AMONG the many images spraying world audiences after India’s memorable Coca-Cola Cup win—Sachin driving his team mates around in an Opel Astra with Jadeja on the bonnet and Sidhu hanging from the left door—one which stayed with you for a few brief seconds was that of a burly, bearded man embracing Sachin and hoisting him off the ground for the marvellous victory he had gifted India on his birthday. That man happens to be Mark Mascarenhas, commercial custodian of India’s only superstar, Sachin Tendulkar.
But he is not only that. The television rights trader, based in Connecticut, US, is also WorldTel’s boss who is emerging as the biggest player in subcontinent cricket outside the playing field. It all started in 1993, when in the biggest Eureka moment of his life, he bid and secured the television rights for the 1996 World Cup. Over the last five years, Mascarenhas has bid against the likes of TWI and Grandslam on his own and gone from strength to strength.
But Mascarenhas’ unflattering image is one of a person travelling in the shadows of the law. And this 40-year-old from Bangalore has lately inspired a surplus of distrust in the media. Taking a pounding on a whole range of issues—briber y accusations from Upali Dharmadasa, president of the Sri Lankan cricket board with whom WorldTel has a three-year deal; a falling out with Sanath Jayasuriya; a running spat with DDCA secretary Sunil Dev; a proxy one with former BCCI president I.S. Bindra; and suspicions of a rather special relationship with ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya.
A parallel image is one of a person courageous enough to risk extreme accusations and showing but slim signs of being cornered. Says Jonathan Mermagen, former WorldTel MD who left him after the 1996 World Cup: “Mark is a rights dealer. A one-man operator taking huge risks. He is not like TWI, CSI or these other big groups. He has his view on television property and comes in with this attitude of you win some, you lose some. He is a doer. He pushes things through.” Mermagen is one of his big admirers though he has reportedly fallen out with Mascarenhas.
If Mascarenhas’ background is a little dim, WorldTel’s achievements are impressive. The competitive rage swirling inside Mascarenhas was sculpted and given momentum by a career with CBS. Starting off in CBS news radio in 1981 where he sold spots for programmes like the Walter Cronkite Show, he made a reputation selling, according to Mermagen, “things worth a quarter of a million for half a million”. Mascarenhas’ salary jumped from $35,000 to $85,000 a year. Says he: “They promoted me by taking away all my accounts and cutting me down to $40,000. You can either be a career salesman or want to run the company. I certainly wanted to run the company. If you wanted to do that they kept cutting you back and giving you promotions to see whether you could endure.”
His first boss, Ron Gilbert, head of a Connecticut radio station, has a very interesting anecdote about how Mascarenhas impressed him when he came looking for a job. Says Gilbert: “He left an impression on me miles above anybody else. I didn’t have an opening but I had a policy of giving an interview to job-seekers. Just when he was leaving he turned around and asked me, ‘Mr Gilbert, are you one of those whose income is linked to how well the salesmen under them do?’ I said ‘yes’. Then he said that he was a guy with a lot of needs. He wanted to get rid of his Volkswagen and buy a BMW. He had to visit his sister in India. After he said that I told him to come back right in. I hired him. He turned out to be my top salesman.I wouldn’t be surprised if someday somebody tells me he has bought Microsoft or something.”
Switching to TV in 1984, he was soon billing $15 million a year, mainly because “he understood the product and learnt to position it with buyers and potential buyers”. Here, he notched up some firsts. In the international division, he helped guide CBS’ entry into the Chinese market. Then, while making deals with the Chinese TV network, he helped Procter & Gamble enter the Chinese market. An effort to get into Indian TV during prime minister Indira Gandhi’s time failed because there was a long queue of Indian advertisers waiting to hitch a DD ride and the then I&B secretary S.S. Gill didn’t think it would be fair for foreign advertisers to jump the queue. CBS was offering software at no cost to DD—with 30 per cent of its ad revenue also going to DD.
Mascarenhas soon reached a position where, in his words, “I could either join a big studio in Hollywood or branch out”. He branched out, of course. One of his first deals was a $3 million transaction for 10 episodes of the Italy soccer world cup for a telephone company. He soon formed a team and did a series of things—sold international boxing rights for the Buster Douglas-Evander Holyfield fight in 1990 and, in 1991, for the last fight of Sugar Ray Leonard.
Once the demand for selling American programmes in Europe dwindled, he switched to selling European programmes in Europe. He nested a big egg in 1992 along with four partners—the Alpine Ski World Cup. Says Mascarenhas: “It’s considered a sport of kings and was a totally undervalued circuit. That year while public broadcasters across Europe who had the sport for 30 years were sleeping and holidaying we bought up the whole sport. Fifteen venues in 15 countries. We bought it for $3 million and sold it for around $20 million.” He also got involved with the US soccer federation with friend Billy Packer. Says Packer of his partner: “We have never had a signed contract in our deals. We have done things simply out of a handshake. But in business he’s like a tiger.”
Then 1993 happened when Mascarenhas came to know about the BCCI bid for the cricket world cup. “I had not seen any cricket for 10 years. My first meeting with Bindra and Dalmiya was in a flat in London.” That year outside of three boards the game was broke and the only way Dalmiya could convince associate members and get the cup was by giving money to other ICC members for improving the game in their region. And though TWI had bid $8.5 million for the cup they weren’t willing to put any money upfront. Says Mascarenhas: “Dalmiya told me I could get the cup if I bid $10 million and paid $2.5 million upfront. I did that. It was the biggest gamble of my life. Mike Wash of CSI asked an earlier partner of mine whether he was involved in my deal and he said no. That I was in it alone. Wash commented, ‘You are a smart man. This guy will be broke in two months.’ The revenues for the Cup hit $20 million. But if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t be able to.”
It was in the dispute with DD, however, in the run-up to the Wills World Cup, that Mascarenhas first started attracting controversy. Terminating the contract with DD in December ’95 after DD started claiming territorial rights, the matter went to court. WorldTel contended that DD was refusing to enter into a standard long-term agreement. In February 1996, DD paid them $4.75 million and thrashed an out-of-court settlement. After the Cup the matter went into arbitration where it still is, with the $4.75 million in a joint account that WorldTel has with Pilcom. Says Mascarenhas: “The issue now is the amount of money due to us from DD.”
Around this time, he also acquired a reputation of a bully. Says a confidant: “He was at one time pretending to be bigger than he really was. In the beginning he was just a one-man outfit with lots of pretensions.” Mascarenhas also rubbed Navin Kohli of Corum Communications, a former ITC agent, the wrong way. Says Kohli: “He backed out of a deal that I had with him for a 1994 Sharjah tournament. He is an opportunist with no ethics. He also played very dirty with Henry Blofeld, the commentator. He owed him a lot of money.” Counters Mascarenhas: “Blofeld was in a horrible mess personally and financially. I took him aboard but he couldn’t deliver. But we are friends. He came to dinner to my place last year.”
THEN last October, came reports from Sri Lanka that board chief Dharmadasa had reportedly taped conversations with Mascarenhas in which he had confessed paying $50,000 to a senior board member and was being pressured to pay a further $50,000 to clinch a three-year sponsorship deal. Worth $5 million and signed on July 17, it gave WorldTel the rights of Sri Lankan cricket for five years. Says Mascarenhas: “I am in a peculiar situation here of being a witness against myself. We immediately went to the authorities and the judiciary saying we would assist in any investigation. That no money was ever paid. To think that the president of a cricket board would go to the extent of recording my conversations with him speaks little about him. No such conversation occurred. We were just caught in the middle of warring board factions.”
Then, Mascarenhas’ relationship with Dalmiya has been the subject of much speculation. Says a former ICC member: “The two gave an indication that that they were at loggerheads. But one would learn that they met for lunch alone in London.” Mascarenhas admits his relationship with Dalmiya is contentious: “I have respect for him even though he doesn’t agree with me a lot of times. Ours was no sudden friendship, the way the press believes. I have never got any favours from him. Everything’s been on merit. Our relationship hasn’t been smooth but that’s like any other relationship.”
Sunil Dev, though, draws his ire like nobody else. Mascarenhas believes that in the whole spat that Dev had with him he was again a victim of warring board factions. “All these stories that Dev spread about my purported relationship with Dalmiya are baseless. I didn’t default on any of my payments to Pilcom for the 1996 World Cup. The entire 10 million was with them a year before the start. This is on record. These stories have been spread by Dev for which he will pay the consequences.”
The series of episodes has fired Mascarenhas’ irritation with the media: “What amazes me are reports that hold us responsible in some way for events far beyond our control. Team selection, DD, the PM’s office etc. When you deal in my kind of business you can’t make friends all the time. People on the sidelines want to take you down. All I can say is that I didn’t cheat anybody. But I may not be as charming as the guy across the hall.”
WorldTel did business worth $15 million last year—and it has 15 employees in all. Growth for Mascarenhas isn’t growing in employees or office space. He says the difference between him and big corpo-rates like IMG is similar to the difference between, say, Soros and Merrill & Lynch. “Soros made $5 billion last year. M&L in spite of thousands of people and millions of square foot of office were nowhere as close. Being large doesn’t necessarily mean being the best.”
To buttress this truism he cites Sachin’s example, who, incidentally, was roped in with a guarantee of $7.5 million over five years but has, reportedly, already crossed $10 million in endorsements. “The Australian cricket academy has the best resources and talent. Australia is the best sporting country around. But it’s Mumbai that produced Sachin. Australia can only dream of somebody like Sachin.” He also signed on Saurav Ganguly on a very promising incentive deal with King-fisher. Ganguly says Sachin introduced him to Mascarenhas. One player he wanted to sign on but couldn’t was Rahul Dravid: “He is from my school in Bangalore and I am his great fan. But his bat had already been signed.”
Mascarenhas loves to gamble. Though he’s not, self-admittedly, in the same league as Kerry Packer—who reportedly won $10 million at a Las Vegas casino recently and handed out $1 million to the dealer as a tip—he enjoys going till he loses heavily. After the successful ’96 Cup he bought a platinum Rolex watch worth $17,000. Another salacious gossip, this time from Gilbert: “As a bachelor he used to throw parties at the New York Plaza. What was amazing was that all his former girlfriends would attend and there wouldn’t be any bad feelings. I found that interesting.”
The one enduring clairvoyant flash, however, that would sum up the various ingredients in his personality would be the way the television trader would introduce himself if he didn’t have to contend with civilities: “I am Mark Mascarenhas, WorldTel, and you be damned.”