After three successful seasons on the mat, the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) has clearly laid the foundation for a robust new era. Kabaddi, a hitherto unfancied sport, is suddenly awash in glory fuelled by a brilliant marketing strategy and powered by television. Credit is largely due to Star India and Mashal Sports, but both need to revisit their assumptions as they continue to deal with the ground-breaking opportunity facing Kabaddi today.
The PKL’s eight teams representing Patna and Kolkata in the east, Mumbai and Pune in the west, Delhi and Jaipur in the north and Bengaluru and Visakhapatnam in the south provide adequate regional coverage to arouse pan-India interest. The month long caravan has worked well so far, growing in popularity with each successive run.
Since its inception in July 2014, the owners have been thinking on the fly and the decision to make the competition a biannual affair is indication of their market savvy. But too much of a good thing is hard to sustain and it remains to be seen whether interest can be sustained when the fourth season returns in June this year.
Increasing the frequency of the competition does offer a chance of lateral growth but kabaddi needs far more than just that. The contrast for kabaddi, from say cricket, is very interesting. Unlike the latter which for decades was dominated by urban players, kabaddi was largely a game played by youth in rural and semi-urban areas. It hardly generated any interest in the metros.
But drawing from the success of the Indian Premier League with an exciting format and fast-paced action, kabaddi has ignited the imagination of audiences across the country. The momentum is clearly there but plenty needs to be done to sustain it.
The success of the PKL, for example, hasn’t spawned a slew of academies or playing grounds where young Indians can embrace the game. Badminton, on the other hand, has been a beneficiary of such a trend with a deep reservoir of resources developing over the past decade. A growing number of youngsters have taken to the sport.
There is a curious dichotomy in the suggestion that urban and semi-urban audiences are happy to enjoy the action from the comfort of their couches but are not as enthusiastic in embracing the physically demanding sport. This is a problem that needs to be addressed through structural intervention.
Besides a loyal fan base and vast numbers of television audiences, the PKL also has the blessings of key governing bodies running kabaddi. The International Kabaddi Federation, Asian Kabaddi Federation and the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India are all associated with the event. In fact Mashal Sports has been given the rights to conduct the league for a decade by the IKF, with an option to renew it further.
Given such broad backing, the PKL ought to assume greater responsibility than just running a successful league once every six months. This is a great opportunity to expand the game in India and the region and it should be grasped with both hands. The sport is one of the most inclusive physical activities imaginable and it needs barely any paraphernalia, making it readily accessible to large sections of an increasingly young India.
The PKL needs to do a few things immediately to ensure that the momentum is used to consolidate the gains and build a strong future for the sport.
First, there is an immediate need to professionalise the association with the players and coaches that represent the teams. An annual relationship that obligates the players to train and work in the city of their franchise could lay the foundation for a strong league.
It will also help the franchise owners to create a school of learning and practice not just for the players but also for other promising youngsters. As with any strong professional league, this will deepen regional loyalties and provide a platform for the development of local talent. Young prospects will only benefit from watching and working with the stars they admire and their teachers.
Second, the AKFI needs to harness the growing popularity of the league to reach out to schools and colleges across the country. This is a great opportunity to deepen participation and increase the pool of talent.
India is the most powerful kabaddi nation in the regional context and the success of the league should help us build a larger collection of players. Given the lack of expense associated with playing kabaddi, it could emerge as a meaningful tool for social transformation, beyond being a sport.
Third, the league needs to think beyond holding hit and run commercially viable events. As more and more talent is drawn to a network of kabaddi schools across the country, the PKL needs to expand regionally. It is important that we adopt the conference model of the United States, paving the way for an NBA style league where regional leaders collide in a concentrated grand finale lasting a few weeks every year.
Kabaddi stands at the cusp of a massive opportunity. It would be a criminal waste if we do not work to benefit from the democratic appeal of the sport and its great accessibility to drive more participation. This needs to be done while the opportunity exists or we might end up with just another television series that had a great run for a few seasons. Let us hope that we can all work collectively to make the most of the incredibly great opportunity staring at us.