How the PKL juggernaut left everyone else behind


One night during PKL5, I saw what the Pro Kabaddi League had done to the people who run a lot of other Indian sports. It came in the form of a raider's scorpion kick of such utter force and velocity that it thudded teeth-shatteringly into his opponent's jaw. That movement is less dramatically also called the back-kick, executed when the player's back is turned towards his opponents and he appears to be returning to his own court. The back-kick is a raider's surprise weapon disguised by sleight of movement and executed devastatingly with speed. The scorpion kick seems more accurate however because the PKL, undeniably India's most successful franchise-league outside the IPL, carries its own sting.

It has left behind other leagues created around sports considered far more popular for urban India's consuming classes -- hockey, tennis, badminton, boxing, wrestling, football and most recently, table tennis.

Other resentful rivals can call PKL lucky, talk about the simplicity of the sport, the quality of the television coverage, the shorter time span, the Indian janta's love of the unsophisticated tamasha. Consider that a barrel-ful of sour grapes being swallowed and spat out because every sport which has attempted a league, had its strengths and popularity and most were given reasonable quality TV coverage. Where they fell short was at the back-end.

The PKL's biggest advantage was perhaps the flexibility of the sport's ruling powers to amend archaic practices and rules that didn't work for television and take the plunge regardless. When the new rules were introduced -- with a 30 second time limit per raid being the most radical -- Deoraj Chaturvedi, CEO of the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF) was accosted by the hardcore who told him, "Aapne hamaara kabaddi kharab kar diya (You have spoilt our kabaddi)." He asked them to spell out, just how? "I said that in our nationals, some matches would end with a 1-0 scoreline after 40 minutes. I asked them who will watch that type of game on TV?"

The benefits of PKL were also obvious to these cognoscenti, who like the players, before the first flush of flights and five-star hotels, had traveled by train, squashed in unreserved berths and bunked overnight at schools and dharamshalas. Chaturvedi, who is the right-hand man of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) President Janardhan Singh Gehlot laughs, "You always have a few people (who grumble)." Then he compares the earliest opposition to PKL with the groom's elderly uncles in a wedding party. "Now everybody says PKL has changed their life."

Official acceptance at the very top is not a minor matter because the promoter of every league has had to deal with the egos and power games of federation officials and with the financial shenanigans of its promoters.

Gehlot's overall approval and Chaturvedi's early involvement meant that PKL has hurdled over much before hitting the jackpot. Its title sponsorship -- Rs 300 crore for five years from Chinese smart phone maker Vivo -- is currently the biggest in any Indian sport outside cricket. The Indian Super League's $25m from Hero Corp for three years -- over Rs 50 crore a year -- comes second.

But where can PKL go now? Where must it? While there is no dreaming of world domination, the sport is now ready to push for greater participating numbers in India and spreading the kabaddi gospel outside the country. New staff need to be hired, new duties handed out, data tracked and an event calendar organised. The kabaddivolk understand they are onto a good thing and it is best not to pick up the money and run, but to ensure it is spread around so that it continues to grow.

As a young man, Chaturvedi saw Indian hockey struggle and then go into free fall, entangled in the grass-to-astroturf saga. "The basics, everything has to come down to the basics, baaki ki cheezein pe focus galat hai, pehle basics pe aao (Focusing on everything else is wrong, first concentrate on the basics)," he says. The All India Kabaddi Federation has distributed new playing mats - "at least 50" is Chaturvedi's count - around the country. A quality mat "that's what you see on TV" costs Rs 8.5 lakhs, while the practice mats are around Rs 4.5 lakhs. "We are making available playing mats so that all your young kids are exposed to it and they start playing on the same mat where they will build up their careers."

A few months before the start of PKL5, the AKFI conducted a nationwide talent hunt and 10,000 players between the 18-22 age group turned up at the trials held in more than 10 cities. The numbers were then trimmed down to 121, who were brought into the PKL training system with more than 40 picked up by the franchises as part of their new talent pool.

Internationally, at one point, kabaddi had only 16-17 playing members. That number has now doubled to 32, of which Chaturvedi reckons, "25 are serious countries." Kuwait is the newest entrant and, the IKF has been donating playing and practice mats to its members, like Kenya and Mauritius. "Every month," Chaturvedi says, "I receive at least one new lead" of a country making inquiries about a sport that requires minimum infrastructure or equipment, just a flat surface and 14 players eager to dive into a contact sport. The biggest of the international contenders so far? Now that Vivo has pitched in with close to $10m a year, the Chinese are interested.

The PKL has had a dominant first half; its progress depends on withstanding the trials and raids that will come up in the second, the rest of this decade. Whether a 13-week league can hold public attention and pull in television numbers will only be known when figures emerge at the end of the season. In one way, it is vital that the PKL stays successful, and sustainable, because its trajectory so far has had a foot each in both dreams and in reality. In fiction and in textbooks.

A sport which, its original promoter Charu Sharma said, had virtually "gone underground to the public eye" could become an unforeseen model of professionalism, marketing and operations for other Indian sports still trying to respond to the demands of the 21st century.