Sports marketing pioneer J.B. Bernstein visits UMass

By Josh Darling

JB Bernstein came to speak on campus on Tuesday, Mar. 4. (Conor Snell/Daily Collegian)
JB Bernstein came to speak on campus on Tuesday, Mar. 4. (Conor Snell/Daily Collegian)

Sports marketing pioneer J.B. Bernstein gave a firsthand account of his experience as one of the creators of the reality contest “The Million Dollar Arm,” which searched India for prospective professional baseball talent, on Tuesday evening at the University of Massachusetts’ Student Union.

Bernstein, a 1990 graduate of UMass, spoke to the audience about his innovative TV show, which gathered 38,000 contestants from across India. The winning pitcher was promised a $1,000,000 grand prize, along with professional training and a shot at playing in the major leagues. Bernstein’s story and the story of the winning contestants, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, were documented in the soon-to-be-released Disney film, “The Million Dollar Arm.” Bernstein will be played by “Mad Men” star John Hamm.

The first season’s “Million Dollar Arm” winner, Singh, is now a promising young pitcher in the Pittsburgh farm system. Already the first Indian athlete to be signed to a U.S. professional sports contract (at the minor league level), he stands to become the first Indian player in major professional American sports.

Bernstein and his cohorts’ tale is one filled with setbacks and strife, each of which he battled with perseverance.

“When I first came to people with this idea, they thought I was nuts. The head of MLB International actually told me that it was the worst idea he had ever heard,” Bernstein recalled. “I’ve learned that if you have an idea that is truly innovative, people are going to be wary of it. Their ‘no’s’ aren’t because it’s a bad idea. It’s because their vision hasn’t caught up with yours.”

Bernstein’s struggles began with his first dealings with Zee TV, the channel that aired his program.

“Doing business in India is … definitely something you have to get used to,” Bernstein said. “I detailed every aspect of my plan for (“The Million Dollar Arm”), went through various business models, and when I finished, the executive just said, ‘I like it. It shall be done.’ When I asked where the contracts I should sign were, he said, ‘Contracts? Don’t you trust me?’”

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian
Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Similar cultural differences proved to be obstacles when shooting. Bernstein described the Indian business climate as a “crazy dance of bureaucracy and red tape, but at the end of the day, everyone just wants a buck.” Bernstein specifically recalled an instance in which technical oversights, corrupt politicians and the lack of local knowledge on fuses led to Bernstein shelling out $12,000 to fix a broken radar gun.

Bernstein noted the startling contrast of extreme wealth bordering extreme poverty, a phenomena that can be easily observed in most metropolitan areas of India.

“People of all creeds are truly happy with their lives in India,” Bernstein said. “Rich people don’t look down on poor, and poor people aren’t jealous of rich. There is a harmony there that could never exist in the United States.”

Bernstein recalled an Indian man asking him what he believed to be the purpose of life. Too stunned to respond, Bernstein turned the question on its asker. According to Bernstein, the man said, “We’re all just a link in the chain. We maintain what comes before, improve it a little and pass it on.”

Bernstein took the lessons he learned in India to heart, and took a special interest in ensuring the success of Singh and the runner-up, Patel. A third winner was named, but could not continue to the U.S.

Bernstein entertained the audience with lighthearted stories about the culture shock experienced by the contestants – Indian farm boys one day, playing baseball in major U.S. cities the next. He described the pair as “the sons he never had” and maintains weekly contact with each of them.

In addition to his success with the “Million Dollar Arm,” Bernstein is an accomplished individual. After graduating from UMass with a degree in political economics, he went on to get his MBA from the London School of Economics. Upon graduation, Bernstein got a job in brand management at Procter & Gamble. Since then, he has worked for Upper Deck Memorabilia, and is the agent of sports legends such as Barry Sanders, Barry Bonds and Emmitt Smith. He also currently has three books awaiting publication.

Josh Darling can be reached at [email protected].