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A Chat With J.B. Bernstein, Sports Agent And Million Dollar Arm Creator

J.B. Bernstein (photo courtesy of Million Dollar Arm)
J.B. Bernstein (photo courtesy of Million Dollar Arm)

Million Dollar Arm is a movie coming out to theatres this May, which depicts a real story about a sports agent that created a contest in India that afforded 2 cricket players the opportunity to compete for professional baseball jobs in the U.S. The competition included thousands of people and ultimately led to both Dinesh Patel (formerly of Pirates) and Rinku Singh (Pirates) signing contracts in the MLB. The creator of that contest was J.B. Bernstein, President and CEO of Access Group of Miami. At Access Group, Bernstein has managed prolific athletes such as Barry Bonds, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. Below are some highlights from a recent interview Brandon Steiner conducted with J.B. Bernstein.

(1) 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?

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:

  • The 1st Athlete from a country with more than a Billion people to have success in US professional team sports
  • The country he hailed from had a strong nationalistic pride in their international athletes
  • The inroads to being able to monetize sports already existed in that country (Broadcasting, Sponsorship, Licensed Merchandise, and Tickets)

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.

(2) 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?

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.

(3) What’s next for the Million Dollar Arm contest?

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.

(4) 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?

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.

(5) 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?

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.

(6) 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?

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.