Bunty Sajdeh: The super-agent
The founder of Cornerstone Sport & Entertainment and the man behind brand Virat Kohli, on the slow process of crafting a sportsman’s image
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The peaceful outdoors section of The Village Shop, a café that faces a church in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, is an odd place for Bunty Sajdeh to be this Saturday afternoon. As we speak, much of his mind is on other events, which are taking place in a far more hectic environment. Five of the players his talent management company, Cornerstone Sport & Entertainment, represents are playing a hard game of Test cricket against New Zealand in the sweltering Kanpur heat (which India won).
Cornerstone, which Sajdeh founded in 2008, is now an agency that represents sportsmen exclusively; it manages Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Murali Vijay and Umesh Yadav, all of whom are in the current Indian Test team, as well as Ishant Sharma, who is likely to be in it as soon as he is fully fit. But it is not as if he simply looks at who the most talked-about cricketers are and then tries to sign them up.
“We scout players when they’re young,” says Sajdeh, 38. “It’s easy to look at Virat today and say he’s a rock star, but I spotted him back during the 2008 Under-19 World Cup and signed him up before he became a regular for India.”
Sajdeh and his team are constantly tracking the Indian domestic circuit, looking for cricketers who display consistency in performance, but also confidence and flair in their personalities.
“When I first saw Virat, during an Under-19 match in Malaysia, he didn’t actually get that many runs. But what struck me was the way he spoke confidently to everyone around him and took charge of situations. You have to have that bit of personality we can work on. You can’t be a complete introvert,” he says.
Now, Cornerstone has young cricketers Shreyas Iyer, Manan Vohra, Mayank Dagar and Vijay Zol on its roster.
The role of the player agent in Indian sport gained prominence in the 1990s, when Mark Mascarenhas ensured that Sachin Tendulkar was pasted on our television screens, making him one of the highest paid sportsmen in the world. Before the endorsements and corporate sponsorships start pouring in, however, you have to carefully craft a player’s image, turning him from someone people respect to someone whose lifestyle people crave, whose shoes, watch, jacket and soft drink of choice people will line up to buy.
This is what Sajdeh wants to do, and he tells every player he meets that the process takes time. “We signed Ajinkya three months ago, after six years of talking to him,” he says. “I told him that for the first six months, I am not going to push brands to seek his endorsement because right now he is someone who is known only for his cricket. There is a lot more to him, and we want to create a bit of edginess around his image and display that to the media in the coming months.”
A big part of building a player’s image these days is managing their interactions with fans on social media. Sajdeh admits he is not digitally savvy, but has a great social media team that manages players’ accounts, analysing data from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to determine what kinds of posts excite people.
“Fans don’t want to see photos of a player on the field. They want to know more about the player off the field. So we will send a team to a player’s home when he has a couple of days off and take photos of him with his pet, or his mum or him cooking something, and then release those images at appropriate times,” he says. They always ask for the player’s approval before posting something, though, and let them word the post themselves. “Fans are smart and can tell when someone has ghost-written something,” Sajdeh explains.
So detailed is his curation of his clients’ public personas that he even invests in styling them for public functions. “If an athlete has to attend an awards function and I get him an Armani suit and a hair-cut from a professional stylist, it gives him confidence and changes the way he carries himself, which pays dividends in the end.”
It is rather ironic to listen to Sajdeh talk about expensive suits, as he readily admits he rarely wears them. He showed up for our meeting in black jeans and a blue T-shirt. And even this, he says, is more colour than you will usually see on him.
“My standard work and evening attire is the same: a white or black T-shirt with jeans. I work long hours every day and need to be comfortable.” But he is not embarrassed about his personal style, maintaining that even simple attire can become a talking point when worn with confidence, something he keeps telling the players he represents.
His aversion to keeping up with fashion trends is actually what got him into talent management. After completing his bachelor’s in commerce from the HR College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, he worked in his family’s garment business, but found it tedious and uninspiring. His sister’s husband, actor Sohail Khan, ran GS Worldwide Entertainment, a company that does everything from producing films to organizing events to representing film and sports personalities. A people-person, Sajdeh joined the firm as a production assistant and enjoyed doing a job that had personal relationships at its core.
After two years with GS Entertainment, he joined Percept Ltd, forming a close relationship with cricketer Yuvraj Singh, whom the company managed. It was Singh and actor Sushmita Sen, another of Sajdeh’s clients, who encouraged him to start his own business. And, after a three-year stint at Globosport, he “woke up one morning and decided to just do it”.
In 2009, Singh introduced him to Kohli. “The Indian Premier League was being held in South Africa that year, and I was in Johannesburg doing some work for Yuvraj’s foundation,” Sajdeh recalls. “We were at a restaurant, and Virat came in wearing a flashy jacket and sunglasses. I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing? You’re an athlete, not a model.’”
Kohli only spoke to Sajdeh for around 10 seconds, but by the next year they were working together. At that stage, Cornerstone was managing film personalities as well as sportsmen, but Sajdeh wanted to focus on the latter.
“To be honest, even though I have a lot of friends and family from the film world, I don’t think I have watched a movie in five years,” he says. “I realized that most of my team was more interested in sport than anything else too, so I thought, why don’t we focus exclusively on it? It was also a space that none of the other firms were in.”
Apart from cricketers, Sajdeh has also signed up motorsport racer Jehan Daruvala, body builder Miihier Singh and footballer Sunil Chhetri. Football is actually his favourite sport, and Manchester United his favourite team.
Over the years, Sajdeh has formed a close personal bond with the players he manages. “Some of those friendships have ended in hurt,” he admits. “But you can’t help getting close to the players as ours is a relationships business.” A lot of the athletes treat him like an elder brother, asking for advice on what car or house to buy or what to do when they are having “girl problems”. “When work is over, we all chill together. They treat me not like an agent, but like family.”