However, analysts caution viewership numbers might fall, as sustaining interest will be difficult.
If you thought kabaddi didn't have much of a fan following, think again. Telecast of the first day of the Mashal Sports-promoted Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) attracted as many as 22 million viewers, 10 times the number of viewers who tuned in to the first match of the recently concluded FIFA World Cup.
These numbers represent viewers who watched the match at any given point, for at least a minute.
The kabaddi league's reach, though encouraging, pales in comparison to that of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the cash-rich annual cricket tournament. The first match of IPLthis year had recorded viewership of about 55 million.
The jazzed-up PKL is being broadcast on Star Sports 1 and Star Gold, the group's Hindi film channel. The first match of the league, launched on July 26, was played between Ronnie Screwvala's U Mumbai and Abhishek Bachchan's Jaipur Pink Panthers at NSCI here.
Uday Shankar, chief executive of STAR India, says, "We are very excited about kabaddi, but these are early days. At STAR, we believe in building content on a long-term basis; 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."
Many analysts say the good viewership for the first PKL match was aided by the presence of a slew of celebrities, including Bollywood stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Boman Irani and Suniel Shetty. They add viewership numbers might fall, as sustaining interest in the game will be difficult.
Charu Sharma, who conceptualised the league, says, "We always believed in the sport. It was a great effort on the part of STAR India to package and position the league so well. Their strategy of having a Hindi feed on Star Gold also helped attract eyeballs. It goes to show how important it is to present a sport in a way that is inclusive of the viewer."
That strategy worked well. Star Gold is one of the two top Hindi film channels in India, with a large number of male viewers. Also, the fact that the league was timed in tune with the prime time slot (after 7.30 pm) contributed to the good viewership numbers.
In the run-up to the league, Shankar had emphasised the importance of building generating interest in the sport and adapting it for television. He had also said the league might not be monetised for a couple of years. Charu Sharma says the encouraging viewership numbers will help rope in commercial partners from the next season.
STAR says PKL has also generated a lot of online buzz. Twelve hours into the league, PKL and related issues received about 140 million impressions on Twitter and saw substantial Facebook activity, too. While various celebrities tweeted their in-stadia experiences, some posted 'signature selfies' at the venue.
PKL has a total of eight teams, with various Bollywood and corporate bigwigs investing in franchises. Apart from Bachchan and Screwvala, franchise owners include Kotak Mahindra Bank managing director Uday Kotak (Pune franchise), Future Group chief Kishore Biyani (Kolkata) and Radha Kapoor, daughter of YES Bank chief executive Rana Kapoor (Delhi).