The Pro Kabaddi League is being played for the second time this year, with a first-of-its-kind women’s league running concurrently—novel feats for any sporting league in the country. But how did a previously unglamorous sport like kabaddi become so big? We find out
WHEN THE Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) began on June 25 this year, it ushered in a new era for sports league formats in the country. Not only is the PKL the country’s first sports league to be played twice in a year, it is also the first to have a special women’s league running concurrently. Sure, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has also announced a second edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) to be held this year in the US in September, but that will be a ‘mini’ version to be played over a duration of just two weeks. The second outing of the PKL this year, on the other hand, is a full-fledged tournament, lasting its original duration of five weeks, and will conclude on July 31.
But how did a previously unglamorous sport like kabaddi become so big? These numbers may provide a clue: the league’s first season in 2014 was watched by around 435 million viewers in India, as per a 2015 Ficci-KPMG report. The third season, which started on January 30 this year, recorded a huge surge in viewership as well. The opening-week viewership, in fact, was 36% higher than that of the second season’s in 2015, as per recent Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) rural viewership households measurement data. Not just that, viewership at the urban level for season three increased by 36% from season two—from 54.5 TVMs (television viewership in millions) in season two to 74 TVMs in season three—as per the BARC data. Moreover, the spending cap for each franchise for season four auctions, held in May, was a mammoth R2 crore compared to R60 lakh in season one. The highest amount paid for a player in the auctions was R53 lakh for defender Mohit Chhillar by Bengaluru Bulls, as opposed to R12.8 lakh paid for Rakesh Kumar by Patna Pirates in season one. Overall, the franchises shelled out R12.82 crore for 96 players in season four, as opposed to R4.7 crore in season one. Clearly, professional kabaddi is taking giant strides in the country.
Talking about the decision to hold two PKL seasons in one calendar year, Charu Sharma, managing director, Mashal Sports, an inclusive sports management company, and a promoter of the league, says the idea was to make sure the sport is showcased at regular intervals in a year. “Till last year, the PKL was being played for just five-six weeks annually. It was a very tight duration. A year has 52 weeks, so if we are trying to propagate a league and push it forward, we can’t disappear from the scene for 45 weeks,” says Sharma.
Kabaddi, a contact sport that originated in ancient India, is the state game of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Punjab. An extremely popular sport in most parts of the country, it was, however, languishing in obscurity, overshadowed by more ‘glamorous’ sports like cricket, football, tennis, etc, till very recently. But the scene changed in 2014 with the advent of Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League, which is backed by the International Kabaddi Federation, Asian Kabaddi Federation and the AKFI. Suddenly, kabaddi became ‘cool’. With big names like businessman Ronnie Screwvala, actor Abhishek Bachchan, business conglomerate Future Group, etc, backing the teams, the PKL brought the sport from the mud to the mat, so to speak, breathing new life into it and endearing numerous fans to the high-octane action. Over the years, the PKL, promoted by media and entertainment company Star India, besides Mashal Sports, has shown great growth both in terms of popularity and reach. In fact, it is the only domestic Indian sports league to witness continued rise in viewership through the first three seasons. “Over the past two years, the league has grown to be a phenomenal success. With the aspirational narrative that the game has acquired, each season has grown in-stadia, as well as on television, with both rural and urban audiences,” says league commissioner Anupam Goswami.
Even though the number of teams remain eight for now—Dabang Delhi (New Delhi), U Mumba (Mumbai), Telugu Titans (Hyderabad), Patna Pirates (Patna), Puneri Paltan (Pune), Bengaluru Bulls (Bengaluru), Jaipur Pink Panthers (Jaipur) and Bengal Warriors (Kolkata)—there are plans to have more teams in the future. “The intention is to get bigger and better. We have plans to introduce more teams soon. In fact, we have a reasonably long queue of potential new franchise owners who are interested. Our only constraint, though, is a quality stadium in the franchise area,” says Sharma.
As far as sponsors are concerned, title sponsorship remains with broadcaster Star Sports. However, many big brands have joined the fray for season four as league sponsors. Chief among them are Airtel, Vini Cosmetics, Nestlé Munch, Bisleri, Castrol and Britannia. The others are Bajaj Electricals, Indo Nissin Foods, Fair & Lovely (Men), State Bank of India and Gionee Mobiles.
The franchises have found support in individual sponsors as well. TVS Tyres, one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of two- and three-wheeler tyres in India, became the associate sponsor for Puneri Paltan for season four.
The team, which finished third last season, also roped in automotive manufacturer Force Motors as its principal sponsor for season four. “We are happy to continue our partnership with the PKL and support a traditional sport.
This association is an exciting platform to reach out to our customers,” says P Vijayaraghavan, director, TVS Srichakra, the brand under which TVS Tyres markets its products. Apart from that, German sports and lifestyle brand Adidas is associated with the Mumbai-based U Mumba as its official performance partner and recently launched a new jersey for the team for season four.
“Season one was tough in terms of sponsorship. But by the second season, people had seen the ratings and the reach of the sport. From then on, sponsors like Adidas started lining up,” says Supratik Sen, CEO, U Sports, the sports business company that owns U Mumba. The team also has sponsors and partners like Tata Motors, Marriott Hotels, among others. For season four, the PKL has also signed actors Rana Daggubati, Puneeth Rajkumar and Diljit Dosanjh as brand ambassadors.
Not only has the league given new life to the sport, the accompanying fame, money and adulation have also brought about monumental change to the lives of its players, most of whom come from humble backgrounds and small towns and villages. For every Virat Kohli or Sunil Chhetri, there is now a Anup Kumar or Mohit Chhillar. Used to hard work with no rewards previously, players are now seeing a different side to the sport. “I never realised kabaddi could be this big. Earlier, we used to play throughout the year, but there were no rewards. Ever since Pro Kabaddi started, players are getting a lot of financial support. We are actually being paid for our performance. Most players don’t come from strong financial backgrounds and have never seen such huge amounts of money,” says 24-year-old Rishank Devadiga, who has been with U Mumba since season one.
U Mumba captain and one of the most popular players Anup Kumar says there is a massive improvement in the facilities provided to players as well. “When national camps are conducted, we get decent food and hostels to stay in. But for the PKL, we travel by air and stay in five-star hotels. The amenities provided are much better,” says 32-year-old Kumar, who has been playing the sport for close to a decade now. He was also part of India’s kabaddi team that won the gold at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former kabaddi player, who was part of India’s kabaddi team that won the gold at the 1990 Asian Games (the sport’s first appearance there), says, “In our time, players would secure a job and that salary would be their only source of livelihood. There was no money involved in playing kabaddi. I only remember once getting a prize money of R1,000 for my performance in an all-India tournament. Now, thanks to the PKL, the scene is different. There’s a good amount of money. We used to travel in trains without reservation. Players now travel by air and stay in good hotels,” he says. The money involved now, the player says, will undoubtedly benefit players, most of whom come from middle-class families. “They value money, know how to handle fame and are putting in more effort to remain in the fray and perform,” he says.
He couldn’t be more right, as players are raking in the moolah at PKL auctions. Defender Mohit Chhillar, for instance, became the highest-paid performer in this season’s auctions, when he was bagged by Bengaluru Bulls for R53 lakh. This nearly ten-fold jump in his salary—from R5.75 lakh in season one to R53 lakh now—has also made the 23-year-old the highest-ever paid player in Pro Kabaddi history. Chhillar, who hails from Nizampur village near New Delhi, is a clerk with the north-western railways.
There are many other players who have seen a dramatic rise in their values. Take, for instance, 42-year-old defender Dharmaraj Cheralathan, who was bought by reigning champions Patna Pirates for R29 lakh for season four. His season one value was R9 lakh. Then there is Jeeva Kumar, who was retained by U Mumba for R40 lakh for season four. His season one value was R9.20 lakh. Foreign players, too, commanded big figures in season four. Fazel Atrachali of Iran was bought by Patna Pirates for R38 lakh—the highest-valued overseas player—and South Korean raider Jang Kun Lee was retained by Bengal Warriors for R22 lakh. “We have got applications from players from Kenya, Iran, Pakistan, Germany and the US as well, asking to play for U Mumba,” says Sen of U Sports.
The game is on.