The Million Dollar Man: Behind the big-thinking genius of J.B. Bernstein ’90
April 14, 2017
Video Profile: JB Bernstein,'90
Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel had never held a baseball before J.B. Bernstein gave them a shot at throwing one for a living in the big leagues.
Growing up in India, the two had played cricket and were accomplished javelin competitors, but after winning the top two slots in a pitching contest that Bernstein brought to their country in 2008, they were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and became the first Indians contracted to play professional sports in the United States.
If all this sounds familiar, it may be because the story of Bernstein and his “Million Dollar Arm” reality TV show became the Disney movie “Million Dollar Arm” in 2014. Jon Hamm plays the sports agent and entrepreneur, who in real life earned his bachelor's degree in political economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1990. As in the movie, Bernstein’s cross-cultural experience turned his career around, led to his marriage, and gave him a new perspective on the things that matter. Today, he continues to advocate for the power of this kind of breakthrough insight—in work and in life.
“When I first proposed the Million Dollar Arm contest, everyone said no, that it was the worst idea ever,” the 49-year-old Las Vegas resident told UMass students at a guest lecture last October. “When people tell you your idea is bad, you’re probably really on to something. What they’re really saying is: that seems like a lot of work.” "When people tell you your idea is bad, you’re probably really on to something."
The thought of working hard certainly doesn’t keep Bernstein up at night. Because, odds are, he’s not sleeping anyway. One of a small percentage of the population known as “short sleepers,” he thrives on just two or three hours of shut-eye. Those with the condition generally have high energy and high achievement, and Bernstein is no exception.
“I’m just like you—no silver spoon, no old boy network,” he told students during a recent visit to Isenberg. “Isenberg and UMass force you to get out of your comfort zone. It’s what differentiated me. I always outworked everyone. I was always willing to make that sacrifice to be successful.”
Indeed, as an undergraduate at UMass, Bernstein got a jump on his business career by taking Professor Jim Theroux’s class in entrepreneurship at Isenberg. He went on to earn an MBA from The London School of Economics, and then began his sports marketing career at The Upper Deck Company, where he developed the Wayne Gretzky 802nd goal campaign. He served as head of licensing for Major League Soccer, creating the league’s merchandising program. As the co-founder and president of the Las Vegas-based Access Group of Miami, he promoted the athletic milestones of baseball’s Barry Bonds, and running backs Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. If all this were not enough, he also continued his education, pursuing a personal interest and earning a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Southern California. In 2014, UMass honored him as a Bateman scholar.
“We’re thrilled to have J.B.’s involvement in some of our initiatives at Isenberg and in the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship,” noted Dean Mark A. Fuller. “He is an example of the kind of big thinker and doer that Isenberg loves to engage on behalf of our students. Having an alumnus with his experience and expertise giving their time to the school and our students is invaluable.”
And Bernstein just continues to think big. His memoir Million Dollar Arm: Sometimes to Win, You Have to Change the Game was published in 2014, and a business book, Hey, Where’s My Big Idea, is in the works. In 2015, he returned to sports reality contests with a twist on the Million Dollar Arm called Million Dollar Bat. The goal this time: find a North American baseball player who could make it as a cricket batsman in India’s Premier League. And this January, he returned to India to launch yet another spin-off, Million Dollar Kick, a contest to find an Indian athlete with the skills to make it as a field goal kicker in the National Football League.
“It’s very similar to ‘The Million Dollar Arm,’” he told Robin Leach of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Same concept, same execution, but instead of radar guns and baseballs, we have footballs and goalposts.”
Back in the United States, Bernstein has joined forces with Mandt Brothers, the Hollywood producers who made the Million Dollar Arm film, to tap the power of virtual reality as a marketing tool. Among the group’s ideas: developing virtual reality tours of colleges that the schools can use as a recruiting tool for prospective student athletes.
But it was the Million Dollar Arm contest that proved pivotal in his career. Bernstein developed the reality show with partners Will Chang, a real estate developer, and venture capitalist Ash Vasudevan. The rules were simple: Contestants got 20 pitches, and whoever threw the most strikes over 85 mph would win $100,000 plus a Major League Baseball tryout. Throw three consecutive strikes over 90 mph, you win the $1 million. The success of the first contest led the producers to return for a second season, and a third, with the number of applicants increasing dramatically each year. The contest became an official program of Major League Baseball in 2011.
And that’s just how Bernstein imagined it, having seen a similar dynamic when Yao Ming introduced basketball to the vast population of China. Bernstein looked at India and saw the marketing opportunity of a billion new potential customers for baseball. What was needed was a compelling idea to capture the country’s imagination. The Million Dollar Arm contest, with its feel-good message about realizing your potential, did just that, he says.
“Million Dollar Arm, sure, uses India and baseball as kind of a fabric to tell a story,” he explains. “But the story is not about India and it’s not even really about baseball. It’s about the American dream.”