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Kabaddi kabaddi

Kabaddi kabaddi
The ongoing season of the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League 2(PKL) has seen 64 percent increase in viewership over the previous season for the first 14 matches. According to data released by TAM India (sports division), the Mashal Sports promoted league, which airs on the Star India network, scored average rating of 1.23 TVR (television rating) in the 2015 season, as against 0.75 TVR in the inaugural season last year.

Kabaddi is one of India’s oldest indigenous sports. It’s basically a mix of school-yard tag and wrestling. You have two teams of seven players who stand on either side of a line. Each team sends a “raider” across to the other side, one by one. The raider must tag as many opponents as he can and rush back to his side before the defenders catch him.

Sounds simple? It is, though there is a twist: the <g data-gr-id="136">raider</g> must hold his breath the entire time he’s trying to tag someone and keep chanting “kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi” to prove he’s not taking another breath.

The tournament, which scripted unprecedented success in its first year, launched on July 18 with the first match of the second season between Ronnie Screwvala’s UMumba and Abhishek Bachchan’s Jaipur Pink Panthers. The PKL is currently being telecast on eight channels under the Star India network - Star Gold, Star Sports 3, Star Sports HD2, Star Sports HD3, Maa Movies, Star Sports 2, Plus Suvarna and Star Pravah in five languages – Hindi, English, Telugu, Marathi and Kannada.

The ratings of the tournament have been significantly bolstered by the increase in average time spent per match per viewer. While, in the 2014 season, the average TSV (time spent per viewer) was 14.56 minutes, this year, viewers are spending as much as 19.36 minutes per match on an average.
The increase in the viewership has justified the investments on the league by the broadcaster and advertisers alike. While the success of the first season attracted a number of brands to associate with the tournament, there was some amount of apprehension whether the PKL will live up to the benchmark it created for itself last year.

Taking ownership of the PKL, the Star India network has lent the Star Sports brand for title sponsorship last year. While it has retained the title sponsorship, the marketing team at Star Sports has managed to rope in around eight sponsors on the tournament. Some of the associate sponsors include TVS Motors, VIP Frenchie, Bajaj Electricals and Flipkart. Even FMCG players like Britannia have signed up this year. If you grew up in India, chances are you played kabaddi as a child. I did. My friends did. Bollywood actor and now professional kabaddi league team owner, Abhishek Bachchan says he did too.

So when you talk about kabaddi, there’s a whiff of nostalgia associated with the sport. As children, we played kabaddi in the garden. You don’t need any equipment. We just drew two lines in the mud, that’s it. What you need are strength and stamina... and you should be able to hold your breath for at least 30 seconds.

“Here is a sport which is a mixture of rugby, wrestling and it’s got the strategy of chess. It’s fantastic,” Say, Amitabh Bachchan. Unfortunately, kabaddi faded away over the years. It was still played, but predominantly in rural areas. In urban India, it lost out to other sports like cricket and to a lesser extent, football, which are televised and so very easy to watch. “We have become this one <g data-gr-id="154">sport</g> nation,” says well-known Indian sports commentator Charu Sharma. “It’s a bit of a monster. Cricket has had a huge head start in terms of visibility on TV, which is a big deal in the sport. Most sports are only as popular as their live TV coverage, so that is what is required.” But now kabaddi is finally getting it.

Sharma has teamed up with Indian business tycoon Anand Mahindra to launch India’s first pro kabaddi league, based along the lines of Indian cricket’s successful Indian Premier League (IPL).
There are eight franchises owned by corporate czars and Bollywood stars, and matches are played indoors on a large mat.

In another huge boost for kabaddi, major broadcaster Star Sports decided to screen these matches live every night on prime time television. “The network felt the need to foster a multi-sport culture in India,” says Uday Shankar, CEO of Star India.

It’s a gamble. Will audiences tune in to watch a sport that India has ignored for years?

Star Sports says the inaugural game -- played in a stadium packed with celebrities, smoke machines, and loud music -- was watched by 66 million viewers across the country. That’s 10 times higher than the Indian figures for the FIFA World Cup opening match between Brazil and Croatia.

“Everybody thinks of kabaddi as a very rural, basic, aggressive sport, you play on the grass or in the mud, but when you see international acclaim it is indeed heartening”.

The initial reaction to the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) was openly skeptical. While everyone agreed that there needed to be the investment in sports other than cricket, a professional kabaddi league based on a <g data-gr-id="147">franchisee</g> format, like the Indian Premier League, seemed way too risky. The general sentiment was that it was a largely rural sport and it would be difficult to expect crowds in urban centers to come in and watch kabaddi.

A few tweaks to the game and a year later, the naysayers have been silenced. The first edition of the Pro Kabaddi League, held in August 2014, attracted a whopping 435 million viewers, second only to the Indian Premier League. In fact, the opening night saw a total of 22 million viewers, ten times more than the number of viewers who tuned in to watch the inaugural match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Stadiums were packed to capacity. It was a rip-roaring success, the kind of success which awakened sports-watchers to the fact that sports beyond cricket can thrive in India as long as they get an appropriate platform.

One year onward, there’s a heady optimism in the air with the start of the second season. Star Sports, the official broadcasters and the title sponsors last year, got in on the excitement early right from the cricket World Cup (remember the last ‘Mauka’ ad with Salman?) and even ran a special PKL show called ‘Hey Buddy, Khel Kabaddi’, which included audience participation. Business Standards reported that there could be up to 200 percent growth in sponsorship rates.

Lending further credence to the fact that the PKL is exciting property right now are some of the names associated with the franchises. Some of India’s biggest names from the corporate world are owners of various franchises, while even Bollywood has its fingers in the pie.

The biggest name is probably Abhishek Bachchan, who owns the Jaipur Pink Panthers franchise. Abhishek was ever-present throughout the first season constantly tweeting about his team and egging the Panthers on from courtside. Bachchan’s involvement added the Bollywood touch to the league. Thanks to him, the PKL got even more eyeballs as Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh <g data-gr-id="247">Khan</g> and Aamir Khan all attended the inaugural match. Another Bollywood connection to the PKL is Ronnie Screwvala. The founder and CEO of the UTV Group, Screwvala owns the Mumbai franchise. Kishore Biyani, the owner and founder of the Future Group is another big ticket owner, of the Bengal Warriors franchise.

But one of the greatest achievements of the PKL is to make household names of kabaddi players. Consider Anup Kumar. One of the world’s best kabaddi players, he was instrumental in the Indian team’s winning gold at the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games. Yet, it’s been his stellar performance with U Mumba last season that shot him into the national limelight.

Or take the case of Rakesh Kumar, the captain of Patna Pirates, which finished third last year. He’s been a part of the Indian national kabaddi team for almost 12 <g data-gr-id="270">years,</g> and has been won countless gold medals. He was even awarded the Arjuna Award in 2011. Yet, all that success alone didn’t translate into financial rewards – Kumar still had to continue with his off-season job as a chief ticket inspector with the Indian Railways. Now, that will have changed after Rakesh Kumar turned out to be the highest pick at a price of Rs. 12.8 lakh. What’s in store for the second season? This year’s tournament has just <g data-gr-id="267">started</g> but it promises to be even bigger.  Charu Sharma, the brainchild behind the PKL, is kicked about the second edition.

“It is going to be bigger and better than last year,” said Sharma to IndianTelevision.com. “The previous edition ended even before people got into it. While they wanted tickets, the stadiums were full!”

The draft for the second season happened on May 25. The highest bid was for Hadi Oshtorak, an Iranian national who was snapped up by the Telugu Titans for Rs. 21.1 lakh. Telegu Titans also shelled out Rs. 20.1 lakh for Oshtorak’s Iranian teammate, Meraj Sheykh. The fact that a foreign player commanded such a massive sum is further proof that kabaddi is spreading its wings beyond Indian shores.

Charu Sharma, Marshal Sports and Star Sports should be lauded for packaging a rural sport that used to be played in dusty, Indian villages and making it glamorous. However, the challenge will come from this season onward. The novelty value might have played a big role in the success of the first reason but expectations will be higher this time around. But, if nothing else, there’s no doubt that kabaddi has demonstrated that there’s space for other sports beyond cricket this year.

The second season started on July 18 with a thrilling victory by U Mamba over Jaipur Panthers by only a point. U Mumba won their second match as well, beating Bengaluru Bulls and sit comfortably at the top of the table. Going by the first four matches though, the competition is going to be far more intense this time around.
Nikhil Thiyyar

Nikhil Thiyyar

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