Field of Schemes?

Lalit Modi created a hugely successful cricket league, but corruption charges may undo him

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Lalit Modi

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The uproar awakened the public to the fact that, beyond some famous Bollywood investors, little was known about the ownership structure of the teams, particularly the minority stakeholders. That ownership groups of two teams, the Rajasthan Royals and the Kings of Punjab, include Modi's family members and the fact that powerful political families and India's leading businesses also have stakes in IPL clubs add fuel to the gossip columns.

Modi says history is being rewritten, and he will say so in his rebuttal. He has steadfastly refused to resign, claiming the BCCI knew everything. "The rebuttal is based upon 'You signed it, you've been part of this from Day One,'" says Modi, referring to the BCCI's knowledge of IPL's deals.

India is bonkers over cricket, but until Modi, no one had been able to capitalize on it in a league format. Modi began recruiting his well-connected friends and relatives to invest in his vision. His first call was to a childhood friend, Shahrukh Khan, who happens to be India's biggest movie star. "I said to Shahrukh, 'You've got to believe in me,'" Modi says.

With the inclusion of Bollywood A listers like Khan, who owns the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise, the matches became important events for India's Bollywood glamour set, who snapped up ownership stakes and endorsement contracts, looking to stay in front of the cameras and in the headlines.

In the IPL's first season, the mix of Bollywood and cricket yielded immediate results and knocked Indian soap operas from the top of the ratings charts. "The whole concept of the games was more entertainment because it was going to have more glamour of Bollywood," says Man Jit Singh, the CEO of Multi Screen Media, who paid more than $1 billion for the broadcasting rights. "So we could clearly see a revenue model for ourselves that made a lot of sense."

So did the league's operating plan. The IPL borrowed from the NFL to maintain competitive and economic parity. It capped players' salaries and auctioned the rights to their services — to curb wealthy owners from wooing players with lucrative endorsement deals on the side. Broadcast and sponsorship money is evenly distributed among the franchises after IPL's 20% cut. "If you get the sporting model right, then the commercial model will follow," says Andrew Wildblood, executive vice president of IMG/IMG Media, the U.S. management firm that handles the league's operations. "And if you get the commercial model right, you can create revenue and have an opportunity to sell investments."

The IPL's closed books aren't out of the ordinary, says Stefan Szymanski, a sports specialist at the Cass Business School in London. "If you asked the NBA, 'Are all of your contracts clear and aboveboard?' they would say, 'Of course,'" he says. "If you asked, 'Can we take a look at the books?' they would say, 'Of course you can't.'"

With the third season in the books, Modi finds himself defending the sporting behemoth he almost single-handedly created. Whatever his methods, in just three years, Modi has revolutionized the business of cricket in India. But whether in politics or sports, revolutionaries seldom get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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