How kabaddi became franchise gold in India

Ninth season of PKL attracted more than 200 million viewers to emerge as one of the most popular league sports in country after cricket

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Cricket is the biggest and most popular sport in India. That, everyone, knows. But what is second on the list?

There are a few sports that are up there. Badminton, hockey, wrestling and boxing all have a rich history in the Indian landscape. When athletes like Abhinav Bindra (shooting) and Neeraj Chopra (javelin) brought home the elusive Olympic gold, a whole generation of youngsters embraced new heroes.

But there is one sport that is truly Indian, has been enjoyed for generations, and is unlike any other. It is also taking giant strides towards becoming the second most popular in India - kabaddi.

The seven-a-side contact sport involves a single ‘raider’ invading the opposition’s half and trying to tag one or more opponents before scurrying back into his territory without getting tagged himself - all while saying "kabaddi kabaddi". It is as fascinating to watch as it sounds.

India was already a powerhouse in the sport at regional level, winning the Kabaddi World Cup three times and clinching gold in seven out of eight Asian Games. Then in 2014, it all changed; kabaddi became glamorous.

Broadcasters Star Sports, league organisers Mashal Sports and some of the top business houses in the country came together to form one of the most successful franchise leagues in the country - Pro Kabaddi League.

The recently concluded ninth season of PKL was viewed by more than 200 million fans. The first 114 out of 132 league matches had a cumulative viewership of 202m, which was already much higher than the entire reach of the previous season that stood at 189m.

Considering the PKL was held right alongside the Fifa World Cup in Qatar and the final on the eve of the title match between France and Argentina in Qatar, the numbers are mighty impressive.

The PKL has now 12 franchises in its fold. The team owners are some of the most prominent names in the country. Adani Sportsline (Gujarat Giants team), IPL veteran owners GMR Group (UP Yoddhas) and JSW Group (Haryana Steelers), Indian movie stars Abhishek Bachchan (Jaipur Pink Panthers) and Allu Arjun (Tamil Thalaivas) are some of the heavyweights who have brought tremendous value to the league over the years.

Anupam Goswami, head of sports leagues Mashal Sports and league commissioner, vivo Pro Kabaddi League. Image PKL

In 2021, the broadcast rights for the league for the next five years were sold to Star India again for nine billion rupees ($109m). This is a huge number for a non-cricket product in India.

"What has worked for kabaddi is that it is a contact sport. But it is the only genuinely team contact sport," Anupam Goswami, head sports leagues Mashal Sports and league commissioner vivo Pro Kabaddi League, told The National.

"There are other sports which are similar, like rugby. But while there is physicality (in rugby), the premise of the sport is not contact. You are trying to put something (rugby ball) across the goal line. Kabaddi is a contact sport that is suited for a sports league across the world."

The intrinsic value of team sports in a franchise model becomes clear when you see individual disciplines like badminton and tennis that have tried the franchise formula through team formats without much success.

Goswami believes the numbers brought in by the 2022 season and the new media rights make the league not only the second-biggest in India but one of the most prominent ones in Asia.

"The mark of 200 million viewers is a very strong number across entertainment for media consumption across Asia. In India it is clearly the second most viewed league. Apart from IPL, we are far ahead of all sports and leagues in India," he explained.

What seems to have worked in kabaddi and PKL's favour is that the sport has been played in some form or the other by many Indians in their early years across regions.

"What also worked for kabaddi is that it appealed to a core sentiment among Indians. It is something many of them played. Anyone who is 55-plus would have strong memories of having played it. Those younger would have some idea about it.

"If you gave the sport a big makeover, there was almost a guaranteed success."

Apart from IPL, we are far ahead of all sports and leagues in India
Anupam Goswami

Kabaddi became a medal discipline in Asian Games in 1990. Its growth was powered by the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India. The idea of PKL came about around 2012 but by that time, the AKFI and the International Kabaddi Federation had already established it well at the Asian Games. Which meant there were 8-10 countries playing it consistently. And which is why the PKL has players from countries like Iran, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Bangladesh.

"We have to give credit to AKFI and IKF for not only internationalising it but also creating set of practices which allowed other countries to gain strength in it," Goswami said.

"Iran are the current Asian champions. That is not by accident. They took a decade to come up to that level. They gave a very strong challenge to India in the 2014 Asian Games. South Korea also have a very strong team. If kabaddi has aspirations to go to the Olympics, it has to show that other countries are also competing well."

The next step in kabaddi's journey is obvious - explore the international market.

They did that in 2018, through the Dubai Kabaddi Masters. That tournament was an international competition organised by the IKF, Dubai Sports Council and Star India. Then, the world came to halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Even PKL was suspended for a season in 2020.

Now, there is renewed hope of taking kabaddi and PKL to new markets, even if in the form of exhibition games.

"Many PKL teams would be very interested in playing demonstration matches in the neighbourhood, particularly where the TV prime time is the same. Many teams would like the idea of having such games in Dubai.

"In Dubai, we had a great experience in 2018 under the patronage of the Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak. He was very encouraging and we are very grateful for the support we got from Dubai Sports Council. If not the league, we would always look to bring competitive games to Dubai."

Updated: January 12, 2023, 8:33 AM