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Decoding kabaddi-mania

Pro Kabaddi League

"I get emotional when it comes to kabaddi as I used to play the sport as a child. The feeling of watching it live helps me reconnect with the days gone by," said Venu Vulesa while his son Daniel got his cheeks painted in orange and red, the colours of his favourite team, Bengaluru Bulls.

This was the environment at Bangalore's Sree Kanteerava Stadium as more than 3000 people gathered to watch the city's first Pro Kabaddi match of the season, played between the home team and Telugu Titans.

Seven-year-old Daniel, his cheek-painting complete, looked towards his father and said, "Even I like kabaddi!" The love for kabaddi, Vulesa said shyly, probably ran in the family.

For a sport that rarely made a splash across the country a few years ago, kabaddi has found a foothold ever since the arrival of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014. With slickly packaged programming on prime-time TV slots and matches lasting a convenient 40-minutes each, the PKL provided the viewers an alternative for leagues like the IPL. From a largely rural and small-town following, the PKL has made its way into playgrounds, drawing rooms and city stadiums.

"One of the key aspects of kabaddi is that we can relate to the game. For me, it is pure nostalgia," said Avinash, a twentysometing software engineer, who was accompanied by friends Vivek, Prashant, Suhas and Prithvi for the match. "It's short and crisp, apart from being full of entertainment," added Vivek.

"I see wildness in the game. The energy is crazy out there. You can't help but love it," said Tejaswini, a 23-year-old following the sport since the first season of the PKL. "At times, I wonder if I could learn how to play too," she smiled.

Along with a strong TV presence, tickets are available on the venue box office at reasonable prices, turning the league into a mini-festival to its host cities.

"The kind of craze the tournament has in the city is unbelievable. I came here to understand what the game is all about and why it is attracting so many people towards it," said Bharat, who came to the game with friends Sandesh and Sudarshan.

"Kabaddi is not that well-understood in metro cities. Even if you look at the players that we have in the teams, you will notice that a major chunk of them hail from rural (sic) cities. It then becomes important for us to know about the games that started from our roots and are now making a mark," said Sudarshan.

After the PKL's success in its first two seasons, it was announced that from 2016 onwards, the league will have two seasons in a year. The response from fans is mixed: "Two seasons in a year is a little too much, is what I feel. It takes away the excitement that it has built so far. One season a year would keep the demand as well as the craze high," Vivek pointed out.

Contradicting him was 25-year-old Vadiraj, who said, "The promotions and the execution of the plans have been pretty good. The number of seasons doesn't matter as long as it is giving the game a much-needed push. People are finally getting connected to it. I'm an avid follower of the sport, and it feels good when people finally recognize the rules and the players." While buying a Bulls jersey for his son Aditya, Venugopal said, "This is a game you can watch with the family. It gives us an opportunity to bond over a desi sport. Having two seasons in a year would only make the loyalty grow."

Part of the PKL's marketing strategy involves merchandising - accessible and affordable - as a way of connecting with the youth. While the official team jerseys sell for Rs. 300-750, the "clones", openly sold within 100m of the official merchandise store, cost Rs. 150-200. It is why team colours can be easily spotted everywhere in the crowd at matches.

"I would choose it over any other sport, any day," said 14-year- old Lalasa. "The presence of mind that the players showcase in such a limited time, keeps you at the edge of your seats throughout." Her classmate Devraj Chandu, however, differed with her saying, "Kabaddi is great, but cricket is still the best."

Once the Kanteerava guards sounded a whistle, indicating the game was set to begin, the crowd milling about outside the ground, rushed inside to get to their seats in time.

Inside the stadium, all the varied opinions about the league were diluted as everyone came together to chant 'kabaddi kabaddi' along with the players. Deafening cheers after each successful raid and defense followed by the theme song of the two teams was to suddenly bring the stadium to life. Even though the home team was beaten, the crowd continued to hoot, hoping for better days.

"So what if we lost today? As a fan, I believe we still have it in us to win the season," smiled 15-year-old Jhanvi Ramakrishna.

Amidst it all, what won over them all was the unlikely yet deserving hero -- the game itself.