With the next season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) on the horizon, the anticipation continues to grow as the league gears up for its 10th edition.
Managed by Mashal Sports, the entity behind PKL’s organisation, this edition is set to reintroduce the league’s original multi-city caravan-style format, aiming to recapture the enthusiasm surrounding the second-most watched sporting league in India.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportstar, Charu Sharma, the league’s founder and member of the technical committee, shed light on the overarching vision, and structural nuances along with format and dates for the upcoming PKL season.
Q. Is the upcoming season of PKL running late this time due to the Asian Games? And what considerations led to the decision to postpone the league to a specific time after the Asiads?
A. The normal PKL schedule is disrupted every four years due to the Asian Games, and all nations, including India, wish to have their players in a camp playing together and performing as a national team. As a result, we have no choice but to move our league to a time that the network can happily absorb after the Games, which I believe is early December, but more on that later.
We are forced to postpone our date, which I believe is for the better because we do not want a bifurcated league in which we have part of the league before the Asian Games, and everyone leaves much earlier. So we’ll have a minimum of 45 days of disruption, so it makes sense to skip the interval and do it all at once.
Q. Given the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to constrained locations for the tournament, what is the outlook and timeline for reinstating the PKL back to its caravan-style format?
A. We certainly want to return to the 12-team caravan-style tournament as soon as possible, which requires massive event management and movement, making it a major logistical exercise. But because of COVID, we were limited to doing it in one location. But we are now more confident than ever that we can take it to at least all geographical areas of the country if not all franchise locations, because we still need to gather steam and strength after the COVID to be able to do the full 12-stadium caravan style tournament.
Q. What is the reason behind PKL’s decision to not adopt a home-and-away format, despite it being prevalent in other sports like cricket and football?
A. We’ve never had home and away because of two major issues. It’s an enormous expense to keep running around the country for one match back and forth. I don’t think the commercial circle is that strong yet, and we certainly don’t want people spending far more than they should just because of the tournament format.
The other important aspect is that, unlike cricket or football, we are an indoor sport that requires us to hire the best indoor stadiums around the country where the teams are based, and those stadiums are not owned by us. So we cannot keep an indoor stadium blocked for three months and are limited to going to one stadium at a time, doing the matches, dressing it all up, and then leaving because these stadiums belong to the government. So these are constraints that we have to live with. We cannot, therefore, for practical and commercial reasons, have a home-and-away format.
Q. With numerous reports circulating about the launch of the Women’s Pro Kabaddi League, what lies ahead for the future of the tournament?
A. I quickly realised that in India, there is so much money going to one sport that shall not be named, and so little money for everything else, that we didn’t want to do a sub-optimal job. We don’t want to force-feed when the commercial circles aren’t optimal, just because I said so. Yes, I agree that we took much longer than we should have, but despite the massive amount of money this one sport (Cricket - IPL) has, it took them 15 years to establish a women’s league. So you can imagine with that level of funding and those commercial circles, if it took 15 years to get it going, I just hope everyone is a little patient with us because I don’t think there’s a shortage of players, but we first need to beat the commercial challenge before we can get away with lead going forward.
Q. Considering the ongoing struggles of teams like Telugu Titans, are there any plans in place to address the issue and ensure a sense of parity between the teams in the league?
A. Well, parity is a strange thing. When compared to the English Premier League, the top four or five teams remain at the top for 1000 years, there is massive churn, and no one knows who the bottom five or bottom six teams are because no one cares. In sports, strange things happen when certain teams are simply dominant. Perhaps they handle them better, or their player selection and coaching are superior. Who knows?
The ideal situation would be to have a different winner each year. But that doesn’t happen in very many sports. You can’t force-feed the winning of different teams. It’s just one of those natural organic situations in which some teams finish last while others finish first.
Q. The league rapidly expanded from 8 to 12 teams following its initial years. Looking back, do you think the decision to increase to 12 teams was made prematurely, especially given that the league hasn’t experienced growth on par with its earlier phases?
A. Was the timing good for 12 teams? Absolutely. Why didn’t we have 16 teams after we got the 12? Because, even though we are the second most popular sport in terms of viewership and ratings after cricket, the commercial circles around the game are not massive yet for some mysterious mystical reasons. We don’t want to increase the number of teams until the entire country, as well as international brands, recognises the power and popularity of the sport, So we’ll definitely get to 16 teams in the future. Maybe we’ll get to 20, and then we’ll hit saturation. But we’re not done yet because India is a large country, and we can visit at least four more cities with good indoor stadiums because that is something that is a prerequisite.
Q. How do you intend to address the stagnation observed in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) and what strategies are you formulating to maintain relevance and engagement among the league’s followers
A. What keeps on growing? Everything plateaus to an extent. We are constrained. We’re not 50-100 years old. We don’t have what many other sports have, which is a massive long legacy of popularity and support. How do we take it forward in terms of getting more eyeballs? It is a complicated issue. Do we have a much longer season? Do we go to nine months of the year, like the EPL does or do we keep on offering the same product to people?
Any mature league should dedicate a significant portion of the year to being visible and relevant. We do have the luxury of having longer windows, unlike cricket, but we want to get there organically. Perhaps we should hold a few more global events in India to keep the league relevant.
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