Raw, pulsating energy. Brute, physical force. Swift action. Primal, visceral cries. Packed arenas. Screaming crowds. Flashing lights. If someone had told you a few years ago that this is what you would experience while watching a kabaddi match in the heart of one of India’s most bustling metros, you’d have laughed. Not any more, though. This rough and rustic sport is now second only to cricket in terms of TRPs, and with India winning the recently concluded Kabaddi World Cup, the sport’s popularity is all set to soar even higher. How did the seeds of this transformation take place? It all goes back to a fortuitous phone call that media personality Charu Sharma received in 2006, ahead of the Doha Asian Games. “It was Simon Reed of Buzz Entertainment, asking me to do commentary for the world feed for the kabaddi matches in Doha,” says Sharma. “I thought ‘how difficult can it be’ and agreed.” Since he would be venturing into unfamiliar territory, Sharma decided to watch a few kabaddi matches before he left. He arrived at the National College Grounds in Basavanagudi, Bengaluru, for a local match. What he saw left him spellbound.

“It was an instant re-valuation,” recollects Sharma. “The arena was jam-packed and what immediately struck me was just how popular the sport was, right there in the heart of a cosmopolitain city. And secondly, what a visually powerful sport it was! Watching it from such close quarters, you could feel every thud from every contact; it was like a dance drama, it fulfilled all criteria to make it a compellingly watchable sport.”And there was more to follow at Doha. What Sharma witnessed were fabulously attended kabaddi matches and raucous crowds, and it was not just the fans – even the world media was fascinated by the visual spectacle. It was then that Sharma decided that this was a sport that needed to be promoted at the highest level. “This is our unique heritage; why is it lying beneath this mound of neglect, why doesn’t anybody seem to care, was what struck me,” he says.

Upon his return to India, Sharma met his brother-in-law, Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director of the Mahindra Group. “I expressed my intense appreciation and told him something had to be done,” says Sharma. “With the group’s India focus and indigenous presence, I also thought he would be the perfect fit to take this forward.” However, despite the enthusiasm, ideas refused to take concrete shape, and soon it was time for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. Once again, Sharma witnessed first-hand the popularity of the sport, and once again he went back to Mahindra. This time, however, things were a bit different. The IPL had begun in 2008, and the franchise model cricket league was seeing tremendous success. Sharma met JS Gehlot of the International Kabaddi Federation and Deoraj Chaturvedi of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India, and he felt there was a possibility of his vision being understood and accepted. It was then that Mahindra suggested the starting of a kabaddi league. “The idea came from him; he said he would support it in a personal capacity, and I was ready to do all the running around. It was nothing short of a crusade,” says Sharma. Thus was born Mashal Sports, in early 2011. Mahindra was certain about one thing: that the league would have to be run professionally by them. So, in a departure from tradition, the AKFI gave Mashal Sports the complete rights to run the league: long-term rights in full trust for 10 years, plus another five, plus five further, with built in escalation. Sharma was now pitchforked into an entrepreneurial role. He got his friend Rajiv Luthra, from Luthra and Luthra Law Offices, to help out with the legal stuff, and soon the Pro Kabaddi League was beginning to take its first baby steps.

New Delhi, India. 11th Aug, 2015. The players of Jaipur Pink Panthers (Pink )and Puneri Paltan (orange) kabaddi team in action during the Pro Kabaddi League match at Thyagaraj Stadium. © Hemant Rawat/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News
New Delhi, India. 11th Aug, 2015. The players of Jaipur Pink Panthers (Pink )and Puneri Paltan (orange) kabaddi team in action during the Pro Kabaddi League match at Thyagaraj Stadium. © Hemant Rawat/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

 

Once the rights document was in place, the next step was to get the much-needed TV contract. Sharma approached several sporting and non-sporting networks, but had to endure “many dark moments.” However, as providence would have it, 2012 saw a development that proved to be a game changer as far as Indian sports broadcasting was concerned. Rupert Murdoch and his 21st Century Fox bought over ESPN Asia, acquiring ESPN’s 50 per cent stake. Star Sports was now to be run out of India, under Star India. This was Sharma’s big chance. Star was skeptical but receptive, and after many meetings the deal was signed. “It was a moment of tremendous elation,” recollects Sharma. It was now time to set up the franchises. One of the earliest franchise owners to begin talks was Abhishek Bachchan, who now owns the Jaipur Pink Panthers. Ronnie Screwvala was another early adopter, with U Mamba, the Mumbai based franchise. “There was no commercial precedence, no background, no comparison,” says Sharma. “All we had was enthusiasm, and we were asking these people to take a blind leap of faith with us.”

As part of the agreement, Star now had a 74 per cent stake in Mashal and, in Sharma’s words, “once they were in, they were all in, offering their full commitment and strategy”. Star went all out with their promotional and marketing activities and worked on the look and the feel of the game, both for TV and in-stadia. Gone were the dusty fields; in their place were a mat, bright neon-lit stadiums, loud music and LED boards for sponsors, all making the action even more palpable and intimate. The coverage also included graphics on the mat (allowing viewers a chance for more in-depth analysis), commentary in four languages and several cameras to capture the action (along with mikes on the mat as well as on the players), all allowing greater immediacy with the action.

Kabaddi match.
Khuri village.
Rajasthan.
India
Kabaddi match. Khuri village. Rajasthan. India

 

While Sharma always believe that kabaddi and TV were naturally compatible, there were times when the action was too swift, even for TV. It was here that Sharma sat down with Chaturvedi, and they decided to introduce a few tweaks for the sport to take on a more modern avatar. “Slow motion and replays are the make or break factor for TV,” says Sharma, “and to incorporate these, we had to have a pause. We decided that when a player was eliminated, he would have to walk all the way around, so we could use that time to show replays.” Some of the other changes included limiting the raid block to 30 seconds, the third raid rule (where the third raid cannot be empty) and super tackle – if three or less defenders catch a raider, their points are doubled. All these changes were designed to allow the viewers to engage more. With the belief that they had the answers to every question that could be posed to them, Sharma organised the first media event for the PKL in March 2014 – a mini-event was staged to give a feel of the action. The league was all set to begin in July 2014. “I was convinced: let’s make that first game happen and then the floodgates would open.”

They opened, and how. The arenas were packed, the energy was palpable, there was glitz, there was glamour and there was a buzz on social media. What really heartened Sharma was to see the PKL succeed not only where it was supposed to, but also in the areas which posed the biggest challenges: the urban scenarios. It was there that the sophistication provided by Star’s coverage made the big difference, making the sport upmarket and aspirational. “To be visibly in demand in urban scenarios, for example on TV in the pubs of Bengaluru, was a big success,” says Sharma. In a report on indiantelevsion.com, as per TAM data provided by Star, the opening night received 22 million TV viewers, on both Star Sports and Star Gold. This data, when extrapolated to All India Universe, according to standard industry conversions, shows that over 66 million Indians watched the opening game. “This is 10 times higher than that witnessed in India during the opening match between Brazil and Croatia of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which reached 2.1 million viewers (extrapolated 6.6 million viewers),” says the channel.

PKL kept growing from strength to strength. The subsequent seasons have seen sponsors like TVS Motors, Flipkart, Bajaj Motors, SBI Gionee Mobiles, Idea, Fair&Lovely Men’s Face Wash and Pepsico come in. Such was the popularity that there were two seasons of the PKL in 2016, with numbers remaining rock solid. Indiantelevision.com reported that the ad revenue showed a 20 per cent increase from 2015, along with a 36 per cent increase in viewership. In a statement released at the end of the fourth season, Star said: “On a cumulative basis, the League has shown growth of 51 per cent over the last four seasons.” The current franchises have broken even or are beginning to break even, and the PKL is likely to increase the number of franchises in 2017, allowing for a single, extended season.

Incheon, South Korea. 29th Sep, 2014. Alisa Limsamran (THA), Japan team group (JPN) Kabaddi : Women's Team Preliminary Group B Match 3 between Japan 18-20 Thailand at Songdo Global University Gymnasium during the 2014 Incheon Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea . © AFLO SPORT/Alamy Live News
Incheon, South Korea. 29th Sep, 2014. Alisa Limsamran (THA), Japan team group (JPN) Kabaddi : Women's Team Preliminary Group B Match 3 between Japan 18-20 Thailand at Songdo Global University Gymnasium during the 2014 Incheon Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea . © AFLO SPORT/Alamy Live News

 

The success of the league has had a positive spill-off on its players, giving them recognition and transforming their lives in ways they could never have imagined. The spending cap for each franchise in the first season was Rs 60 lakh. This increased to a whopping Rs 2 crore at the Season Four auctions held in May this year. The highest amount paid for a player in Season One was Rs 12.8 lakh for Rakesh Kumar (Patna Pirates). This saw a more than four-fold increase come Season Four – Mohit Chillar of the Bengaluru Bulls went for Rs 53 lakh. Players travel by air and stay in five-star hotels; they are recognised by fans, bringing them a fame and lifestyle they have never experienced. “The players see they can make a living from it, their performances improve, overall standards go up and more people want to be part of it,” says Sharma. “The aspirational levels rise.”

And it is the sport that has benefited, as a whole. The recently concluded Kabaddi World Cup was a far cry from its predecessors in 2004 and 2007. The renewed interest in the sport gave the International Kabbadi Federation the confidence that this World Cup would be different. The revamped 16-day extravaganza was played along PKL lines, Star was the official broadcaster and the IKF was able to bring in countries that mattered in the world of sport, with a strong sporting culture, to cobble together teams and be part of the World Cup. It was telecast to over 120 territories and recorded viewership figures of 80 million in the first week. The force, clearly, is with the game.

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