With a return to India imminent following a self-imposed four-year exile, Lalit Modi, the architect of the Indian Premier League (IPL), tells Matt Cutler his plans to shake up the business of cricket once again.
Any one of Lalit Modi’s 750,000 or so Twitter followers will tell you he is a sports administrator with unfinished business.
Having set up the IPL in 2008 with eight franchises that raised $723.59 million and a 10-year global broadcast rights deal that sold for $918 million, Modi was ousted as commissioner by the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) two years later following allegations of match-fixing, money-laundering and the improper award of franchises.
In 2010 he moved to London, sparked by a security threat on his family; Indian police said he was on an underworld crime hitlist and Modi himself, in the book Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld, says he survived three assassination attempts after refusing to fix IPL matches.
It got worse for the IPL founder when, in 2011, the Indian government revoked his passport – related to his part in alleged financial mismanagement in the IPL – further tainting his reputation in his homeland.
Now, however, he says change is coming for both him and his family; a return to India is “a matter of weeks and months” away with a new government looking likely to reinstate his passport, and when he is back on home soil, Modi has aspirations of a new campaign to rise the ranks of cricket administration.
“I have a security risk, but now that we have a new government, we are assessing it on a daily basis,” he told SportBusiness International during a visit to the house he currently rents in Knightsbridge, one of London’s most exclusive areas. “My passport case appeal has been heard and is reserved for judgment, and we hope to have that judgment any day.”
First port of call for Modi is the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA), the body for which he was elected president for the second time this May, much to the dismay of the BCCI. Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states and having won a landslide election victory that saw the BCCI suspend the regional governing body, Modi now says he will channel RCA resources to build two new stadiums – with 30,000 and 50,000 capacities in Udaipur and Jaipur respectively – in addition to rejuvinating the sport at a grassroots level.
“We are in the process of revamping all the grounds and the [Rajasthan Cricket] Academy,” he adds. “We have acquired the land and are in the process of appointing world-class architects to take that forward.
“When I was at the RCA last [as president from 2005 to 2009], we had a world-class academy, but it has basically been run down to the ground by the people who took over…my objective is to revamp grassroot-level cricket there.
“We are not perturbed by what the BCCI does or doesn’t do; we are the statutory cricket authority in the state, and in fact we are the only statutory cricket authority that is governed by state legislature anywhere in India.”
During his London exile, Modi has been vocal – particularly over social media – in his opposition to three major cricket administrations: his ex-colleagues at the BCCI and its former president N. Srinivasan; the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) and its chairman Giles Clarke, who he sued for libel two years ago; and the ICC (International Cricket Council), which Srinivasan is now president of.
Srinivasan is suspended as president of the BCCI following allegations he too was involved in corruption around the IPL, and the ICC has been on Modi’s hitlist in particular due to plans to disband its Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) – the subsidiary it set up in 2010 to tackle drugs and bribery scandals in the sport.
So with a new influential cricket administration role in the bag in his homeland, does Modi see momentum leading him, eventually, to court favour around a return to the BCCI, or perhaps to a role in the ICC, the highest ranking organisation in world cricket?
— Lalit Kumar Modi (@LalitKModi) May 30, 2014
He says he is open to offers, but perhaps predictably that things have to change in the personnel departments of both, particularly the ICC, before he would seriously consider anything.
“I don’t know whether I want to sit on the same table as them right now,” Modi says when asked whether he has aspirations for Srinivasan’s ICC role in particular. “If change is possible, I will be there and I will be leading the change.
“I want to see clean sport, that’s my critical issue at the moment. I see fixing of all kinds across sport – it has become so rife and infested with mafia. Around $2 billion is bet every day on cricket in India; the bigger the game becomes, the higher the betting becomes.
“[Cricket] doesn’t have enough enforcers and officials who have muscle and legal power to take the action that is required. It will require a lot of work…but you have to be in the system to clean the system. You can’t do it from outside because it’s an old boys’ club.
“Cricket has now become a critical part of my persona and what I do, and it always will be.”
As well as beefing up cricket’s well-documented battle against the fixers, the major change Modi would like to bring to the world of cricket is in the executive make-up of major international sports federations which, he says, “are primarily run at the expense of players for the benefit of the administrators”.
“You see it more and more every day,” he adds. “It’s the players that make the sport and are at the core of it…I’m a big advocator for players, they should be rewarded and should make money. Players get a tough ride. The media wants gossip, or attention-grabbing headlines and scandal. What is scandalous and people don’t understand is that the old boys’ club is the scandal.
“This is happening across all sports, and the critical reason why is because federations are not stakeholders in the game in terms of the money they are putting into the pot. They are running a sport by virtue of an honorary position and garnering revenues by virtue of a monopoly…more people should look into that.
“I can take a poke at it because I don’t live off sport; I run a multi-billion dollar business and I don’t need sport to finance my lifestyle. But you will see in a large number of cases, though not all cases, that power or the money has defocused [administrators] from the sport…if that becomes your primary business, you will do everything you can to hold onto it.”
I’m a big advocator for players, they should be rewarded and should make money
There’s no doubt Modi’s reputation around the world has been tainted by the various allegations made against him, but even his leading opponents would find it difficult to argue that he hasn’t had a positive long-term impact on the cricket landscape in India, and that he understands the secrets to running both successful businesses and sports leagues in the country.
Every major sport is currently looking for opportunities to extend its footprint in India, a country of 1.2 billion people and a rapidly growing middle-class. And many private entities believe franchise-based leagues across a variety of sports, similar to the IPL and Hockey India League, could be their road to El Dorado.
“When I launched ESPN into India we looked at other sports [to cricket],” says Modi, who adds that he is a fan of the concept of the Indian Super League launching next month, a joint venture between the IMG agency, Reliance Industries and the All India Football Federation.
First and foremost, he says, the sheer number of people who like football in India makes a domestic, franchise-based league a no-brainer – and it will be successful if executed correctly: “The right ingredients [to make football work] are in place: you have the largest corporation in Reliance – a very well run and professional company that, more importantly, is passionate about sport and football. Without passion, you have nothing.
“IMG is the global leader in conducting and staging tournaments around the world, and brings a huge amount of expertise – that’s the second ingredient. The third ingredient is broadcast, and STAR Sports is a great broadcast partner with deep pockets. The missing ingredient, however, is the fans. The three partners need to capture hearts and minds now, and you need players to do that.
“India is a difficult market, dominated by cricket, but there is space [for other sports]. Cricket wasn’t always premium – that was hockey – and cricket carved its way through. There are 1.2 billion people in India…what’s the population of the UK today? Sixty million?
That’s the size of two-and-a-half cities in India. Or Calcutta and Mumbai put together. My point is, the advantage of sheer numbers is important because those same numbers pay for TV; they are what advertisers want.
“The world is now a global marketplace and companies in many product categories are starting to look at India…ultimately it boils down to eyeballs, the number of people watching the game, the fanbase. Without a fanbase you have nothing…that dictates the value sport can or cannot derive.”
Modi in his IPL days – Getty Images Sport
Modi believes one of the main reasons for the success of the IPL, and other domestic sports leagues with an international profile such as the English Premier League, is a wider sports trend where fans have shifted to following clubs over countries.
“When I launched the IPL, everyone said it would fail because India didn’t have club teams, only a national team, and nobody watched state cricket, or even the Ashes,” he adds. “But what those people forgot is that, in the old days, top-level sport was country versus country – that is slowly disappearing, or relegating to the second tier, whether we like it or not, in every sport…international football has basically been relegated to the World Cup – an inter-nation competition that happens on a four-year cycle.
“More and more, [city-based] leagues can also finance the cost of players. Why is that? Well, it comes down to a fundamental issue: country versus country is run by federations, and federations are giants, but they are old boys’ clubs filled with people sitting around making decisions that are good for them and not the players.”
I get into a lot of trouble about a tweet…but you can’t just look away
Modi is certainly in a privileged position to take on what he believes are the rotten parts of the sporting world, particularly given the family business he was born into is currently worth an estimated $5 billion. That gives him incredibly deep pockets to fight libel suits – something he likes to use as a warning to anyone he believes stands in the way of corruption-free cricket.
“I will trade my bullets irrespective of libel suits,” he says. “I’m not afraid of libel suits now, and I haven’t been afraid in the past. Certain people have taken me to court, and certain people have won. But I stick to my ground…how many people out there can you say are using their own money to fight a sport? You can single me out as one of the few.
“I use Twitter because my views can never be distorted. And I never delete tweets; if I put a tweet out, I live with it. Sometimes my lawyers tell me to delete a tweet, but I don’t – if I put it out, I believe in it. If someone wants to sue me, they can go for it.”
Famously, former New Zealand cricket captain Chris Cairns was awarded £90,000 in damages after Modi alleged on Twitter that he was involved in match-fixing. Modi also had to pay Cairns £400,000 to cover his legal costs. So does he ever regret anything he tweets?
“People say I should, but I don’t,” he says. “I get into a lot of trouble about a tweet, and I did in the case of a player and a politician, but I really don’t care. In certain cases it has cost me millions of dollars and anxiety to my family, but you can’t just look away.
“Everyone tells me to look the other way and move on. I have a picture on my desk downstairs – in fact it’s the only one on my desk – and that is of Nelson Mandela. I draw a lot of inspiration from him. He always stuck to his ideals and was very principled in the way he conducted his life, at the cost of his freedom. To me, it is all about making a difference in life.”
Love him or hate him, Lalit Modi is certainly a man who is passionate about cricket and believes channelling his personal fortune into promoting transparency is worth it. And you sense he won’t give up until he has regained a foothold in the sport, one way or another, within its traditional structures.