Professional 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.
“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 of people throng a kabaddi tournament in and around Delhi. So there was no hesitation in investing in the brand,” says Radha Kapoor, owner of the Delhi franchise.
There’s a huge wave of positive sentiment, says sports commentator Charu Sharma, MD of Mashal Sports — the force behind the event. “I’m not surprised at the popularity of Pro Kabaddi League. There’s an entire universe out there, consisting of enthusiasts, sporting fraternities and families, supporting the revolution,” he says, adding: “Everyone will benefit eventually, but it’s the players who will benefit directly. It’s not saying playing for the national team, as in the Asian Games, doesn’t matter, but an event like ours has its incentives in terms of employment, etc.”
Anand Mahindra, chairman and MD of Mahindra Group, and co-promoter of Mashal Sports, adds: “A professional sports league can bring about a transformational change for the sport and its players. Pro Kabaddi is our attempt at bringing this change to our own, popular sport of kabaddi. We continue to be overwhelmed by the support we have received so far from all our partners in wanting to make this league successful.”
But did somebody say revenues? Well, it's still early days for a sport, which has just been brought into the 'mainstream' audience. Star Sports, for instance, is treating PKL as a start-up for now. “Though the rights acquisition fee for PKL was much lower than cricket, the production cost would be on a par or even more. However, we also accept that initially the returns from PKL would not be much,” adds Shankar.
Dabang Delhi is also not looking at a break-even, definitely not in the short run, says Kapoor, daughter of Yes Bank founder Rana Kapoor. “Our intent is to meet the expectations of investments made in the talent pool. The returns will be measured in the success in the results. In the first year, our focus is to achieve a 100% on the checklist of running a sport franchise. We aim to build the necessary support to the sport and athletes, everything else will follow,” she adds.