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Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The idea sounded improbable, implausible and completely crazy. How could a sports agent go to a foreign country where nobody played baseball and hope to find pitchers with “million-dollar arms” to play for Major League Baseball?
Not only did Las Vegas-based sports agent J.B. Bernstein pull it off, but the challenge also became “Million Dollar Arm,” an Indian reality-TV series that Disney Pictures turned into a $25 million film.
Now J.B. is getting ready to return to India in November for a second shot at finding baseball’s next stars. During the first contest in March 2008, there were 30,000 youngsters trying their high-speed pitching to win fame and fortune in the United States. When J.B. returns in the fall, he already has 500,000 likely candidates signed up to show their 85 mph throwing talents.
The film released last month stars Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” as J.B., who got his inspiration for the venture while watching a cricket match and “Britain’s Got Talent.”
His eventual goal is that the talent hunt is expanded to multiple countries in conjunction with MLB, and ultimately that it will be a global search competition to discover hidden geniuses.
J.B. knows of what he seeks because he’s represented numerous sports stars including Barry Bonds and Barry Sanders. From 1995 through 1997, he was retained by Major League Soccer as head of licensing and the players merchandising program, which resulted in sales of more than $50 million.
Here is my Q+A with J.B.:
When was the first reality TV contest in India?
The first “Million Dollar Arm” contest began in November 2007 and ended in March 2008.
You found two guys who you brought to America, and now you’re going back for a second talent search?
Yes. Our second winner was Dinesh Patel, and he played for two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league organization and then ultimately was released after 2010 and now is pursuing a career in baseball coaching working with coach Tom House here in the U.S. He will be back here starting next month.
Rinku Singh is the guy who won the first contest. He’s still pitching in the Pirates minor league organization at the AA level. He’s rehabbing elbow surgery, he had a bone spur removed and should be back on the mound in August. He’s a legitimate prospect, and our hopes are that in the next couple of years he makes it to the major leagues.
Baseball has really caught on in India?
We had 30,000 competing in the first contest, and we’ve already reached 500,000 who want the tryouts starting in November. I have no doubt that will jump to 750,000 by the time we start the process again in November. It’s become a fun, unique situation, kind of like China was right before Yao Ming became a pro basketball player with the Houston Rockets. We’re right at that front end, the very beginning.
If Rinku makes it, that will obviously accelerate things. When we first got to India, there was zero awareness. Rinku and Dinesh had never heard of baseball, they didn’t know it existed as a sport, and now it’s great to see this groundswell of awareness because of the contest.
What has been the reaction and the result of “Million Dollar Arm”?
It’s really good. Obviously we went up against some pretty tough competition from a box office standpoint with “Godzilla,” “X-Men” and “Maleficent” back-to-back-to-back. We performed really well. It’s going to end up doing between $40 million 50 million, and it’s still in theaters before the DVD comes this fall. That’s pretty good for a sports movie.
The overall reaction to the story and to the movie has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s one of the highest-testing movies Disney’s ever had. There have been really good reviews, and the crowd reaction has been very, very positive. The movie really shined some light on the kids, and what they accomplished was amazing. I’m really proud of their story. And it’s good for Disney, too. They probably will double their money. … It’s been a good business venture for everybody involved.
And fun for you seeing Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” play your life story?
Since you know me, you can see the resemblance is so striking. The obvious choice! Jon is a guy who’s in demand, and when an actor is in demand to that kind of level, he can pick and choose any part he wants, so the fact that he chose this means a lot. I think that he did an unbelievable job, and I’m really, really proud of all the actors, especially Jon. Having him play me in a movie is a great honor.
Million Dollar Arm
J.B. Bernstein and Rinku Singh
Where did the “Million Dollar Arm” expression come from?
My business partners and I came up with the title of the game show in India. We didn’t want to call it a baseball contest because we knew that nobody would know what we were talking about, but the concept of winning a million dollars, throwing a ball, having a strong arm were things that we thought that they were able to relate to a little bit more easily.
That’s why it’s not the “Million Dollar Baseball,” the “Million Dollar Pitcher.” The million just came from the upside of the contest, where the winner had a chance to win a million-dollar contract.
And the actual idea for the show and going to India to talent hunt was how and when?
So in the summer of early 2007, we wanted if we couldn’t find a Yao Ming, we wanted to try to create one. So that drove us to India. One of my business partners is Indian, and he was able to educate us to the similarities with cricket. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel, so we joined with Simon Cowell, who knows everything about television talent searches.
He’s already discovered the best format, so very slowly but surely the idea came into focus. We would search for a Yao Ming from India in the sport of baseball scouting cricketers using this TV game show. Literally from the time we came up with the idea to the time I was in India watching the contest was less than six months.
We have a corporate office in Bangalore, but we’ll be in over 100 cities when we return in November. We have 10 to 20 vans that go simultaneously throughout the country, so we’ll be on over 1,000 college and high school campuses in over 100 cities. On any given day, there could be a van that stops at 12 high schools in the city, and then another van in another city might stop at a giant park where there’s up to 8,000 kids playing cricket. We’ll just set up in a corner and test as many kids as we can all day.
Is the criteria a certain speed?
Yeah, we basically take the top 30 to 40 speeds across the country. In the first contest, you had to throw a ball 84 to 85 mph. We had kids throwing all the way up to 90. Once you get into the finals, to actually compete for the money, you have to throw strikes over 85 mph, and then the person who compiles the most strikes over 85 mph is declared the winner.
With that being said, we have scouts there so like in the case of the first contest, we ended up taking two kids because we felt that the runner-up had just as much potential as the first. So even if you don’t win the contest, there’s still an opportunity to get signed and be brought back to the U.S. to train. Mid-80s is really the bench mark to make the finals and compete.
How long have you been in the sports agent business?
Since 1994 and all the clients I’ve had I still have. Barry Bonds, Trace Martin, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith are the best ones to name. It’s a really good gig. I love sports, and it gives you an opportunity to be very creative and do some historical things. I’ve been lucky in my career to be able to fall into this.
What’s your most satisfying accomplishment to date?
Besides “Million Dollar Arm,” I think it’s the work that we do with Barry Bonds. He became the first baseball player to ever operate outside the players association licensing rules. When you’re a part of that, you give your rights away for jerseys and all merchandising. Barry was the first, with my help, to be able to operate outside the auspices of the players association. The only other athlete to ever do that in any sport was Michael Jordan. I’m proud of that.
Will we get to see the Indian reality TV show here?
Going forward I think there’s going to be an extreme interest. We’re talking with MLB about the best way to promote “Million Dollar Arm” globally right now, so I think that will probably be part of it.
I would hope this goes global. The goal for the big, long picture is not just to develop baseball in India, but if we have our way and it ultimately works out, this will be a million-dollar contest that we’ll run in multiple countries, and then all the winners would come in for a grand finale maybe as part of the world baseball classic.
It’s a ways down the road, but you have to have vision. That would be my ultimate dream — to see it turn out that way.
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“Million Dollar Arm” began principal photography in May 2013, with filming in Mumbai, India, Los Angeles and Atlanta. The first screenings were here at CinemaCon at Caesars Palace in March, with a world premiere May 6. As of mid-June, it has grossed $35 million.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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