You've probably heard about the upcoming movie, Million Dollar Arm, the story about two Indian cricket players winning a contest to score contracts as professional baseball pitchers in the U.S. What most people don't know is that the creator of that contest, J.B. Bernstein, in addition to being a renowned sports agent representing some of the biggest stars in sports, started his career in the collectibles business. What's great about J.B. is his vision; his ability to discover the what else in any scenario- like Million Dollar Arm, people had never heard of baseball in India before! I've known J.B. for a number of years and seen him reinvent himself in multiple roles. I had the pleasure of talking with him recently about his remarkable career. (And by the way, I highly suggest going to see Million Dollar Arm even if you're not a baseball fan.)
Brandon Steiner: You started your career in sports at Upper Deck heading up their memorabilia division. What did you enjoy most about the memorabilia business? What’s your favorite collectible?
J.B. Bernstein: I was lucky to start my career in sports at Upper Deck. Other than the unenviable position of having to compete against Steiner Sports, it gave me the opportunity to create products tied to sports history. I grew up a huge sports fans and I was a statistics nut, so I have a deep understanding of how much these records mean to fans. I believe it is a great responsibility and honor to create and market the products that help fans commemorate those amazing inspirational moments. I specifically remember Gretzky’s 802nd goal program. Every time I look at the products from that record, I am so proud that Gretzky fans all around the world have those pieces of memorabilia enshrined in their homes and offices. I know that when they look at them it takes them back to that moment when he scored 802, and just to play a small role in that memory is a great feeling.
BS: You also have a history with Major League Soccer. The league continues to grow with more star players and expansion franchises. What’s the next step for the MLS to increase its appeal on the global soccer stage?
JB: I was lucky enough to be tapped to head up the licensing group for the league from its inception through its first two seasons. It is amazing to see how much it has grown since 1996. I always felt their ownership group had the right structure, and here we are almost 20 years later, and they continue to succeed. In order to take the next step, I think they need to continue what they are doing. Attracting top players from the international soccer community while at the same time increasing efforts to keep the top U.S. youth athletes in the game, will ensure that the talent level rises to a point where they can rival pro leagues like the ones in the Europe, South America and elsewhere. The success of the US national team also will play a big role in the league’s growth.
BS: You’re well known for the Million Dollar Arm contest you created to discover India’s first pro baseball player. How did the idea for the contest come about?
JB: I know that no one knows this better than you Brandon… But any good idea is not formed in a vacuum. The idea was formulated by my business partners and I, originally as a play to create the next Yao Ming. As you know, Yao in addition to being a great player was a historical marketing force that generated over a billion in earnings. As agents, we knew that having someone like Yao would be the ultimate coup for our agency. So when you think about the recipe that made Yao so special, we came up with the following:
So you can see how India became the first country on our hit list. Once you pick India, the natural choice is to find a baseball player. Cricket and baseball are more similar than most think, and there were over 100 million men in India between ages 15 – 25 who all grew up playing that sport.
The idea for the contest, I openly admit we “borrowed” from American Idol. That is simply the best format for finding talent among the masses, so why reinvent the wheel. We pulled the microphone out of their hands and put a baseball there in its place. Instead of judges we used radar guns, but other than that we stayed pretty true to the format.
BS: Talk about how you executed the contest. What was it like working in India? What processes did you put in place for scouts to judge over 35,000 participants, most of whom had never heard of baseball before?
JB: I know people always want to know how we came up with the idea, but let me assure you the real marvel was execution of the contest. Doing business in India is very different from anywhere else in the world. There were two issues, 1) Targeting talent and 2) Identifying talent.
In a country where no one has ever heard of baseball we knew we would have to bring the contest to them. Unlike American Idol, who announces they will be in a city on a certain day only to have that location flooded with contestants from all over, we had to bring the contest to contestants. We literally had a mobile set up that went from city to city stopping at cricket fields, high schools, colleges, sports and military academies, and any other place where we knew there would be kids playing cricket.
In terms of identifying talent, we followed the old adage… “Show me a guy who throws hard and I will teach him how to pitch.” We took kids with the five tops speeds in each region and brought them to Mumbai for a training camp and to compete in the finals for the money. It was during that week that our scout Ray Poitevint was able to see the guys and tell us which kids’ raw talent had the best chance of getting them signed.
JB: I thought it was a joke. We started out to create a baseball player, not a movie. I don’t think anyone really looks at what they are doing in life and feels like Disney should make a movie about it. The fact that they did make a movie still feels like a dream to us, but we are so proud that the world will get to hear the story of Rinku and Dinesh.
BS: What’s next for the Million Dollar Arm contest?
JB: Season 3 starts this fall. We are planning to be in over 100 cities and see over 500,000 kids. In contrast, we saw 38,000 kids in season 1.
BS: You’ve represented some of the biggest names in sports. What’s a guy like Barry Sanders up to these days? What’s the extent of your work with athletes that are past their playing days?
JB: I have been lucky in my career to represent some of the greatest athletes of all time. What most people don’t realize is these players have very lucrative post career marketing platforms as their legacy still rings true to fans. In addition, now that they are done playing they actually have more time to devote to marketing. Take Barry Sanders. His last season was 1998 as a player. In the last 12 months he was in 2 commercials for Pepsi, a commercial for Foot Locker, the cover of EA Sports Madden 25, The spokesman for Verizon, Powerball, & The Hall of Fames Gridiron Glory tour. He also has done 5 public signing appearances, appearances for Meijer’s and Golf Galaxy, and he hosts his annual golf tourney to raise money for his hometown Boys & Girls Club. As a current player it would be hard to find the time to do all of those deals.
BS: Barry Bonds is another high-profile client of yours. Things have been quiet for him in the news lately, but he did come back to Spring Training with the Giants this year for the first time since retiring. Is he looking for an expanded role back in baseball?
JB: Barry has been a client for more than a decade, and I consider him a good friend. I don’t know what the future will hold, but I was really glad to see him back with the team during spring training. I know how much he has to give and hope that his relationship with the team continues to grow to benefit both sides.
BS: BONUS QUESTION: Did Jon Hamm do a good J.B. Bernstein?
JB: When the news came out that he had signed on to play that part, a friend said that he thought Jon looked like me… to which I replied, “Yeah, if you hit him in the face with a shovel a few times!”
I think that he nailed me, but I will leave that for you to decide since you have known me since I was a kid in this business. The true litmus test was what my wife thought, and she thought he did a great job.