The improbable success of the Pro Kabaddi League

Action from a Telugu Titans vs Dabang Delhi match in 2016. Pro Kabaddi League

It was July 26, 2014, a few minutes before 6pm. The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) was scheduled to hold its first-ever match. Thousands of people, unable to enter the premises, stood outside the NSCI gates. But the gates were firmly shut.

Television executives saw empty stands and went in hunt of the kabaddi officials, the league's promoters. Tempers were short and blood pressures were rising. The great Indian sporting gamble was going to be played to an audience of close to a handful. There were, it was evident, plenty faithful at the gates. At least 1,000 members of Mumbai's kabaddi clubs had travelled from the heart of the city in buses. Short of tearing down the gates and smashing the locks, there didn't look like any other way of getting in.

Fortunately, a few phone calls later, the stadium drama turned out to be a miscommunication that was quickly resolved. The guards unlocked the gates and U Mumba took on Jaipur Pink Panthers as planned to the roar of a crowd. The Pro Kabaddi League had begun.

Three years later, ahead of the start of season 5, the PKL is far removed from the uncertainties of opening night. The addition of four new teams makes the PKL the largest league in India in terms of number of franchises - 12 (IPL has eight, while the ISL has 10 like the I-League Division 1).

Comprising 138 matches, season 5 will be launched with Telugu Titans taking on newcomers Tamil Thalaivas in Hyderabad on Friday and will offer a changed format, longer season, the addition of more players, and the creation, at least on paper, of promising new rivalries such as Delhi vs Haryana and Bengaluru vs Chennai.

This year, even the cash registers are ringing louder. In addition to a new title sponsor - VIVO for five years at Rs 300 crores - the total prize money now stands at Rs. 8 crore, a 300% increase over the Rs. 2 crore consolidated prize money in season 4.

As a result of more teams, the reshuffled draft generated a total of Rs 46.99 crores spent over two days on the players. The season's highest bid? Debutant franchise UP Yoddhas' Rs. 93 lakh for raider Nitin Tomar. To put that in perspective, the highest bid in the auctions for Season 1 was Rs.12.80 lakhs for the then-India captain Rakesh Kumar.

"Kabaddi has truly become a viable career option for the youth of India," League Commissioner Anupam Goswami said after the auction.

Goswami's words will certainly resonate with the players, most of whom list the recognition and improvement in their finances as the two biggest changes in their life since the PKL began.

Anup Kumar, captain both of India and the most successful PKL team, U Mumba, says, "I made my Indian team debut in 2006. That time, there was barely any recognition, no one knew about me or the sport. Since PKL began, people have come to know what sort of sport kabaddi is, they recognise us. That I've been able to carve my own identity is a very big achievement for me."

He says the sport is played only by those from "middle-class or lower-class socio-economic background and since PKL has started, we've been getting paid well, so that is also a very big deal for us."

The big deal for K Selvameni - bought by Dabang Delhi for Rs. 2 lakh in season 2 and in season 5, Rs. 73 lakh from the Jaipur Pink Panthers - is to be able to provide for his family in every way with his kabaddi earnings. He still has no home but now says with his jackpot earnings, "I want to build my home in Salem with the money. And I want to get my sister married." PKL has given him both recognition and ambition. He says, "I like that (the recognition), but in the coming time I want to play more. I think if I play this season very well, I will get a chance to make the Indian team."

"The intention of associating kabaddi with ideals like youthfulness, courage, action and coolness led to the creation of the term 'Le Panga'."

Player bids and prize money figures may have reached record highs this season, but the league insists that it was an undeniable success from the first season itself. The PKL media handbook says 435 million viewers tuned into its first season, making it second only to the Indian Premier League (IPL) in terms of viewership. No matter how accurate the numbers, it is a position it has consistently held since. It boasts of a cumulative viewership growth of 51% over four seasons, which is the highest for any sports league in the country.

At the season 5 launch in Mumbai last month, Shubhranshu Singh, Executive VP - Head Marketing of Sports at Star India, said the PKL's success had been unprecedented.

"Within the first season, at the end of 37 days of season 1, it was already, in a proven way, the No. 2 sport on TV. This does not happen. Across the world, I can't think of another sport like ours, mostly never on television, which arrives, takes on other sports that have been present for decades on primetime television, and within one season, in 30-35 days, becomes the No. 2 sport."

There is no denying that of the PKL's three seasons in two years (July 2015 to July 2016), two of those ran alongside the big TV magnet - cricket - and held its own.

In the beginning

Few predicted the PKL's success and before it even showed up, imagined the sport's possibility. But how did it even begin?

The idea of a kabaddi league first came up in 2010, when Deoraj Chaturvedi, an official from the Asian Kabaddi Federation, met commentator Charu Sharma at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, where Sharma was calling the kabaddi event.

Kabaddi had been a priority sport in the government's books since the 2006 Asian Games gold, but largely away from public notice. Chaturvedi said, "Charu very categorically told me, 'you guys only work from Asian Games to Asian Games and after that you sleep for the rest,' to which I replied, 'says who?'"

Chaturvedi, who is currently CEO of the International Kabaddi Federation, remembers Sharma's reply: "Charu said, 'I have been trying to (get a kabaddi league started) for four years and nobody bothered to reply to me.'"

A year later - Chaturvedi reckons sometime between late 2011 and early 2012 - Chaturvedi said Sharma once again spoke to him about an idea for kabaddi and proposed a meeting. The two met in Jaipur, where Sharma proposed a league with the Mahindra Group as potential investors. That night, Chaturvedi spoke to his "boss", the Indian Kabaddi Federation president Janardhan Singh Gehlot. "He said, 'okay, go ahead'".

Once Chaturvedi and Sharma, working under the firm called Mashal Sports, began work on designing and conceptualising the league, the CEO of the IKF said the idea was opposed by several people. Most expressed the preconceived notion that kabaddi was only played in villages, and that it was crazy to think people elsewhere would want to watch the sport.

The unusual duo persisted through 2012 and 2013, visiting national-level events, and saw large crowds everywhere. They realised the sport could indeed attract a stadium audience. Along with their office staff, they conducted surveys at events themselves, the responses to which, Chaturvedi says, backed up early observations.

Despite their best efforts, however, finding a broadcaster remained most critical to the realisation of a league. Several sports channels were approached, according to Chaturvedi, and finally Star, despite reportedly having concerns about the ability of kabaddi to fill stadiums, was convinced to come on board.

"Now everyone comes but early journey kaafi kathin thi (was quite difficult)," Chaturvedi explains. A kabaddi league would also have to make money to stand any chance of success, so Chaturvedi said a conscious, necessary decision was taken to charge for tickets to stadiums rather than make entry free, taking care, however, to keep prices relatively low.

To keep their costs down, the league adopted a caravan-format, which meant cities hosted matches in clusters rather than have teams and multiple television crews criss-cross the country like they do in the IPL. The caravan costs one-fourth of a scattered league.

With the bulk of Chaturvedi and Sharma's work done and the basic framework for the PKL in place, Star took over. Kabaddi was generally perceived as a rustic sport and had to be pitched to urban audiences, with interest drummed up in the league as a platform for the sport.

Star gathered its best marketing and production brains, signing on contact sports experts of the business and coming up with an all-out, multi-pronged marketing effort. In early 2014, the channel began a teaser campaign that showed the moves and manoeuvres of kabaddi without naming the sport.

Short, animated explainer ads were employed for audiences to understand the rules of the game. Stadium-going crowds entered air-conditioned venues, replete with laser shows and music, while audiences on TV were treated to a multiple-camera broadcast system that aided the impression of being part of the action. Such was the extent of the effort that the players were given a makeover - getting a haircut or a tattoo, among other things - to make the sport "edgier."

In India, nothing works quite like Bollywood and the PKL wasn't going to be the first league to not leverage the film industry's endorsement to its advantage.

"Not very often in India do you get to see Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan at the same sports match. We had the who's who of celebrities - Salman (Khan), Abhishek (Bachchan) - and there was a lot of Bollywood endorsement via barter deals. We did film promotions, and the red carpet really helped," says Star's Shubhranshu.

After season 1, the broadcaster realised they were onto a good thing and in season 2 the marketing got stronger. The intention of associating kabaddi with ideals like youthfulness, courage, action and coolness led to the creation of the term 'Le Panga'. It can be translated colloquially, to "go pick a fight", referring to the act of taking on a challenge when the stakes are against you.

This presumably was also an allusion to the one-versus-many nature of a kabaddi raid. Amitabh Bachchan's Le Panga song helped Star "beef up Hindi-speaking markets in a huge way" while Salman was also called on to endorse Panga. Regional ambassadors such as Kannada superstar Yash and Rana Daggubati, who is very popular in the Telugu film industry, were roped in. The channel then created individual spots on the likes of Anup, Rakesh Kumar, Rahul Chaudhari and Manjeet Chhillar, about whom little was previously known.

Popular and alternative viewing options on television - soap operas, news, "Rambo-type action movies" - were lampooned. A popular cartoon character endorsing kabaddi was used to target children. An advertisement endorsing different career choices, and starring players from last year's Women's Kabaddi Challenge, was used to appeal to female audiences. Star's marketing effort, it appears, was not going to leave anything to chance.

Show us the money

The players have always been there and the game has always been physical, but without the willingness of people to invest in the idea itself, nothing may have come from Chaturvedi and Sharma's legwork or Star's brilliant marketing plan.

After all, why would anyone be willing to put in their own bucks into a new league based on an untested sport? Saumya Khaitan, CEO of DoIT Sports Management, which owns the Dabang Delhi team, says today that the decision wasn't a difficult one.

"Honestly, when Mr. (Anand) Mahindra and Charu Sharma were looking at launching the league, there was a lot of talk going around and a couple of teams had already been bought at that time when we got involved.

"The decision was actually very simple because, you know, all the stakeholders involved had such strong commitment to it and collectively knew about the idea and then with Star Sports and its marketing, it filled all the checkboxes immediately. There wasn't too much of a doubt when it came to buying the team."

He adds that kabaddi was after all an "ancient Indian sport" and the Delhi owners expected there would be "a very strong current of people watching kabaddi and playing it in big and small cities and as a sport itself, we know it's a short, high-impact sport, so we knew it could be very entertaining."

In 2017, four new teams joined the PKL as a well-established and successful enterprise and the decision to jump in was relatively straightforward. "There's no denying how immensely popular the sport has become and we have been interested in getting involved whenever the opportunity were to come up," says Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports, owners of the Haryana Steelers. "It's a sport that has caught everyone's attention. The change the sport has seen is amazing and we're excited to be a part of it."

The absence of a team from Tamil Nadu, where kabaddi has an established and deep-rooted culture, was noted by the pan-Indian kabaddi community. The expansion of the league from eight to 12 teams could not have come at a better time for the state's sports investors, with the new Tamil Thalaivas now filling in the gap.

"Along with the prospective team buyers, the big draw of the PKL has been the response from the fans - both in stadia around the country as well as the TV audience. The PKL's fans cover demographic and geography, just what its promoters aimed for."

"We were always looking out for good opportunities in sports and PKL was always on the radar," says Varun Tripuraneni, CEO of Iquest Enterprises, the consortium through which Sachin Tendulkar and N Prasad own the Thalaivas. Iquest also owns Kerala Blasters in the ISL as well as Bengaluru Blasters in the Premier Badminton League.

"ISL and PKL started around the same time and we've seen the tremendous growth in PKL - the broadcast has been excellent, commercially also the league is doing extremely well, the recent VIVO deal is an indication of how well the league has grown. That way, the expansion has been well thought of. And when the opportunity came, we were very clear that we would bid for one of the new teams."

Along with the prospective team buyers, the big draw of the PKL has been the response from the fans - both in stadia around the country as well as the TV audience. The PKL's fans cover demographic and geography, just what its promoters aimed for.

Jayshree Shah, a 51-year-old headmistress of a school in Jalna, Maharashtra, says she began following the PKL in season 1 and now follows the league "rigorously" and considers herself "passionate about the game."

"Kabaddi is our sport, everyone knows it's an Indian sport. It's telecast in a way that's appealing to the audience and they get attracted," she says. "They started advertising frequently for the new league long back. Also, the game duration is not for a very long time, it's very practical and less time-consuming, so people love it."

An appetite for consumption

Quick, 40-minute-long matches, played close to or during prime time television slots, and the short, month-long length of previous seasons have kept PKL's intensity and interest around it intact. This year however, the league will defy a winning formula with its expanded, three-month-long season - comprising 138 matches.

There is a concern that the league's extended length will prove detrimental due to an increased likelihood of injuries, greater emphasis on player rotation, less stars on view, and, quite possibly, audience fatigue. In a way, the PKL is stepping into uncharted territory that isn't unlike the kind it encountered when it first began.

The league commissioner Goswami admitted there would be difficulties, but chose instead to focus on the expansion as evidence of the PKL's commitment to kabaddi.

"There are challenges with the longer format, we're fully aware of that. It's not an easy exercise, a lot of thinking and strategising is going into it."

But the key to the true quality of a sporting league, he said, "is to offer an annual calendar, to offer stability, long-term planning. Do I do that with short exercises or with a single, long season? We are showing our commitment to the sport and to the league by increasing matches."

The English Premier League, he says, is an example of a long league that works, and asks, "Why is India different?"

He believes an increased supply of matches can "create its own appetite for consumption."

Team owners, on the other hand, weren't worried about the longer season and came prepared. Tripuraneni says the Thalaivas were the only team that had filled up their quota of 25 players, keeping in mind possible hurdles over three months.

"The longer season , potential injuries some of the players could pick up, travelling from one city to another, fatigue will be a factor at some point during the league," he said.

"The coach was very clear that we needed a big squad so that we can always rotate players and keep them fit for all the games." The schedule, Tripuraneni says, has ensured that there will be "enough breaks" in between matches.

According to Dabang Delhi owner Khaitan, "there are a lot of things being done behind the scenes to not let the attention go down. It could also work the other way around but I don't think that should happen. With kabaddi, the biggest factor is it's a short sport, doesn't need as much time. It's generally 40 minutes a day for two days, so I don't personally see it [spectator fatigue] happening.

"There's been a lot of investment in technology such as recovery booths that allow a player to recover much faster. We've built the squad such that players can be rotated and rested, rehabilitated if needed. All these things have been looked into in detail."

Indeed, this season's extended format will allow for more rest days than in the past. Injuries are inevitable in kabaddi, given the high physicality of the sport. Another arguably less-foreseen impact of having more teams is that it requires a larger pool of players. According to a source, in comparison with the talent pool that feeds a league like, say, the IPL, kabaddi simply does not have the comparable number and quality of players who play professionally and are ready to be inducted into a league.

When the big names that are the league's recognisable faces and have come to fuel its excitement factor, are rested - as they inevitably will be - will the players that step in be able to make matches as competitive and interesting - one of the PKL's biggest plus points - as they need to in order to sustain momentum over three months?

Fans believe that if matches are close, star presence or the format will not matter that much.

"If in a lot of matches the margin of victory is not very high, then that will help it work," Shah says. "If the matches are competitive, then the format won't bother the audience as much. The tempo of the matches should be sustained to hold the curiosity of the audience." She added that she is intrigued by the addition of new teams and the creation of new rivalries, besides being eager to see how the players fit in.

Khaitan expressed his belief in the long-term potential of the league, saying "what NBA means to America, PKL will mean to India," while Goswami said he thought the league still had "headroom for growth."

The PKL has evidently followed a significantly different path from that taken by other leagues such as the IPL and the I-League. The PKL was a risk that has paid off big-time, but that didn't mean its creators considered the original recipe for success to be the final one, choosing instead to add and subtract, mix and match ingredients, and even consider letting the product cook for longer. It's fair to say the PKL has changed at a breakneck pace in just three years.

The expanded format may or may not work, but on the evidence of the past three years and the objectives stated by the league commissioner and team owners, it's clear the PKL won't stop evolving, or at least attempting to do so.

Like the "kabaddi, kabaddi" that the PKL's raiders cannot stop chanting, the league, which has now become "synonymous with kabaddi", has chosen to not stop changing.