical,of Bhupathi’s idea.

Over the years,tennis has seemed relatively closed-minded when it has come to courageous new initiatives. The multiple governing bodies and management companies who run the show often quash creative thinking. But Bhupathi,who will retire at the end of the current season and runs an event management company of his own,has a strong head for business. Despite the foreseeable hurdles,he is pushing ahead with his project. “It struck me 15-16 months back when I was watching IPL. Studying the success of the league,I thought it would be interesting to see if something similar was started in tennis as well,” Bhupathi says.

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It’s ironic that even as the IPL faces its darkest hour,other sports are continuing to be smitten by it,hoping to replicate its success. The 38-year-old Bhupathi isn’t the only one to jump on the IPL-inspired bandwagon. US-based sports management group IMG,who are the key driving force behind the IPL,have something similar planned for Indian football next year. While the details of the league,to be held from January to March 2014,are still sketchy,IMG’s shrewd marketing skills have already generated enough interest. The organisers have hinted that retired football stars such as David Beckham and Raul Gonzalez might be roped in in an ambassadorial role for the the league. Badminton and wrestling are set to begin their own ‘IPL-style’ leagues later this year.

The question is,do the other sports have it in them to match IPL’s money-spinning power? Shailendra Singh,joint managing director of Percept,derides the ‘herd’ mentality. “We as a nation lack innovative ideas. When we talk about the success of IPL,it’s the financial side that we are talking about and that’s what the other sports are trying to achieve,” he says.

And a few certainly haven’t been good at it. World Series Hockey is dying a slow,painful death after a successful first year. The same is the case with World Series Boxing,which had a Mumbai-based franchisee. An event similar to what IMG are planning in football — Premier League Soccer (PLS) — never saw the light of day. So it’s natural that the reception to the IPTL and the football league planned by IMG in India has been cautious.

But Shailendra is optimistic about the IPTL’s chances of success. “Firstly,it’s spread across Asia and has commitment from stars who enjoy global popularity. So,in a way,the tennis league will appeal to the global economy. The chances of them investing in a project based in Asia,seen as a huge market,are pretty high,” Shailendra says. “Secondly,and more importantly,Mahesh has covered all bases before making his league public — he has got commitment from the star players,the format of the league is finalised and has given himself enough time to get things in place.”

The format

The IPTL is to be a team event with six franchises spread across Asia. Singapore,Tokyo,Mumbai,Delhi,Hong Kong,Manila,Seoul,Dubai,Jakarta and Doha are in contention to buy the teams. The league is partly modelled on the IPL,in terms of the business structure,and its format is borrowed from World Team Tennis,the US-based event founded in 1973. “Majority of the tournaments are concentrated in Europe and the US. Asia,especially the Middle East and India,has a huge fan base and it largely remains an untapped market. So the idea always was to get it across Asia and provide fans with the high-quality tennis experience that they deserve,” Bhupathi explains.

Before going public,Bhupathi wanted to ensure that the ‘superstars’ bought into his vision and supported him. “I spoke to them and everybody was intrigued about the idea. When I introduced the concept around the changing rooms saying this could potentially create a given amount of wealth,everyone kind of said ‘I’m in if they’re in,’” says Bhupathi,who is a part of Andy Murray’s management team. “Andy didn’t want to be the only superstar playing. Novak said,‘Are the other guys playing?’ Serena Williams was like,‘Really? Novak and Andy are playing?’ That’s how it went,” he says.

Star cast

Players who have already committed to the project include Djokovic,Rafael Nadal,Murray,Serena and Victoria Azarenka. Retired Grand Slam champions Pete Sampras,John McEnroe and Carlos Moya will also take part in the league,featuring in the legends category. As of now,the only notable absentees are Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Bhupathi says that he expects Murray and Djokovic to have an equity stake in the league. Investors include former players like Justin Gimelstob,a member of the ATP board,and Boris Becker. It will not include any special provision for Indian players as such,with Bhupathi insisting that all names will be included in the draft list and that it will be up to the franchisees to choose the players they want.

But getting assurances from players is one thing and flying them down to be a part of the month-long event is another. The PLS is an example of how a tournament grabbed a lot of attention by getting top retired footballers,including the likes of Hernan Crespo and Harry Kewell,on board but never took off. Bhupathi faces a humongous task to ensure the players,who are at the peak of their careers,honour their commitments.

Player access

Bhupathi finds himself in an enviable position compared to others in the business of sport. In his years on the circuit,Bhupathi has developed relationships that have allowed him the sort of face-to-face access to leading players that outside entrepreneurs can only dream about. And the 38-year-old is quick to acknowledge that. “Tennis is a small world,and if an agency wanted to pull this off,all their competitors would make sure there are enough tacks under the wheel to not make it happen,” Bhupathi says. “But I had access to players and the agents,and luckily maybe for me,there was a transition at that time of the top couple of guys moving from giant agencies to individual managers. Generally,the first stage — that of establishing contacts directly with the players — is tough. I have managed to cross that and now it’s time to move on to Stage 2 — to convince them to be a part of the league.”

The challenge for Bhupathi would be to ensure that the IPTL doesn’t end up being all about hits,giggles and paycheques. There is an increasing possibility that the ATP,WTA and ITF will label it an exhibition tournament,because of its format. “It’s a taboo word for me,” Bhupathi insists. “This is a real league.”

There’s a growing murmur that the league will increase the workload of already over-burdened players and scheduling it in the off-season has only added fuel to the fire. The ATP and WTA tours have only recently expanded the length of the off-season after top players complained that the season was too gruelling. Travelling across Asia can take a toll on the players but Bhupathi is unperturbed.

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“It’s something that I’ve heard only from the media. None of the players have raised concerns about this so far,” he says. “In the end,it’s a free market. We’re not forcing anyone to play. But if you want to monetise your time and opportunities,here we are,” he says.