Fans give tighter hug to kabaddi than hockey, football

Aug 17 2014, 01:46 IST
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SummaryProfessional league breathes life into centuries-old game, set to become second-most watched event after cricket

Jasmer Singh’s Facebook account has been buzzing with activity ever since he played the first match of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) in Mumbai on July 26. From an occasional ‘like’ or ‘comment’ from his close buddies, the 31-year-old captain of Dabang Delhi team now sees 50-60 ‘friend requests’ a day. Almost all of them are from strangers.

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“It’s good to see kabaddi is finally gaining traction. Earlier, even national players and awardees were unknown to the world. Now, thanks to the PKL, we’re close to getting the status that other popular sportsmen in the country enjoy,” says the all-rounder, who hails from Panipat in Haryana.

Having participated in the 2006 and 2010 Asian Games gold-winning side — but never catching the fancy of sports lovers and marketers — Singh should know. “Kabaddi has given us livelihood and, now, fame and money too,” he adds. Singh was bought for R11.2 lakh in May, while India team captain Rakesh Kumar went to the Patna Pirates franchise for R12.8 lakh, the highest buy this season. The amount is generous, if not humongous, compared to the R10,000 or so that a player makes post victory in a state-level tournament.

“Money is certainly important for us, but it’s the recognition that matters the most,” Singh says. His team-mate, ‘raider’ Surjeet Narwal, 24, adds: “It’s heartening when people tell us how proud they felt while watching us play on TV.”

Like Singh and Narwal, the league’s promoter and broadcast partner, Star Sports, is also grabbing eyeballs. From 22 million viewers on the first day of telecast, the channel recorded a whopping 220 million viewers after over a week, 2.5 times more than the 96 million viewers who watched the Fifa World Cup in the first eight days this year. The response on the digital front was also overwhelming initially; it sustained the trajectory too, with close to a billion impressions on Twitter and equally significant numbers on Facebook.

The numbers are a testament to kabaddi’s immense growth potential, says Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India. “Kabaddi is set to become India’s favourite second sport. This is an unprecedented number for a sport other than cricket in India. The game’s resurrection as a mainstream sport through the league saw it trounce viewership for football, hockey and others,” he adds.

For a nation that eats, drinks and sleeps cricket, this is refreshing news. “Thousands

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