Nine years back, at a Kolkata venue, Shah Rukh Khan stood on the stage and quipped, “You don’t win silver; you lose gold”.
Khan was accompanied by Sourav Ganguly and John Buchanan on that fateful May evening. Now, in 2017, Ganguly and Buchanan have no connection with KKR anymore. The only survivor from that trio is King Khan himself, SRK.
But there has been a perceptible difference. In the early seasons, Shah Rukh Khan was the name and face of brand KKR. He could be spotted in almost every match. He was there in all the hoardings. He was doing ads for the sponsors. Brand SRK was brand KKR.
In fact, it went further.
‘Brand KKR to the power of brand SRK’
“It’s brand KKR to the power of brand SRK,” laughed the noted advertising filmmaker, Prahlad Kakkar. It’s a fair point. When the Indian Premier League begun in 2008, Kolkata Knight Riders had Sourav Ganguly as their icon player, a massive draw not just in Kolkata, but across the country. The SRK-Dada combination sizzled in all departments except on the most important one, on the field. The first three years were unhappy times for KKR, plagued by poor results and a troubled team atmosphere.
Then, the Knight Riders made a risky move. They changed their team around and went for Gautam Gambhir, a player who had no perceptible connection with Kolkata till then, in the 2011 auction. The rest, as they say, is history.
It was a strategy laden with drawbacks, it could have easily backfired. It did not. Six years down the line, Kolkata Knight Riders have among the most passionate fanbases in the IPL. The team’s performance surely helped – the stragglers of the last three years picked themselves up in 2011 and went on an astounding run, winning two titles in 2012 and 2014. But, the professional manner in which SRK handled the team, in no mean way, has had a role to play.
“He provides absolute support,” said Kakkar. “He’s accessible to them 24/7, but he doesn’t interfere. If there’s any shortage, he backs them up. He’s just created a very strong brand.”
One distinctly identifiable proof of the special relation SRK shares with KKR is his public expressions of support for the team, even on days when things don’t go too well. Here’s what he wrote after the Kolkata Knight Riders crashed out of the IPL in 2016, following a defeat in the Eliminator to Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Here’s him again in 2015 after another loss.
It’s marketing genius, sure, but most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. It doesn’t feel like fluff. The sadness seems, nay feels, genuine.
Support, not pressure
The smart thing about these messages is the lack of frustration or negativity. He’s disappointed but positive. The clear message is that he’s backing his team. He’s telling them, “I’m firmly behind you”. The team is never under pressure. In a world of egoistic team owners across every sport, that cannot be underestimated.
In an interview with Cricbuzz recently, Venky Mysore, the CEO of KKR, provided some insights into how Khan manages the team: “It is amazing how he stays in touch with things, even some of the younger players that are coming through of whom most people would not have heard of, somehow he would be aware to an extent.”
Mysore also talked about “ring-fencing” brand KKR from brand SRK, basically explaining that much effort has been made to keep the two distinct entities in their own right. In recent years, that “ring-fencing” he mentioned has been distinctly visible.
It’s become more and more obvious over the last few editions that Mysore is the head of the franchise and takes part of all the operational nittygritties. SRK, on his part, has played the role of the encouraging, cheerleader owner from the sidelines, shouting words of support from the sidelines, backing up the team when required and celebrating like crazy when they win.
This lack of interference stands out compared to some of the other owners. At the 2016 Indian Premier League opening ceremony, the anchor gently ribbed Preity Zinta, co-owner of the Kings XI Punjab about the fact that her team had never won the IPL.
In jest, she replied that she hoped that David Miller, the newly appointed Punjab captain, wouldn’t disappoint her this season. The camera quickly panned to Miller in the audience. It was a comment made in jest, but even in that split second, Miller’s expression showed the pressure a statement like that, even if made in humour, could have.
From what we’ve seen of him in the last ten years, SRK has never come across as an interfering owner. But, what he has cleverly ensured is that his looming shadow always falls over the team. That has one significant benefit: whatever be KKR’s performances in a season, they never lose their status as one of the most high-profile teams in the IPL. Even more significantly, the Knight Riders have been the only IPL franchise to consistently post profits, recording a 54% jump in the financial year 2014-’15.
“Kolkata always need something to be fanatical about,” said Kakkar. “It was East Bengal-Mohun Bagan earlier, but SRK made them feel that they had their own cricket team.”
A marketing genius
He added, “He has no training in marketing but he’s intuitive and that makes him a genius. From the beginning, he’s followed his intuition, look at the number of negative roles he did at the start of his career. And he’s successfully pulled off the same with KKR.”
Yes, the past ten years has seen the Badshah of Bollywood successfully conquer new territory. It’s been a good ride – except for one major tumble that happened on May 16, 2012.
SRK got into a heated altercation with security guards at the Wankhede Stadium after KKR had wrapped up a rare win against Mumbai Indians. By all accounts, it was an ugly, avoidable incident. The photo of an enraged SRK pointing his finger at a security official was everywhere you looked the next day. The superstar was banned from entering the Wankhede for five years. The ban was only lifted in 2015.
It was a rare blemish in SRK’s carefully coordinated image. Allegations and counter-allegations ran rampant. You just did not expect such a high-profile owner to behave in this matter.
The Badshah of KKR
Yet, five years later, was it really a blemish in a spotless record? Kakkar thinks otherwise:
“It [that incident] was a turning point,” said the distinguished adman. “I think that’s what got the entire Kolkata crowd behind SRK. They saw that SRK, a Mumbaikar, was treated like that at Wankhede. For them, one of their own had been thrown out. And they embraced that Mumbaikar as one of ours. They took sides and accepted him and KKR as a team of their own.”
It was in that season that KKR won their first title and started off on that hugely successful run. But there was another change. SRK, the owner, became more restrained. He doesn’t show up for as many matches anymore. To some extent, that incident led to a happy little space being created between SRK and KKR.
But, he’s never gone. If KKR need him, SRK shows up. And therein lies the secret of how from being the Badshah of Bollywood, he is now not just the Badshah of KKR, but also, of the IPL.