For the better part of India’s modern history, cricket has been the dominant sport in the country, one that was introduced by the British during their dominion of the subcontinent. Since India’s World Cup win in 1983 and the emergence of heroes such as Kapil Dev, televised matches — from black-and-white to colour TV in our homes and now on our smartphones and tablets — have taken the game from the stadium to the living room. And rapidly increasing sponsorship, advertising and endorsements since the 1990s have drawn enough money for cricket to grow into the financial behemoth it is today.
Hockey, till the 1983 cricket World Cup win, had been India’s most popular sport, but cricket has surged so far ahead that the former cannot be said to be in the same vehicle, let alone taken the back seat. And with football’s ever-growing popularity, indigenous sports have had little chance to thrive. But that may be changing.
Since 2014, kabaddi has seen a huge upswing in interest with the launch of a professional league designed on the lines of the massively popular Indian Premier League in cricket.
The Pro Kabaddi League, with its 12 franchises, pre-season player auctions (behind closed doors, though), live television coverage and smart packaging, has taken what was considered a crude, rural sport played in muddy fields into air-conditioned indoor stadiums with interest from fans and the corporate fraternity alike.
Little-known kabaddi players have been lapped up by the franchises for big money, and the mass audiences have relished the experience. The broadcasters have added fun visual elements and introduced terms such as Super Tackle, Super Catch and All Out, making the games all the more intriguing and more attractive for the urban youth.
The league has proved to be such a hit that it’s begun to challenge the hegemony of cricket. According to data from broadcaster Star Sports , Season 5 grossed 313 million viewers with a watch time of 100 billion minutes, and the final alone garnered 26.2 million average views, second only to the 39.4 million that the final of the 10th IPL season managed.
Of total viewership, children between the ages of 4 and 14 formed a staggering 18 per cent, while viewers below the age of 30 constituted more than 54 per cent.
To foreign shores
India has dominated kabaddi — which takes its name from the Tamil “kai-pidi” — at international meets ever since it was introduced in them, the first blip coming at this year’s Asian Games, where the men’s and women’s teams lost to Iran in the semifinals and final, respectively, in Jakarta.
But despite the sport being part of international — or at least Asian — competitions, it had grown little in other countries until the advent of the PKL, whose live coverage and packaging have proven crucial to reaching a wider audience.
“The idea was to popularise our Indian game. We were playing a lot of foreign sports, but who was playing our sport? It’s a game with a huge following and is Asia’s game, but no one was playing it. We were running after other sports, but nobody was promoting our sport,” said Janardan Singh Gehlot, president of the International Kabaddi Federation.
The league has paved the way for foreign players — from Bangladesh, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and even some African nations — who have honed their skills as members of the PKL franchises. The exposure has definitely helped them, as evidenced by India’s twin losses to Iran at the Asian Games.
“Because of the PKL, a lot more people have come to know of kabaddi. Players want to become better so that they can get a chance to play in the PKL. It’s a dream for everybody,” said Iranian star Fazel Atrachali, who became the most expensive foreign buy in PKL history when U Mumba signed him for R1 crore at this year’s auction.
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Thailand’s Khomsan Thongkham, who led his country to the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup semifinals, said his participation in the league has spurred more interest back home.
“I think we may see more players from my country travel here in the seasons to come. It’s a tournament that’s growing very fast and people back home are following it as well,” said the Dabang Delhi raider.
Gujarat FortuneGiants’ Dong Geon Lee, who was part of the South Korean team that won the silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games, is one such example of following a compatriot to India. “At first, [Bengal Warriors raider] Jang-kun Lee introduced me to the sport and it’s got a lot more people interested in the game. The PKL has made me more professional. There aren’t any leagues in Korea like the PKL, but the sport has become more popular now after the Asian Games,” he said.
“The PKL is a good avenue for someone to showcase their skills. I am a classic example of this. It has helped me grow by meeting professional players and learning from them,” said Kenya’s David Mosambayi, one of the few representatives from Africa who plays for the Jaipur Pink Panthers. “The coaches are some of the best in the world and this definitely helps me as a sportsperson. All of this ultimately helps the sport grow in my country when I take back all this knowledge and guide youngsters eager to join kabaddi.”
For kabaddi to become an Olympic sport, it needs to be played by men in at least 75 countries on four continents and by women in no fewer than 40 countries on three continents. But, as it stands, the sport is played in less than 50 countries across the world — there is no clarity on the number of registered members — with Asia accounting for a majority of the nations.
Gehlot reckons it will take a while for the sport to be added to the Olympics. “We can’t have 70 countries from the same region. Kabaddi is currently popular only in Asia, and that’s why it’s taking so long,” he said.
Atrachali said: “We need more tournaments like the Kabaddi World Cup. Because of the PKL, everyone knows what kabaddi is, but there still needs to be more international tournaments with more countries participating.”
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“For countries starting up, they need huge support from the PKL to boost the game and make it attractive,” said Mosambayi, suggesting that “exchange visits would be nice for the players to see how other countries have grown. For instance, Kenya has tried to boost the game by involving countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.”
With the inclusion of four new teams last year, the PKL is now the biggest sporting league in India in terms of geographical representation and the number of matches. However, for the sport to have a truly global presence and for European nations to actively participate, the league will have to come up with initiatives such as those taken up by the US’ Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. The NBA has set up academies in Australia (Canberra), China (Jinan, Urumqi and Zhuji), Mexico (Mexico City), India (Delhi-National Capital Region) and Senegal (Thies). Baseball, which is among the three most followed sports in the US, has garnered interest in Asia, especially in Japan.
The PKL, which is still in its nascent stage, has no such plans of expanding. “Our expansion to 12 teams is the strongest growth achievement for any front-ranking sports league in India. We have to consolidate this and realise the full benefits of this growth for all stakeholders in the league, including all the PKL teams,” said league commissioner Anupam Goswami. “At this stage, there is no scheduled expansion. However, as and when we do decide for the next round of expansion, I have no doubt that there will be even stronger and more enthusiastic response.”
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