In late February, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) unveiled a plan to transform the Davis Cup, one of the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world. First contested in 1900 between Great Britain and the US, it expanded into a global competition with 16 qualifiers to the World Group competing for the title, which the ITF describes as the world cup of tennis.
The latest proposal by the organizers will see the Davis Cup rechristened as the World Cup of Tennis Finals and expanded to 18 teams. It’s all well and good. Tournaments evolve over time, they expand and shrink, and have name changes as well.
In this particular iteration, however, there is one significant difference: the transformation is being bankrolled by a company owned by Gerard Piqué .
Piqué, the footballer, the Barcelona centre-back.
The Spaniard is the owner and president of investment group Kosmos, which has signed a 25-year partnership worth $3 billion (around Rs19,560 crore) with the ITF that will “elevate” the Davis Cup and help develop tennis across the globe.
“Together we can elevate the Davis Cup to new heights by putting on a must-see World Cup of Tennis Finals featuring the top nations and top players,” Piqué said in a statement issued by the ITF.
Still only 31 and very much a first-choice centre-back for both Barcelona and Spain, Piqué has built quite a business portfolio. Kosmos is just the latest of his ventures. He is the co-founder and president of game development start-ups Kerad Games and eFootball.Pro. Piqué has also launched an iOS Messenger app called Daybook.
Across the Atlantic, former New York Yankee Derek Jeter’s media start-up The Players’ Tribune is gradually expanding its geographical reach and Piqué appears to be heavily involved with its global edition, The Players’ Tribune Global, having done a series of interviews for the platform with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, and Javier Mascherano. However, Pique’s involvement in the business side of things in the ex-baseball player’s venture has not been widely reported.
Athletes venturing into the world of business deals is not new. One of the greatest boxers of the 20th century, Jack Dempsey, owned a restaurant named after himself in the mid-1930s in New York. Fred Perry and René Lacoste are as famous for their eponymous brands as their tennis exploits. All Blacks’ rugby union great Sean Fitzpatrick has numerous businesses under his Front Row Group of Companies. Boxer George Foreman made upwards of $100 million with his signature George Foreman Grills and cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara own seafood restaurant Ministry of Crab—to open in Mumbai too soon.
Closer home, Sachin Tendulkar has his own mobile game, Sachin Saga Cricket Champions, along with investments in football team Kerala Blasters and badminton franchise Bengaluru Blasters, while Sourav Ganguly has a stake in ATK, another football team.
In the past, endorsements aside, most players started their own ventures post retirement. But that trend has changed. Players are now diversifying into the business world while still at the top of their game.
Cleveland Cavaliers’ basketball superstar LeBron James, apart from his lifetime sponsorship deal with Nike, estimated to be upwards of $1 billion, has a minority stake in Liverpool, one of the richest football teams in the world. James’ $1 million investment in pizza chain Blaze Pizza was worth $35 million by July 2017, while his small stake in audio brand Beats By Dr. Dre yielded $30 million when it was acquired by Apple in 2014. His own media venture, Uninterrupted, secured around $16 million in funding from Warner Bros. in 2015.
James’ rival at Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, is a co-founder of a marketing start-up Slyce and has a small stake in Pinterest. It is the proximity of the Oakland-based franchise to Silicon Valley that has perhaps seen Curry’s teammate Kevin Durant also venturing into start-ups with stakes in logistics company Postmates, micro-investing platform Acorns, and Jeter’s The Players’ Tribune. However, both Curry and Durant are dwarfed by the numerous tech investments of fellow Warrior Andre Iguodala, who has interests in about 25 start-ups.
Tennis star Serena Williams once had a clothing label, Aneres. She now sits on the board of SurveyMonkey and is reported to have bought a stake in mixed martial arts organization Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) when it sold for $4 billion in 2016. Williams’ elder sister, Venus, owns design firm V Starr Interiors and fashion label EleVen, and the two are minority owners of Miami Dolphins. Their tennis rival Maria Sharapova has her own brand of candies, Sugarpova.
Indian cricketer Virat Kohli has a business portfolio that rivals most international athletes. Along with stakes in sports franchises FC Goa (football), UAE Royals (tennis), and Bengaluru Yodhas (wrestling), the Indian skipper has interests in fitness ventures Stepathlon Kids and Chisel, clothing brand Wrogn, headphone maker Muveacoustics, and media company Sport Convo.
The spirit of amateurism underpinned the early days of competitive sports and was enforced with religious zeal at the Olympics to the extent that professionals were banned from competing. Jim Thorpe was stripped of his twin gold medals in the 1912 Olympics after being found to have accepted payment for playing semi-professional baseball before his Stockholm wins, while Finnish track legend Paavo Nurmi was banned from the 1932 Olympics due to doubts about his amateur status. But those days are history.
Money in sport has shot up exponentially. Last summer, transfer prices in football hit an absurd level when Paris Saint-Germain paid a world-record €220 million (around Rs17,590 crore) to sign Neymar from Barcelona. PSG also signed Kylian Mbappe on a loan deal that will become permanent this summer for a fee rising up to €180 million.
The twin transfers had a domino effect on the market and saw Barcelona make their two biggest signings—Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé were acquired for a combined fee in the vicinity of €300 million.
The remuneration figures for top athletes have similarly skyrocketed. Whistleblowing website Football Leaks revealed that footballer Lionel Messi was on a whopping €100 million a year contract with Barcelona. Warriors have handed Curry a so called “supermax” contract worth $200 million for five years.
Such deals are becoming increasingly common at the top level across all major sports.
It’s not as if players in previous generations were managing on scraps. But a common problem was the players’—and their managers’—inability to put their earnings to good use. The list of players going bankrupt not long after retirement runs very long, and includes luminaries like Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona and Boris Becker.
In most disciplines, sport as a career isn’t long, and comes with the risk of injuries that may bring a budding career to an abrupt end. In such a situation, it is not absurd for a 19-year-old basketball rookie, Lonzo Ball, to forego a professional shoe contract with a major brand in the belief that his own Big Baller Brand—with its shoes starting at $495—would give better returns in the long run.
If their investments can keep the current generation of players comfortable once their playing days are over, all the better for them. And, if Ball’s example is anything to go by, they are going to start even younger.