This story is part of our June 2020 cover story, a series of articles profiling internationals who have made – or are making – an impact in China. To read more fascinating profiles from this series, click here.
When it comes to organizing major international sporting events in China, Michael Luevano is the man. Tournament director of the Rolex Shanghai Masters, he also oversees the F1 Chinese Grand Prix, equestrian Global Champions Tour and annual AFL game. Oh, and he’s put on Shanghai shows for Elton John, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones for good measure.
A South California native, Luevano started out as a tennis pro, playing in “tournaments that were so poorly run that I was confident I could do better organizing the events myself.” In 1987, he met his business partner of over three decades, Charles Smith, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Luevano’s day job was as a teaching pro for Peter Burwash International.
“Ironically, there were two Peter Burwash pros working in Hong Kong that had also started a sports marketing and event management company like Charles and I had in Puerto Rico. Those two guys owned the ATP Tour event in Oahu, Hawaii and contacted us to see if we had interest in operating the event,” says Luevano. “Hawaii definitely intrigued us, so we packed our bags and moved there to run the one and only Hawaii Open in 1994.”
The tournament was “a complete financial disaster,” but that didn’t prevent an offer for their next opportunity, and Luevano found himself on a plane to the Far East and the next chapter of his life. He became tournament director of the Salem Open in Hong Kong for the next four years, one of 30 events Luevano did each year for a wide variety of sports, from table tennis to badminton, volleyball to tennis.
It was while running the Salem Open that Luevano had a brush – or flush – with royalty, when Princess Diana was in attendance. “We were on the receiving line waiting for the Princess’ arrival when I got a call on my walkie-talkie telling me she needed to use the lavatory. The day before I had actually had a private conversation with the head of her security detail and he inquired if by chance the Princess wanted to use a lavatory, which would be the best one?
“Well, there’s only one and it’s the nicest – in the player’s lounge. I rushed into immediate action and went to kick Michael Chang and Jonas Bjorkman out about ten minutes before they’re going on court for the final so the Princess could use the facilities privately.
“When we got to the player lounge, she turned to me and said: ‘I won’t be but just a second.’ I thought it was going to be 20 minutes, but I swear to you 30 seconds later I hear the toilet flush. She came out and said: ‘How was that for quick?’ in her beautiful British accent. To this day I ask myself how many other people can claim the distinction of leading Princess Di to a lavatory?”
Luevano greets Princess Diana
Luevano’s first trip to Shanghai came in 1995. “At the time there were no Western sports marketing companies based on the Chinese mainland. Most were in Hong Kong; you flew into the mainland, worked the event and then flew out. That experience helped me understand how to navigate the mainland, and by the time I finished my contract with the Hong Kong entity, I was ready to move to Shanghai,” Luevano tells us.
Once again, it would be the sport of tennis that would be his in. “Tennis was a very niche sport with very limited access, but it was the perfect sport for China in that government leadership loved to play and follow tennis. They couldn’t play table tennis or badminton because it would be considered too pedestrian, and they definitely couldn’t play golf because that was too elitist.”
What was to become the Heineken Open in Shanghai developed out of an ATP franchise owned by ESPN-Star Sports, who were looking to sell as they were just in it for content and losing a fortune.
“When the Shanghai government got wind of it they gathered together some state-owned companies and said: ‘Who would like the honor of staging this amazing event?’ Of course, here in China, everyone raises their hand and says: ‘Pick Me.’” explains Luevano.
“It ended up the Ba-Shi Group – the bus company – got the contract. Of course, they knew nothing about putting on a sports event, so they invited a number of sports marketing companies to bid for the project. Charles and I scored the contract simply because we were ready to move to Shanghai within a week and be full-time.”
In that first year, 1998, they brought in a big name that made a difference. “One of the shrewdest strategic decisions we made at the outset was to do a three-year deal with Michael Chang,” Luevano recounts. “He was unique in that he was of Chinese heritage and a bona fide superstar as the No. 2 player in the world. It certainly worked to our advantage that he ended up winning that first Heineken Open.”
Luevano and Novak Djokovic
Luevano and Roger Federer
The growth and success of the Heineken Open – now the Rolex Shanghai Masters – led them to another major prize in the sporting world. “We became involved in F1 in 2006, and the race has steadily flourished. For the last four years, the race, which is now staged in one of the venues we own, has sold out, and is considered a premier race on the international F1 calendar.”
As vice president and executive director for the international division at Shanghai Juss Event Management, Co., Inc., Luevano added equestrian and Aussie Rules events to the company portfolio, while they now own the Shanghai Sharks basketball franchise. And then there’s rock ‘n’ roll.
“When I’m not wearing my sports marketing suit and tie, I’m also a musician. I’ve played the drums since I was an early teen and have been in multiple bands, so I’ve always driven the music side of our business,” says Luevano. “Working with major acts like the Rolling Stones and Sir Elton John were probably the most stressful times in our entire careers. They checked all our boxes, especially the Rolling Stones. They were an iconic, best-in-class group.
“It helped that the Stones and Elton John were very intrigued to help open the China market to Western acts. There were certain components to organizing music that was different for us, such as we had to get approval from the Chinese Censorship and Cultural Bureau. That was challenging for the artists as well, and the Stones had to agree not to perform four of their songs.
There was also a potentially tricky situation at a press conference for Elton John. “We had Budweiser as the title sponsor, and if you know anything about Elton John, you know he’s been clean-and-sober for close to 25 years now. Well, a local journalist asked him about being a recovering alcoholic and having his show sponsored by a beer company.
“I was freaking out when I heard the question because there was such potential for disaster. But Elton was great and handled the question so professionally, saying, ‘My dear, I don’t choose to drink but certainly you can.’ He then punctuated his comment by raising the beer can and added: ‘Let’s all have a Bud.’”
Luevano also fronts his own band, Studio 188. “It started out as a garage band in 2004 and – if I’m going to be completely honest – was initiated as a beer drinking exercise,” he admits. “At the outset the band consisted of expats but the problem was that many of the members were assigned to Shanghai for a limited period of time.
“I, however, wasn’t going anywhere because Shanghai was my home. So in 2007 I decided it was time to hire professional musicians. Through the years we’ve evolved into what is now a 10-piece cover band that knows how to rock a party, and play anywhere from 40 to 70 shows a year, touring around Asia and even as far away as the U.S.
“The band is a big part of my life and I have a stage name ‘El Ray.’ In Spanish that means ‘The King,’ but that’s not why I chose it; El Ray was a character in a horror movie I saw and liked and, after all, I need to protect my identity as a sports marketing executive.
Luevano as El Ray
Luevano receives the prestigious Golden Magnolia Award
Luevano service to the city of Shanghai earned the Silver Magnolia Award, given out to foreigners who’ve made an impact on the city, in 2005, and then Shanghai’s highest honor, the Golden Magnolia Award, in 2015. “Charles has also received the same two awards in different years. What the award really did for us was solidify that Shanghai is our home and we’re truly, truly proud to be honored by our city.”
As for business tips, Luevano breaks down his golden rules. “Three keys to success in China come to my mind: I think you always have to have a long-term vision; you have to understand the culture; and you have to be patient. Short-term thinkers, who believe they can come to China, to a place like Shanghai, and make a quick buck, will be the ones who almost always fail. You need to develop relationships and show a great deal of integrity.”
Now in the first year of another 10-year contract with Juss, Luevano will be making big things happen in Shanghai through much of his 60s. “I believe the future holds great things. I do have another dream that I’ll tell you about. I’d love to do an air show in Shanghai.”
With Michael Luevano, the sky’s the limit.
To read more fascinating profiles from this series, click here.
[Images provided by Michael Luevano]