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IPKL latest fish in PKL-dominated kabaddi pond

Action from a Pro Kabaddi League match in 2017. The PKL is now the second-biggest sports league in India in terms of TV viewership and title sponsorship. AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) will get some competition this month onwards, with the inaugural season of the Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IPKL) kicking off on May 13.

The new eight-team league, run on similar lines as the PKL, as opposed to the circle-style World Kabaddi League, has a few minor tweaks in format -- for instance, the do-or-die raid comes after one empty raid in IPKL, as opposed to two in PKL. The league was launched in the presence of former Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag in New Delhi on April 10. It will comprise 44 matches, starting in Pune and travelling to Mysore, before finishing in Bangalore with the final on June 4.

Why another league?

It could be called a rival to the PKL, the seventh season of which begins in July, but RC Venkateish, MD and CEO of Lex Sportel, who represents the host broadcaster DSport, insists that the New Kabaddi Federation that backs the IPKL would be quite happy to occupy number two position behind the PKL.

"Here's a sport that has come up strongly in the last five years, and has got a lot of traction across all strata," Venkateish tells ESPN. "There's one very well-run league by Star [Sports], and full credit to them for that. But there's a huge 12-month calendar with a lot of white space. It's a sport that requires nothing more than a piece of chalk and a ground, and so you can have virtually anybody and everybody playing it. I think there's enough space in the pond for more fish."

Kabaddi's growth has been quite spectacular, with figures to match, both in TV viewership and sponsorship. The sport had about 62 crore people (620 million) watching it in 2018, up 100 percent from the corresponding figure in 2015, and second only to cricket. PKL's title sponsors Vivo came on board for a five-year period in 2017 for a deal reported to be around INR 300 crore (approx. $ 43 million). Weeks later, the same company picked up the title sponsorship of cricket's Indian Premier League for five years for INR 2199 crore (approx. $ 318 million), but their sponsorship for kabaddi makes PKL the second-richest sports league in the Indian market.

A common refrain from the players is that the IPKL will only help with an outlet for the rapidly expanding player pool in India. "There are at least 10,000 kids playing this format of kabaddi in India today," says all-rounder Sunil Jaypal, who acknowledges how stints with Patna Pirates, Bengal Warriors and Bengaluru Bulls in the PKL helped him secure his future financially at a time when his job with the Indian Railways was just about helping him meet his family's daily expenses.

"At the most, you have 250 players who can secure their future with the PKL, but the IPKL will be good for the rest of the group. Every state and every city has busloads of talented players. I would suggest there should be at least four or five such leagues to take the sport forward," says Jaypal.

"Kabaddi doesn't have a Virat Kohli or a Sachin Tendulkar yet. The sport is the hero, not so much the individual," says Venkateish. "We're trying to get raw talent and giving them a platform to do well and become heroes. There might be the best raider of India lurking somewhere, and the idea is to unearth that talent.

"Further, a sponsor keen on associating with kabaddi has to wait for the PKL. But this is an opportunity for someone wanting to advertise more than once a year. To expand kabaddi is all that we wish to do."

How did they go about creating it?

Venkateish and Telugu film actor Ravi Kiran -- the latter has also invested in the league and is its director -- worked closely with a kabaddi administrator* to draw up the outline for the new league. To hire players, Venkateish says trials were conducted across 16 cities, and more than 5000 hours of videos were viewed by the selection panel, comprising two Arjuna Awardees. S Rajarathnam won the Asian Games gold with India at the inaugural event in 1990, before retaining the title four years later in Hiroshima, while C Honnappa Gowda won the Asian Games gold in 1998.

Based on the selection trials, 146 Indian players were drafted into the eight teams -- Bangalore Rhinos, Chennai Challengers, Diler Dilli, Haryana Heroes, Mumbai Che Raje, Pondicherry Predators, Pune Pride and Telugu Bulls -- and they were categorised A to D on the basis of experience. Players like Jaypal, or former Dabang Delhi raider Vipin Malik, 2014 Asian Games gold medallist Parveen Kumar, and defender Shashank Wankhede, all brought their experience of having competed in the PKL, and they will be joined by two foreign players per team.

What is the buzz around the new league?

Jaypal says his former PKL teammates keep in touch with him and are excited about his impending stint in a new league, naming former Patna Pirates and Gujarat Fortunegiants defender Sunil Kumar and Dharmendra Singh of the Jaipur Pink Panthers and Bengal Warriors as his close friends.

"Kabaddi aisa game hai jismein josh aur junoon bhara rehta hai (Kabaddi is all about excitement and passion)," he says. "You walk into a team and meet 15 new people. Before you know it, you form friendships for life.

"These guys [the PKL players] are positive about the IPKL as well. They keep telling me that if all goes well, some of them wouldn't mind playing the second league in the future as well."

"Earlier, if you had to make a career in kabaddi, you could only play the junior nationals or the nationals, or wait four years for the Asian Games or the odd World Cup. Now, since the PKL came into being, everybody knows players and acknowledges the heroes.

"Mitti ka game hai, apne gaaon se aaya hai (It's a game of the villages). People connect with it at an emotional level."

What could go wrong?

In many Indian sports in recent years, operating multiple leagues has been a bone of contention, especially if new leagues come up without the support of the governing body in the sport. Kabaddi seems to be different, though, as the recognised national sports federation, the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) has itself been in a funk since the Delhi high court declared the elections to the presidency invalid in August 2018.

This came in a year when the Indian men's and women's teams failed to win gold at the Asian Games for the first time since the sport's inclusion as a medal event in Beijing in 1990. The tussle to be the recognised body for the sport could be a sub-plot that plays out in coming months, but for now Venkateish emphasises that IPKL's only objective will be to provide a platform for younger players to shine.

Barring the Bangalore Rhinos, owners for the other seven franchises have all been identified, though ESPN understands that the financial backing at this stage may not be at the level of the PKL. Player salaries are also modest - the Category A players will earn a maximum of INR 10 lakh (approx. $ 14500), while Siddharth Desai fetched almost 15 times that amount at the recent PKL 7 auction.

The organisers are pulling out all stops when it comes to coverage, as DSport will telecast the matches live alongside MTV and on the state-owned DD Sports. ESPN understands the league has also proposed to share 20 percent of all revenue with the player pool, distributing it evenly after the event.

Venkateish doesn't rule out expanding the league in future seasons, especially considering the PKL has tinkered with two seasons in one year, and women's matches. "If you look at the volume of cricket, there's probably 350 days of it played out of 365 days in a year," he says. "If kabaddi is relevant, then why not have more days of kabaddi as well?" Kabaddi is something we are looking at in the longer term."

*The story has been updated to remove the name of E Prasad Rao, senior functionary of AKFI and member of the International Kabaddi Federation, who was erroneously identified as the kabaddi administrator behind drawing up the structure of the IPKL.