In the first part of this series on Bollywood and Sports, we looked at the past, present and future of the Bollywood sports genre, and its direct correlation with the growth of sports in India. This time around we take a look at the Bollywood celebrities who own sporting franchises, why they buy into these leagues, and how these leagues have sprung up in the last few years.
It is no small feat for people to consider purchasing a sporting league, let alone actually buying one. Owners of sporting clubs and franchises are usually billionaires, like Mark Cuban (owner of the Dallas Mavericks), Roman Abramovich (owner of Chelsea FC), Steve Ballmer (owner of the Los Angeles Clippers), and many more.
This is also the case in India, where owners of organisations such as TATA and Reliance Group (Mukhesh Ambani, owner of the Mumbai Indians) own sporting franchises, but how can you talk about India and not throw Bollywood into the mix?
Bollywood stars are as glitzy as they come, with millions looking up to them as role models and sometimes even as Gods. However, they are not just part of the fanfare, when it comes to sports, they are very much in the midst of ownership, sometimes in a token role, and in other instances, being directly involved in the on-field decisions of their franchise.
Nonetheless, there seems to be no stopping this juggernaut of an industry, when it comes to Bollywood celebrity ownership in these leagues, starting, of course, with the IPL.
Superstar stakes in the IPL
The story of the IPL has been covered by thousands of journalists, writers and opinion editors, from its direct influence on the rebranding of cricket as a lively, fun and short-term sport, to the scandals, corruption and criticism of its owners and officials.
It has now become one of the most lucrative and successful sporting leagues in the world, second only to football’s English Premier League. And with the sort of money involved, the monetary benefits for owners are vast in size, which is why it is no surprise that Bollywood celebrities have jumped on the opportunity to buy out IPL franchises.
The first and most well-known case of a player investing in an IPL franchise is that of Shah Rukh Khan ([SRK] who we discussed in Part 1 of this feature).
With the 2018 launch of the IPL, the global superstar jumped on the opportunity and bought the IPL club, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR). After 3 poor years and a playoff loss in the 4th year of the league, KKR finally became IPL Champions. Khan is renowned for being an owner who is not overtly involved in the operations of the team
It has been argued that if it was not for King Khan, KKR would have withered away as a brand, but his star power became synonymous with the club and enabled the team to survive in its toughest years.
SRK was also able to maintain a positive image across Indian media as a club owner, who was supportive of his players and genuinely cared about his club, despite being from a different part of India.
Khan is renowned for being an owner who is not overtly involved in the operations of the team and instead provides a ‘cheerleader’ role alongside the obvious marketing and PR aspects of the team.
SRK however, is not the sole owner of this brand, as many already know.
He owns the club alongside an actress who he starred with on several occasions, Juhi Chawla and her husband, Jay Mehta. Together they purchased the club for approximately $75 million.
And they have been able to maintain the image and brand of KKR and even branched out to the Caribbean Premier League, where they own the Trinbago Knight Riders.
The third film star on this list is Priety Zinta, who owns a 23% stake in the Kings XI Punjab (KXIP), alongside her ex-boyfriend, Ness Wadia (with his own 23% stake), whom we will come to later.
KXIP is a team that has taken a very different route to that of KKR in the IPL. KXIP is yet to win the IPL, with one semi-final stint in the inaugural edition, and a runners-up trophy in 2014. Aside from these two occasions, the team has failed to make the top 4! Perhaps, this has to do with poor management at the coaching level, but it is more likely that the controversies at the top of the chain, have halted the progress of the club on the field.
Priety Zinta has been seen cheering her team on, passionately and with dedication, but unlike SRK and Juhi Chawla, she has often been criticised for being excessively involved in sporting decisions.
As recently as 2018, team coach, Virender Sehwag had asked the other KXIP owners to shut Priety Zinta down for lambasting him and criticising his cricketing tactics.
To add to this, Priety Zinta had a well-publicised split with her partner, Ness Wadia, with allegations of abuse and violence, which understandably, would make any boardroom awkward and extremely difficult to make decisions in.
After winning the inaugural edition of the tournament, the Rajasthan Royals have never returned to the finals of the IPL.
Perhaps the gloomiest story of a celebrity owning a cricket team came in the case of the Rajasthan Royals and Shilpa Shetty. Shetty, alongside her husband, Raj Kundra purchased the Royals, in the hopes of using her star power to make it a global brand.
Unfortunately for the team, and the owners, after winning the inaugural edition of the tournament, the Royals have never returned to the finals of the IPL.
One could be forgiven for assuming that these instances might have deterred Bollywood celebrities from investing in sporting clubs, but over the years we have come to know that the lucrative opportunities surrounding these sporting leagues have superseded any form of controversy when it comes to owning these franchises.
The Great Expansion of Bollywood
As the IPL continues to grow, the Indian sports league industry has blossomed across India, and consequently, there has been no shortage of sports films in Bollywood either.
In 2012 & 2013, the Super Fight League, the Indian Super League (ISL), the Hockey India League (HIL) and the Premier Badminton League (PBL) were launched, followed by the Pro Kabbadi League (PKL) in 2014, the Pro Wrestling League in 2015, and the Asian Premier Futsal Championship in 2016.
They follow similar formats to that of the IPL, with franchises from different parts of India battling it out to win the overall title and similarly, the teams are often owned by Bollywood celebrities and in some cases, the leagues were launched by these actors! It was the ISL though that really started putting other sports (besides cricket) on the map.
The ISL was launched to much fanfare, pitting itself as another non-European football league that brought in ageing marquee players from around the world, often in player-coach capacities, including Luis Garcia, Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Diego Forlan, Roberto Carlos, David Trezeguet, Nicholas Anelka and more.
However, the practice of player-coaches was stopped from 2016, as were the marquee signings. This did not phase the Bollywood owners in any way though, with several of them playing key roles in the development and growth of football in India, while doing a better job at steering clear from the controversies of their colleagues in the IPL.
Ranbir Kapoor, hailing from ‘Bollywood’s first family’ has owned Mumbai City FC since the inaugural ISL season, and Hrithik Roshan was the co-owner of the now dissolved, FC Pune City. Meanwhile Abhishek Bachchan, from ‘Bollywood’s second family’ co-owns Chennaiyin FC which won the ISL in 2015 and 2018 and has also purchased the Jaipur Pink Panthers, in the PKL.
However, the Bollywood star whose name is synonymous with the ISL is John Abraham, of Goal (Bollywood movie) fame. Abraham was initially given the opportunity to sign for his hometown football club, Mumbai City FC, but instead decided to build NorthEast FC United, which is a conglomerate of India’s north-eastern states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura), where football trumps cricket.
He once said to the BBC that “I would like to distinguish myself from other owners because I’m involved day to day in what happens with the club. Actors are sometimes used as showcases to bring in crowds – but that’s not how I see myself.”
And this statement summarises his time as an owner in the ISL, and how it has different from that of arguably any celebrity sports’ franchise owner. Usually, Bollywood owners either play a ‘crowd-pulling’ role or despite having no sporting background, are excessively invested in the team’s day-to-day operations.
Abraham, as an aspiring footballer in his youth, treads towards the latter. He, of course, is involved in the daily operations of NorthEast FC United, but relative to his peers, he possesses a knowledge and understanding of the sport of football himself.
His other sporting ventures also include 13% ownership of the Delhi Waveriders, a field hockey franchise in the HIL.
Bollywood ownership does not end with the ISL though. Several actors from Bollywood and wider Indian Cinema have invested in franchises across the various leagues, such as Tapsee Pannu (Pune Aces in the Premier Badminton League), Dharmendra (Punjab Royals in the Pro-Wrestling League), Randeep Hooda, Tiger Shroff and Ajay Devgan, all of whom owns stakes in the MMA promotion, Super Fight League.
With sporting leagues that delve into indigenous sports like Kabbadi, ‘national’ sports like cricket and field hockey, and growing sports like MMA, badminton and futsal, there seems to be no sign of these leagues dying out any time soon.
And with the fanfare that Bollywood celebrities bring to these leagues, it is obvious why the founders of these leagues offer teams to them. What then is it that keeps Bollywood going with sports films, and why is it that Bollywood stars continue to buy into sporting leagues? The answer to this is quite simple; money.
Zushan Hashmi is a sports enthusiast who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport. You can follow him