Rahul Chaudhari, captain of Telugu Titans, was invited by a local sports club in Vijayanagar, Andhra Pradesh, to be the chief guest at a kabaddi match last month. But the game was delayed because Chaudhari was mobbed by so many fans that the police had to escort him to Vishakhapatnam, some distance from the village.
Chaudhari's early struggle as a pro kabaddi player finally seemed to be paying off. Kabaddi, a traditional Indian game that wasn't even spoken about a few years ago, has delivered a googly and become the second most watched sport on television in India after cricket.
“This year, we'll have 80 days of kabaddi, up from 40 days last year.There are around 120 days of cricket on TV in a year,“ says Nitin Kukreja, head, Star Sports. “Besides the ongoing tournament, we will organise another league in June, followed by a kabaddi World Cup.“
Star Sports is the official broadcaster of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), a professional kabaddi league modelled on the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket tournament. PKL was started in 2014 by Mashal Sports, a company co-founded by Mahindra Group chairman, Anand Mahindra and Charu Sharma. Later, Star Sports bought 74% stake in the company.
“The sports landscape in India is undergoing rapid changes. We had predicted that 2016 will see the rise of bi-annual leagues as a sportainment trend,“ says Vinit Karnik, business head, ESP Properties.“This upsurge in PKL as compared to its previous season is testament to that. This year seems to offer exciting prospects to both the sports industry and advertisers in the number of viewers they will be able to attract and retain.“
PKL comprises eight teams including U Mumba, Telugu Titans, Bengaluru Bulls and Jaipur Pink Panthers, and is the main factor behind kabaddi's phoenix act. The first week of the ongoing PKL tournament has shown a 36% growth in TV viewership and 33% growth in digital consumption over last year, revealed recent Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) data.
“PKL is only three seasons old.But if you compare it with the recently concluded T20 tournament between Australia and India, PKL would have one-third of its viewership while other sports, including soccer, would have less than onefifth,“ says a senior executive at a media buying firm.
Brands too have taken notice of kabaddi's growing popularity in urban and rural India. “This season, w e h ave 4 7 brands,“ says Kukreja. From Adidas, PepsiCo, Uber and Volvo, to Patanjali, Big Bazaar and Hindus t a n P o w e r, they're all here.
“Since this is our first experi ence with kabaddi, and our association with U Mumba happened too close to the start of the season, we shall test the waters by introducing the U Mumba jersey in select Adidas stores towards the end of the month,“ says Damyant Singh, senior marketing director, Adidas India. “We will, however, look to do more with U Mumba after the current season.“
Those familiar with PKL and sponsorships say old sponsors have come back for the new season at a higher price. “Existing sponsors are paying 30% more than last season. Most of them are looking for a long-term contract of three years for a 25% hike in sponsorship fees,“ says Srinivas Sreeramaneni, co-owner of Telugu Titans. “The cost of a team sponsorship is around Rs 4 crore without any tangibles.“
Both Kukreja and Sreeramaneni say youngsters have played a significant role in PKL's success. “If you look at some of the consumer brands and educational institutes that have come on board as sponsors, the involvement of young people becomes very clear,“ says Sreeramaneni.
BARC data shows that the number of urban affluent male kids watching the kabaddi league on TV is one-and-half times more engaged than their parents.