Bunty Sajdeh: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan's Jerry Maguire

Bunty Sajdeh (above) said he signed Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma much before they started playing for India. Photo courtesy: Salman Ansari/DNA

By Derek Abraham
 
Picture this: sitting in front of you is the big shot of a local innerwear brand. He is willing to shell out several crores of rupees for a two-year deal with Virat Kohli. You handle ‘Brand Kohli’. Going by the ’10 per cent commission’ norm, a cool sum is yours. That’s enough to see you through a financial year. So what do you do? Get the batsman to sign on the dotted line, right? Well, then you are not Bunty Sajdeh.
 
Meet the dashing, enterprising, maverick, in-your-face and choosy 36-year-old who manages the hottest property in Indian cricket. Built as a bull, Sajdeh also has Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan on his roster. Yes, the top three in the Indian One-Day International (ODI) line-up — each of them also leads an IPL franchise — are his boys. Ditto with Test opener Murali Vijay, national football captain Sunil Chhetri, tennis ace Sania Mirza, squash sensation Dipika Pallikal, dance king Prabhu Deva and — hold your breath — the scintillating Sonakshi Sinha.
 
More on the chaddi-baniyan deal a little later.

An agent is born

At 19, Sajdeh had everything a lad of 19 would die for: a base in SoBo, good looks, big money, air miles, an imported car, a seat in HR College, girls. The only glitch was that he had to join the family-owned garment business. “Only son, you see,” he smirks. So what went wrong. “Yaar, these cuffs and collars, buttons and packaging, imports and exports, orders and LCs (letters of credit), blouses and gowns, checks and stripes bored me to death. I did it for two years and I couldn’t do it anymore,” Sajdeh says with a sense of disgust. Wonder what he must have gone through, then! His other grouse was that the garments weren’t “fashionable”. “And we used to export them to these obscure countries in Africa and the Far East.”
 
Bored, jobless and, perhaps, disillusioned, Sajdeh then joined GS Entertainment, which was run by his brother-in-law, Sohail Khan. Sajdeh’s sister, Seema, is married to the actor. “Toured the world, had a blast,” he says of the two-year stint.
 
The ‘blast’ part is actually true. He rubbed shoulders with many a top Bollywood beauty and even dated a few of them. Eight years and two jobs later (Percept Talent and Globosport, the latter owned by Mahesh Bhupathi), Sajdeh was good to go solo.
 
And thus, ‘Cornetsone: Sport and Entertainment’ was born in 2008. Five years on, it is a force to reckon with. To quote the company’s website, “At Cornerstone, we ensure that no stone is left unturned while providing the most high-quality, economic and impact-heavy solutions to our clients.”
 
That’s true, actually. Why do you think Sajdeh said no to the innerwear brand?
 
“That one deal would have got Virat and me pots of money. But I am also aware of the adverse impact it would have had on his image. Five other prospective brands would have dropped their plans of signing him on,” Sajdeh explains. No wonder he shoos away makers of pan masala, pressure cookers and other ‘stainless steel’ products.

Eye for talent
 
When it comes to business, Sajdeh doesn’t believe in flings. “I signed Virat and Rohit much before they started playing for India,” he says, rather proudly. Now that’s what you call an eye for talent.
 
“I didn’t go after them after they became stars. In fact, I watched Virat at the 2008 ICC Under-19 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur,” he recalls. “I was mighty impressed with his attitude and the way he was marshalling his team. He had that spark. And I told Yuvi (Yuvraj Singh is a great friend) to set up the meeting. Ditto with Rohit. I have watched him since his club cricket days. He is a big favourite of mine.”
 
Cricket may be a religion in India, but its market share is barely 25 per cent. “Bollywood still rules,” Sajdeh says. But endorsements, he says, are just one part of the marketing strategy. “We do talent. And these boys are great options to break from the clutter of Bollywood.”

Brand Kohli
 
But all of this hasn’t stopped Kohli from being the Rs 100-crore-plus athlete that he is. Kohli’s bat deal with MRF is reportedly the costliest in the history of Indian cricket. Yes, he makes more than MS Dhoni. There was a big rumour in the market that a sports apparel giant had offered Kohli a whopping Rs 100 crore for 10 years.
 
“Ten years was too much. Today Virat is 25, Players peak at the age of 28 or so. In other words, Virat’s best years are ahead of him. So I have to make sure the brands he signs with are in tune with his age. Also, I can’t gauge Virat’s value 10 years from now. Even if I do, the brand wouldn’t pay me that much because I would quoted an insane amount of money.” Expectedly, Sajdeh rejected the deal.
 
“We usually do a three-year association,” he says. “Look at Virat. People have purple patches. This guy is having purple seasons! He is a priceless athlete.”
 
When he’s not smashing hundreds, Kohli is busy counting his six packs. “He is too focused. Sometimes, I need to tell him to chill out. Last year, I took him to New York and we went out four nights in a row. All he drank was water. And he must have eaten about 17 sushi meals. He is a fitness freak. When he comes to my place, all he eats is grilled fish,” Sajdeh reveals.
 
And like most things in life, brands are about quality, not quantity. “Virat endorsed about 15 deals last year. This year, he did 13. I have said no to a couple of them. And there were others offering us five times the deal value, but we still said no. Virat has to be careful with the brands he associates himself with,” Sajdeh says. Apart from his batting, Sajdeh loves Kohli’s attitude. And that includes his unique style of swearing at anybody and everybody after getting out for a duck or smashing a 52-ball ton.
 
“Never. I don’t,” he says when asked if he tells Kohli to take it easy. “People want him to tone down, but this is him. Every time he swears on the field, I get 15 calls. But my only question is: is he not performing? The guy has 17 tons in ODI cricket. And to quote Mr Sunil Gavaskar, he will overtake Sachin Tendulkar‘s ODI records! Brand-wise, Virat is equal to Ranbir Kapoor. It’s a fact. Nissan signed Ranbir, Toyota signed Virat; Cinthol signed Virat; Axe signed Ranbir. And Ranbir has admitted that it’s a two-horse race.

Mass appeal, class
 
If Kohli is a youth icon, then Dhawan is all about mass appeal, much like Dhoni. The left-hander comes across as an imposing guy, but he actually prefixes and suffixes every sentence with “God’s name”. That moustache of his adds to the aura.
 
“When I signed Shikhar last year, he asked me ‘Bunty, how many endorsements will I get?’. I told him things don’t work that way and that I couldn’t promise him anything. You have to be patient. You will fit into the scheme of things of someone out there. Today, he is associated with eight brands.
 
About Rohit, Sajdeh says, “He is more of an urban guy who is technically correct. He oozes class. Look at the way he has silenced his critics. He just signed a deal with Adidas because he wants to follow the master, Sachin Tendulkar. And look how he’s batting now.”
 
He also says that Rohit was a victim of unfair criticism. “The media is too opinionated. Everybody was after him. Today, he is batting like a dream. He has already attracted a lot of attention after his recent exploits in ODI and Test cricket. And don’t forget he has led the Mumbai Indians to glory in the IPL as well as the Champions League T20. A few more big knocks and brands will queue up for his signature. It’s all falling in place for him. The guy has two shots for every delivery.”

Look good, will sell
 
Sajdeh’s role doesn’t start and end with endorsement deals. He also needs to make sure his boys look good wherever they go. “I don’t tell them to look good; I tell them what to wear. The designer does, actually,” Sajdeh laughs.
 
Recently, Rohit was in Jodhpur for Nita Ambani’s birthday party. “A big shot designer gave him three options. Rohit took his pick and the suit was flown to his hotel. So was a hairstylist. Nandita Mehtani sent Virat three options for a party hosted by Tendulkar the other day. We also asked Apeni George, Hrithik Roshan’s hairstylist, to block her dates for Virat. She flew in, did his hair and make-up, and flew out.”
 
Not just that. Sajdeh and his team have to look after the boys’ money matters too. “They have their chartered accountants and we have ours. Their CAs and our CA work hand in glove. Do you know Yuvraj didn’t have a service tax number when I signed him in 2008? So we have to do everything, really,” he explains. Yuvraj is no longer with Sajdeh, but the duo is planning to renew ties.
 
So while his cricket boys rake in the moolah, don’t Mirza, Pallikal and Chhetri feel ignored? “They know how the market works…”
 
Sajdeh sure does.

(The writer is Principal Correspondent at DNA, where the above article first appeared)