The humble sport of kabaddi has not just got a glam makeover with a potent mix of celeb and media attention, but is also a mega success with 22 million viewers watching the opening night of the Pro Kabaddi League. The Wave World Kabaddi League is next, says Adit Ganguly as he looks at the kabaddi phenomenon
The Indian Premier League didn't quite hit it this time and the Indian Badminton League that made its debut last August didn't touch the heights either. Given all that, kabaddi, which joined the league bandwagon with the launch of the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League in July, was expected to be somewhere at the bottom. And if you are one of those who bought into that, it's time to eat humble pie, and that too with a cherry on top.
The numbers speak for themselves. Never before has any new league managed to create a buzz such as this. The first-of-its-kind league has since its inaugural become one of the most talked about events on social media. Opening night on July 26 saw 22 million viewers tuning in – 10 times higher than the number of people in India who watched the opening match between Brazil and Croatia 2014 FIFA World Cup which reached 2.1 million viewers (source: TAM CS4+ data). More people in this country saw a kabaddi game than the first match of a football World Cup. You can read that sentence again. Pinch yourself to believe it. Within the first 12 hours of the tournament, Twitter had received more than 140 million tweets and equally significant numbers in terms of Facebook activity.
Bollywood and cricket did their fair share to bring the glam quotient to the humble game as the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Sachin Tendulkar gathered under one roof, tweeting and clicking selfies during the games. With retail and fashion sector giant, Future Group (Big Bazaar chain) owning the Bengal Warriors and Abhishek Bachchan purchasing the Jaipur Pink Panthers, the sport couldn't have asked for a greater springboard and better mass appeal.
"To Charu (Sharma) and me, the popularity of kabaddi was never in question. However, we have been genuinely overwhelmed by the support the game has received from all quarters, be it the media, film fraternity, sportspersons or the government. The viewership data further reinforces that Pro Kabaddi could be India's sports revolution in the making," said Anand Mahindra, co-promoter, Mashal Sports.
UMumba coach Ravi Shetty agreed. "Why should we complain about the interest taken by the film fraternity towards any new league? You don't need to be a star to share a connect with a sport. The viewer may not know the names of the player, but he knows which star is rooting for his side. There is an instant connect. These people (personalities) are helping the game grow."
For players and coaches across the eight franchises, life has been no less than a fairytale in the past few weeks. "Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine kabaddi would make such an impact on the Indian audience. You feel so proud to have the Pro Kabaddi League name taken in the same breath like the IPL," said UMumba skipper Anup Kumar.
Puneri Paltan skipper Wazir Singh attempted to understand the phenomenal success of the league. "There are no retakes and second chances here. You can sit at the edge of your seats either in the stadium or at home. Kabaddi has given the Indian viewer an actual fight," he said.
Star India CEO Uday Shankar, the brain behind the success of the Pro Kabaddi League, has every reason to be on cloud nine but chooses to be circumspect and says the toughest part is yet to come. "We are very excited about kabaddi, but these are early days. We believe in building content on a long term basis and our positions and moods don't swing based on day one ratings! We strongly believe in the potential of kabaddi and that is the reason we are working so hard to build it. Kabaddi has every ingredient, including skill, strategy and speed, to emerge as a serious sport and win a fan following. The opening week response is especially encouraging given that it is a true-blue Indian sport."
Looking at the unprecedented success of the tournament, one may wonder why this didn't start at an earlier stage. Kabaddi was a sport that needed a revival like never before, but for the players and coaches, it's better late than never. "It was only last year that the whole idea of having a Kabaddi League was discussed amongst the fraternity. Of course we did take a cue from the football and cricket leagues but there were no words to express our delight when we realized what stood in front of us. We had the people who worked towards the common goal and what kabaddi has shown with the backing of corporate and celebrities is that even the richest of the rich share a passion for the sport we love. We go on talking about our roots. What we realized over the course of time is that we needed to do something for the sport so deeply attached to the soil," said UMumba coach Ravi Shetty.
The game has done its bit to revamp with the changing times. The village ground, where it has traditionally been played, is being replaced by a synthetic mat. "One needs to realise that the soil in Haryana will be different from the soil in say, Kerala or Maharashtra. Playing on a uniform surface is now being implemented worldwide and it gives both sides a level playing field," said Anup Kumar, UMumba captain.
There is another big change for the 'barefoot sport'. "You have shoes these days that help an athlete run and move faster. The surface is made in such a way that players get a grip on the surface. It's a surface that lessens injuries, so we see more intensity in training," said Puneri Paltan coach Ramphal Kaushik, adding that with schools across the country ditching the soil for the mat, the sport could see a spike in popularity.
Going by the initial stages of the first season of the Pro Kabaddi League, the sport has reached heights not many would have imagined. Organizers have got the springboard, the celebrities and the media attention. The focus now shifts on the road map ahead for the second season ensuring it breaks the records created this year. "We have worked for all our lives to promote kabaddi and it is heartening to see kabaddi receive overwhelming support from the masses. The first season of the league has seen public perception about the game change. It helps strengthen our ongoing drive to make kabaddi an Olympic sport. Sponsors and brands will ride on the back of this fantastic make-over of kabaddi and this will make kabaddi a lucrative career option for young sportspersons," says Mr Janardan Singh Gehlot, president, International Kabaddi Federation and Asian Kabaddi Federation. Talks of adding more teams to the already existing eight teams next season are in the initial stage.
If you thought this was the end, Kabaddi is here to stay for the long haul. Putting Kabaddi on the world map is the Wave World Kabaddi League, which kicked off on August 9 at London's O2 Arena. A total of 144 players from various countries are participating across 15 international venues. The moolah is higher than the Pro Kabaddi League (whose total prize money is Rs1 crore), with a total prize money of Rs3.5 crore (winners – Rs1.7 crore; runners-up – Rs80 lakh) With the league ending on November 30 in India, kabaddi fans sure have marked the dates in their calendar. This league too has its fair share of glamour in the form of Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha and Yo Yo Honey Singh co-owning the franchises.