How Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his friend created India's most valuable sports celebrity

How Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his friend created India's most valuable sports celebrity

In the endorsement game, M.S. Dhoni, helped by his friend Arun Pandey, has gone where no other Indian sportsperson dared to tread. They created India's most valuable sports celebrity. Along the way, they also changed the rules of the endorsement game.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni PTI Mahendra Singh Dhoni <em>PTI</em>
The first agreement of Arun Pandey's life was signed with his mother. Before he came to live in Delhi in 1994, she made him put his signature on a piece of paper listing the things he would do, the things he would not, the time at which he would step out of the Lodhi Colony flat he had rented, the time he would be back, the people he would meet, and the kind he would not. Pandey's father died when he was a little boy and the mother, a State Bank of India employee in Varanasi, was worried that her son might go astray in the city of hard drugs and easy girls.

On March 12 this year, Pandey's Rhiti Sports signed a deal with Pune-based Uth Beverage to forge a joint venture that would sell energy bars, protein bars, protein biscuits, flavoured milk and other nutritional products.

Rhiti manages the affairs of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of the Indian cricket team. He and Pandey are old friends. So much so that Pandey refers to Dhoni in every other sentence and recently installed two swings in the sprawling front lawn at Rhiti's office thinking that Dhoni and wife Sakshi might like to spend some time on them.

Between the agreements with the mother and Uth Beverage lies a story of abstract things like friendship, trust and instincts, which changed the very tangible world of branding, endorsements and sponsorships in India. A lot of this involves Pandey and that man Dhoni, who has become the first Indian sportsperson to earn over Rs 100 crore a year in endorsement fees.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Mahendra Singh Dhoni
Some may object to the use of "that man" to refer to Dhoni. At least in one case, a god benefited from their association. Several newspapers reported breathlessly in mid-March that the Deori Temple in Tamar, an hour's drive from Dhoni's hometown Ranchi, had seen the traffic of devotees rise from 50 a day to 500 since news spread that Dhoni was a regular there. Donations had jumped from Rs 5,000 a month to Rs 1 lakh.

But why grudge the temple its gains? It is mere stardust. Forbes magazine, the world's personal wealth watcher, put Dhoni at 31 in its list of the richest sportspersons, ahead of Usain Bolt, Novak Djokovic, and Wayne Rooney.

Of the $26.5 million he earned, $23 million came from endorsements, nearly 40 per cent more than what Sachin Tendulkar got from plugging brands and products.

But that calculation is dated; it is about the year to June 2012 and does not take into account many of Dhoni's recent deals, his special purpose vehicles, and his equity partnerships. All this thrown in, those close to Dhoni say he would be a lot closer to number one than 31.

Pandey says Dhoni's stock has risen sharply since Rhiti began managing him in 2010, with the World Cup victory two years ago providing a tremendous boost. "Those days [before Dhoni and Rhiti came together] he used to get Rs 2.5 crore to Rs 3 crore per brand. Now [he gets] Rs 10 crore.... The total then was about Rs 40 crore. Now more than Rs 100 crore come. In India sports icons were so far exploited. You know how long their careers are. M. S. Dhoni as a brand has risen above all this. When you talk of M. S. Dhoni, you talk of India," says Pandey, who does tend to become enthusiastic when talking of the jewel in his crown.

Arun Pandey, M.S. Dhoni's manager, at the White House, his office at a New Delhi farm house
I focused on brands, understood my responsibility and bonded with them: Arun Pandey Photo: Aditya Kapoor/
This is a far cry from 1995, when Mark Mascarenhas of WorldTel signed a watershed deal in which Sachin Tendulkar would get $7.5 million. A tidy sum, but it would trickle in over five years. At the time only Mohammed Azharuddin, the captain, came close to rivalling Tendulkar in star power and could have pulled ahead had India won the World Cup in England a year later.

As things turned out, India won its next world title only 11 years later, the inaugural T20 World Cup, and then won the real thing, the ODI title, in 2011. The two titles delivered on the promise of untold riches, but Azhar was no longer in the picture. Dhoni, who led the team to both the victories, reaped the rewards, and reaped much more than Azhar might have, because he was ready. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Not too long ago, celebrity management in India was all about Rikkuji, says Manish Porwal, former CEO of Percept Talent Management, who has ventured into celebrity management consultancy with his own company, Alchemist. Rikkuji was how everyone addressed Rakesh Nath, secretary to Madhuri Dixit, the Bollywood queen of the 1990s.

Rikkuji was secretary in name only; in reality he was all things to Dixit, striking deals for her, talking to her producers, and managing her schedule. Other film stars had their own Rikkujis.

Many of the Rikkujis worked on instinct and through unofficial channels. They thrived when the film industry was inward-looking, worked on verbal agreements, and had their sources of finance hidden out of sight.

Things began to change as corporatisation and transparency pulled Bollywood out of the shadows. Around the same time, cricket players came into their own as brand ambassadors. Salim Durrani was an oddity while promoting Brylcreem, Sunil Gavaskar his usual prima donna self while appearing in Thums Up advertisements, and Kapil Dev the favourite son making well-deserved money on the side by lending his earthy voice to Palmolive da jawab nahin. But in the new century, only those walking through the team stayed out of advertising. Those who became fixtures, also became a regular in commercials. The time came when brands like Pepsi and Samsung would rope in not one or two but nearly half the team in a single commercial.

The house of Percept, headed by brothers Shailendra and Harindra Singh, outdid WorldTel, providing professional services to a bunch of celebrities - cricketers as well as film stars - with a minimum amount guaranteed in fees.

But Percept did not have control over film selection; that the stars decided. And film roles have a high impact on an actor's branding. There was a time when Percept soared high, but its zenith would remain Sourav Ganguly, the captain of the cricket team from 2000 to 2005, who earned a reputation for being feisty and won matches outside the Indian subcontinent.

The flip side of being feisty is controversy. Ganguly got into a bagful of those. The lowest point was his bickering with coach Greg Chappell, in which leaked emails were used as a potent tool. For all his vision as captain, Ganguly failed to look too far into the future when it came to off-field management of his image.

Dhoni does, and how far into the future he sees will be known only once he is done playing. For now, he is back to being everyone's favourite. On March 6, two days after India got into a 2-0 lead over Australia in their four-Test series, Gavaskar said Dhoni should stay captain till 2019. The same day, The Times of India said "Dhoni's brand value to get double-ton boost".

Gavaskar's earlier contention - voiced a few weeks back - was that the sooner Virat Kohli was made captain the better it would be. The Economic Times, The Times of India group's business daily, carried a report on December 19 headlined: "M.S. Dhoni loses five brand endorsements as his popularity seems to wane".

In the midst of it, Dhoni's own voice managed to retain its natural lack of modulation. All he had to say after the victory in Hyderabad, which made him the most successful Indian captain in Test matches, was that the milestone was "overrated and hyped".

Ganguly's enduring image will be his bare torso on the Lord's balcony, waving his jersey in response to Andrew Flintoff taking off his shirt after winning a match on England's tour to India.

Dhoni could have gone much further after going 3-0 up against Australia in Mohali on March 18. The rabble rousers were shouting from the rooftops about the dish best served cold, as the Indian team had lost all four Tests on the last tour to Australia. But all Dhoni said was: "We don't think about revenge in sport."

It was not always like this. One of Dhoni's early moves to build his own brand was a deal with Prannoy Roy's NDTV for exclusive interviews, views, and special shows. At a press conference on a hot Sunday afternoon in May 2006 to announce the deal, Dhoni appeared in a full-sleeve, dirt brown, round-neck T-shirt, sporting long, bleached hair, and mouthed platitudes. He had the bearing of a boy from the boondocks trying to be cool. A year later, he had succeeded.

As India won the T20 World Cup, without stalwarts Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who chose to opt out of the then fledgling format, Dhoni was the toast of the country. He led a parade that brought the Mumbai traffic to a standstill and earned the moniker of Captain Cool.

By that time, Arun Pandey, who had played in the Ranji Trophy with Dhoni, had reconciled to his own limited talent. He knew he did not have it in him to break into the national team. Along the way, he had spent time at the office of music and movies company T-Series, where he befriended founder Gulshan Kumar's brother Darshan. He would just hang around and do the odd bits of work Darshan Kumar threw his way to give him a taste of things.

"I learned a lot from them; they knew how to deal with people," says Pandey. The time spent at T-Series gave him the belief that he could hold his own in the corporate world. He took the plunge in 2007, and set up Rhiti Sports, named after one of the several forms of goddess Durga, the presiding deity at the Deori temple in Tamar.

He had already done a few deals. Though first Gameplan and later Mindscapes Maestros managed Dhoni, Pandey was never far from him or his deals. "I did a deal for Mahi with Big Bazaar and another with Dainik Bhaskar... Since I had a relationship with Mahi, even Jeet (Banerjee, the head of Gameplan) had to speak to Mahi through me. Mahi told everyone they had to come through Pandeyji. And I saw that one deal could yield so much - Rs 50 lakh to Rs 60 lakh. So I began to work hard and did four deals for Mahi."

But how long could this loose arrangement have lasted? And that figure of Rs 50 lakh to Rs 60 lakh was not going to be enough to afford the man who got India its first world title after the fairy tale of 1983. That Dhoni suffered some setbacks - a loss involving a fashion deal whose details are hazy, charges of forgery against a close associate - only hastened the process. The inevitable happened in 2010 and Dhoni signed on with Rhiti for a minimum guarantee of Rs 210 crore over three years. Officially, Dhoni had now overtaken Tendulkar, who held the previous record of Rs 180 crore over three years under a deal with Iconix in 2006.

Dhoni and Rhiti wouldn't stop at just the fee record. Together they started to change the way sportspersons were managed. Some of this was done on the field. As Dhoni became vice captain, his fee rose to Rs 1.5 crore. The T20 World Cup win pushed it close to between Rs 3 crore and Rs 5 crore. And after the 2011 World Cup win, says Pandey, endorsements, despite clients' willingness to cough up Rs 10 crore, became a small deal.

The big deals now are all longterm affairs. At least five deals have been signed in which Rhiti or Dhoni or both - the details are not available - got sizeable equity. And there are half a dozen special purpose vehicles, among them the World Superbike Racing team, Mahi Racing Team India, the fitness chain SportsFit, and perfume brand 7 By MSD. "These are bigger than brand endorsements," says Pandey.

But it is not just about the money. The idea is to ensure that brand Dhoni lives beyond his playing days and conquers the demon every sportsperson faces: a career that blazes out in a few short years. "We changed the trend and made associations in perpetuity. If you have a turnover of Rs 200 crore, you can't match the likes of Pepsi, Airtel, or Aircel. But we will [strike a] deal [with you]," says Pandey.

If your money falls short, you can have a still photograph and use it in your advertising. There will be no shooting dates. Others can pay in shares, or can form joint ventures. Those interested can also get equity in a special purpose vehicle.

"I focused on brands, understood my responsibility, bonded with them," says Pandey. As Dhoni and Rhiti have grown closer, their relationship has gone way beyond the client-firm boundaries. "He is my friend. I am older. I feel bad taking money from him. But I have to run the company," says Pandey, flashing an apologetic smile.

He does not take much. The official quote is 10 per cent of the deal amount, but those in the know say deals may have been struck in which Rhiti keeps less than that.

A few years ago, management firms would keep as much as 30 per cent as commission. Everyone now tries to toe the Dhoni-Rhiti norm - with difficulty. Not every firm has the turnover to survive on a commission of seven or eight per cent. And then there is one more thing. Rivals says Rhiti does not need to, and cannot, charge any more. After all, Dhoni is its raison d'etre.

Pandey is quick to clarify that Dhoni owns no equity in Rhiti, that all of it is owned by Pandey and his family members. But the way he talks of Dhoni makes it clear that equity is not everything.

"Above me is Mahi. He is so honest that if I try to convince him, he says, 'Pandeyji do not try to convince me. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. You cannot make a wrong right.' Even if there is a loss, [we] must do [the] right [thing]; commitment is commitment. He is a humble man.

Compared to him, I am full of air." You hear similar sentiments from others associated with Dhoni. Vinod K. Dasari, Managing Director of bus and truck maker Ashok Leyland, which for the first time in its six decades of existence hired a brand ambassador - Dhoni, who else? - says the choice was almost automatic. "A true son-of-thesoil, a leader who is focused, straight-thinking, passionate and, most of all, humble" is how he describes Dhoni.

According to an official of Indian Premier League franchise Chennai Super Kings, Dhoni never opts for business class when travelling to IPL matches. Once staying at a Chennai hotel, Dhoni came out of a meeting with India Cements executives at nine in the evening and found a policeman standing guard in the corridor leading to his room. He walked up to him and requested him to go home. He planned to order room service and hit the bed early, so there would be no need for the watch.

Dhoni is the first Indian sportsperson to earn more than Rs 100 cr a year in endorsements

It is not just the commission; other equations have also changed in the industry. Though one cannot establish Dhoni and Rhiti as the cause of all the changes, the similarities are uncanny.

For instance, relationships count for more than anything else. "I managed all the big celebrities. The moment I diverted my attention to other businesses, they were uncomfortable," says Percept's Shailendra Singh.

The lack of comfort at times resulted in bigger things than a mere stirring of emotion. When Vinita Bangard left Percept in 2010 to set up her own company, Crossover Entertainment, Priyanka Chopra, with whom Vinita worked closely at Percept, moved with her. The relationship did not last, though; Chopra is now with CAA Kwan. When Bunty Sajdeh left Percept for Globosport, the buzz was that Yuvraj Singh would see out his contract with Percept and move to Globosport. Meantime, Sajdeh moved out and set up his own company, which has Singh as a client.

Relationships matter so much that several of the top celebrities do not have written contracts with their firms. Pandey, too, is thin on the details of Rhiti's current agreement with Dhoni. He would only say that the minimum guarantee of Rs 210 crore has already been paid. "There is no tenure now, only a long-term association," he says.

To Porwal of Alchemist, this is not a healthy way of doing business. "While the industry has grown in scale and scope, it is still primitive," he says. And we thought the days of the Rikkujis were over.

Additional reporting by Ajita Shashidhar and N. Madhavan