PKL: Rivalling the popularity of cricket

Pro Kabaddi League have transformed the golden boys of Indian kabaddi from shadowy figures to superstars, propelling them from nondescript backyards to the spotlight.

Little-known Navy-man Nitin Tomar (orange shirt) was picked by UP Yodhha for a whopping Rs. 93 lakh in the PKL Season 5 auctions.   -  Vivek Bendre

Three years back, the names Deepak Niwas Hooda, Kashiling Adake, Rishank Devadiga, Anup Kumar, Rahul Chaudhari and Rakesh Kumar would have evoked little or no reactions from even the most fervent supporters of Indian sports. The last two have been part of India’s triumphant, undefeated campaigns at the Asian Games and World Cups, rated highly among their peers, but had remained unrecognised.

When the fifth season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) kicks off on July 28 in Hyderabad, these would be some of the names that would evoke the loudest cheers. Four years have transformed the golden boys of Indian kabaddi from shadowy figures to superstars, propelled them from nondescript backyards to the spotlight and changed the sport from a game everyone knew to one that everyone talks about.

READ: PKL 5: The raid begins

Ten years ago a franchise-based, short-term event called the Indian Premier League dawned on the Indian sporting horizon and changed forever the way sports would be seen and treated in the country. A month ago, Ultimate Table Tennis became India's 11th professional sporting league. In between football, hockey, basketball, volleyball, tennis, wrestling, badminton and golf jumped on the bandwagon.

None matched up to the IPL standards, either in terms of scale or popularity. None, that is, till the PKL tweaked the rules, brought out the mats, the DJs and the strobe lights and threw in some smart marketing heft to become the first-ever professional sporting league with 12 teams fighting for the title.

Star Sports India’s decision to buy over the rights meant the broadcaster effectively owns the PKL — unlike the Hockey India League or the Ultimate Table Tennis — and therefore, it is no surprise that the broadcaster has gone all out to promote the event. With its massive bandwidth, Star has helped the sport challenge the hegemony of cricket. As per the broadcaster’s internal analysis, the previous season saw PKL rake in higher television ratings in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh even when compared to the IPL. It claims the four seasons have recorded a cumulative growth of 51 percent, more than any other sporting league. And that the sponsorship income increased by a massive 320 percent.

Different names, same passion

Kabaddi, chadukudu, hadudu, bhavatik, hu-tu-tu, chedugudu — call it what you may, it has been a sport played across the country for ages now. A combat sport that needed just some empty space, tested strength, agility, speed and skills and played up the perpetual underdog story — one against many — in a sporting set-up. And yet, it remained a childhood past-time that never broke into the national consciousness as a glamour sport. From Punjab and Haryana to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bengal and Maharashtra, kabaddi is one sport that can actually rival cricket for pan-India status.

“Kabbadi has a deep-rooted connect with India’s tradition. This traditional sport still remains true to its inherent character built around community participation. Anything rooted has immense potential. This league is an outstanding example of this belief,” says Patna Pirates CEO Pawan Rana. It makes sense, and given that fact that his team has won twice in four seasons, Rana’s faith has been repaid.

Players of Patna Pirates celebrate after winning the 2016 edition of the PKL. “Kabbadi has a deep-rooted connect with India’s tradition. This traditional sport still remains true to its inherent character built around community participation,” Pirates CEO Pawan Rana says.   -  K. V. S. Giri


When it first appeared on the scene, there was predictable cynicism around its success. No one knew what to expect and how Mashaal Sports, the promoters of the league with Anand Mahindra as one of its partners, would push a rural sport into the urban discourse. There were no stars — the biggest names, in fact, were the eight owners that included the likes of UTV’s Ronnie Screwvala and Abhishek Bachchan. The highest bid went up to Rs 12.90 lakh for Hooda and even that felt too high to everyone, including the players who had not expected that much.

This year, the league expanded to 12 teams. Those joining include the Adani Group, Sachin Tendulkar and JSW Sports, arguably one of the most professional corporate sports set-up in India. The highest bid was for a little-known Navy-man, Nitin Tomar, who lives in the outskirts of Delhi. Tomar triggered a bidding war that settled in UP Yodhha’s favour for a whopping 93 lakhs! Hooda, meanwhile, raked in a cool 73.6 lakhs at the auctions.

Increasing foreign flavour

It isn’t only the Indians who have benefited. South Korean Jang Kun Lee was retained by Bengal Warriors ahead of its Indian players for 80.30 lakhs at the Season Five auctions. While the Iranians, in the absence of Pakistan, remained among the most wanted, there were players from as far as Nigeria and Kenya. Twenty-seven were picked, including players from Nepal and Bangladesh.

“From a fan’s perspective, PKL has been a success all through. In fact, we are the first kabaddi franchise to hit the 10-lakh followers mark on Facebook. The audience is constantly engaged with the sport and for the players the league has been a great opportunity to showcase their skills. A longer tournament means more opportunities for the players and teams to showcase themselves and entertain the fans,” Dabang Delhi marquee player, Iranian Meraj Sheykh admitted, adding that the PKL has been a huge boost to not just their own popularity back home but has also given a fillip to the sport. Iran is constantly reducing the gap to champion India at the Asian Games and World Cup.

More the merrier

All of this combined has helped PKL become the only professional sports league in the country to not just retain its grip on the market, but expand with ambitious plans of going up to 18 teams, with the league running for over half a year, similar to football leagues across the world. From a month-long event it would be on for three-months this time around. “This is only a positive development, the more the merrier. The PKL is the first league in the country to expand successfully. Soon we will see more numbers as most evolved international sports leagues have 18-20 teams and the competition is spread over 7-10 months,” former champion U Mumba CEO Supratik Sen said.

“Since inception, PKL has caught on with the fans and has grown to be a fantastic sporting spectacle, one that boasts of a high level of competition. This season the level of competition will go up a few notches with the inclusion of the new teams, and it will only add to the excitement of the tournament. We, for one, are ready for the added challenges,” added Dabang Delhi CEO Saumya Khaitan.

It won’t be easy, though. Sustaining interest, specially on television, for three months is a big leap from doing so for just a month. By changing the rules, bringing in zonal competitions, super play-offs and an IPL-style eliminator in the knockout stages, the PKL organisers have continued with their experiments. They even toyed with having two editions of five weeks each for the league last year but decided it became too messy and hectic. In contrast, the European football leagues — which the PKL ultimately hopes to emulate — have a more relaxed schedule.

The players too are cautiously excited, but realise that these are experiments that need to be tested. “A longer season is good for the players’ exposure. How the audience reacts to a longer league, I guess we will find out,” says Anup Kumar, one of the most recognised names today.

India veteran Manjeet Chillar agreed. “It is a long season, but we are prepared for the challenges. As part of the PKL since Season 1, I have seen it grow. The league is experimenting with layouts and schedules, but I feel it is in favour of both the players and the audience. As a team we are concerned about injuries and performance and this season will be more about persistence than just scoring well and winning,” Chillar said.

Not that it’s been all positive for the PKL. When Rohit Kumar became the second most expensive player at this year’s auctions, the focus was more on his recent legal travails — his wife had committed suicide and Rohit and his family are out on bail, accused of harassment for dowry — than his kabaddi skills. Adake had rape charges filed against him before being cleared. And despite the impressive numbers bandied about, the franchises have struggled to fill up stadia. This season, Bengaluru Bulls would move away from its home base to Nagpur as they don’t have the requisite permissions to use the Kanteerava Stadium. And there are reports of two-time champion Patna Pirates being forced to move to Ranchi for its home matches.

For now, though, the focus is on the riches it has managed to bring in. Adake, who once earned Rs 200 a day for backbreaking work in a sugarcane factory besides tilling his fields, is today a star in his own right, snapped up for Rs 48 lakh in the auction and remains a crowd favourite. And Rishank Devadiga, who once waited at Mumbai hotels to supplement his family income, gets accosted for selfies in the lobbies of the same five-star hotels. He is also getting to indulge in his first love — super bikes. It has been one helluva ride for Indian kabaddi so far.

A perfect recipe

The PKL can be a case study on how to make an unknown entity successful. It ticks all the right boxes.

* It has managed a pan-India presence since its inception, with two franchises allotted smartly to each corner of the country to ensure maximum reach. The addition of the four new teams has followed the template.

* It has retained the basic character of the sport to make it easily understandable. The existing rules have been garnished with enough ingredients to make it more appealing, specially to the younger, urbane target base.

* Kabaddi, in essence, is tailor-made for the modern generation with lower attention spans. Forty minutes of play with a 5-minute break means the action is relentless.

* It has a symbiotic relationship with the sponsors, who see potential in the sport. The increase in prize money to Rs. 8 crore this season speaks volumes of PKL’s commercial success.

* Despite being a city-based franchise model, with teams playing home and away, PKL hasn't followed the IPL scheduling system. Instead, it has been more on the lines of a travelling juggernaut with all teams moving from one city to the other.

* The masterstroke has been the venues. Most of the teams have their base in small, compact arenas that are easier to fill up and also look packed on screen, making it attractive for the sponsors. The maximum capacity for most of the venues is approximately 4000.

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