New Delhi: When Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) started in 2014, there were legitimate apprehensions about its viability and sustainability. Indian Premier League (IPL) had captured the attention of television audience like never before, and breaching that citadel was unthinkable.
However, with a format custom-made for the TV audience and an assembly line of top kabaddi players from India and beyond, PKL became the second most-watched league in the country. Into its seventh edition now, the league promises to give upcoming players a headstart into top-flight competition, while maintaining the high standards of sport on offer.
Firstpost caught up with the CEO of Mashal Sports and League Commissioner VIVO Pro Kabaddi Anupam Goswami to take stock of where PKL stands and the way ahead. Excerpts:
PKL is into its seventh edition now. How do you look at the league's journey from 2014 to now?
It is a big achievement to have come this far. The fact that we are in the seventh season is in itself an achievement because very few sports leagues in India last that long. Above all, the metrics are there. It is the second-largest sport on TV in India, which is a big achievement when you have every other sport competing for that spot, more so for a sport that is not considered a mainstream urban thing. Because of kabaddi, we can say that India has an appetite for a multi-sport culture. However, these are still early days of kabaddi and we have a long way to go, but if there's a strong foundation of homegrown world-class sport, it is PKL.
Kabaddi window is the monsoon window (July to October). Last season, it was shifted to October-January window because of Asian Games, which means we are back with the next season in barely seven months.
What, according to you, has contributed to PKL's astounding success?
One of the reasons for PKL's success is that the institutional apparatus has been around for a while. Our partnership is with Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India which is a member of Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and is recognised by the Sports Ministry. We have a model of governance that is world-class and we've got an elaborate structure to maintain that. We at Mashal Sports have got an ethics and governance council which is headed by Justice Ajit Prakash Shah who has been the Ombudsman of BCCI. Modern institutions come in with a lot of self-regulation, which is evident in the way we function. That is an expectation people have of us, and like every good institution, we are doing that.
What is PKL doing to ensure the quality of production and output is maintained?
People expect us to create a great crucible to showcase the sport as per world-class standards, and we are continuously improving in that respect. There are investments and efforts to upgrade technology, operations, format etc. Another area is to ensure there is the next generation of talent coming. We have a 'Future Kabaddi Heroes Programme' programme which is a one-of-its-kind for any league in this country. It is unique in the sense that the league itself has taken the responsibility to find fresh talent, and we are doing it at a large scale. In fact, a lot of public and private sector employers discover talents for their teams through our talent search programme. If you clear the first stage of our programme, you're certain to find a job as a kabaddi player anywhere in India.
PKL is credited to have created an awareness of sorts in the way people look at kabaddi. Would you call it your biggest achievement?
Despite the existing framework, kabaddi was always a sub-terranean, subaltern sport. PKL has made it a mainstream sport, and that I think is the biggest achievement of this league.
It has been part of Asian Games since 1990, and has been regularly bringing medals for India, but nobody noticed it the way it should have been noticed. After PKL arrived in 2014, the Asian Games 2014 gold is looked at in a big way. Suddenly, PKL is being talked about as a big catharsis. Star has brought kabaddi on TV, but at the same time, the sport has grown in the ground as well.
The stature of players has also improved...
Absolutely. The strongest manifestation of our success is the stature of players. When PKL started, the salary of a peak player was Rs 12 lakh for a season; it has gone up ten times now. The median salary has gone up 10 times from 6-7 lakh, and all this has happened in a space of five years and six seasons. Another big achievement of PKL is that it has created a pool of the next generation of kabaddi players.
PKL has also introduced technology in kabaddi in a way that was unheard of before. Can you take us through that thought process?
First and foremost, we see technology as a means to create more lines of information for the consumer and to increase fans' engagement with sport. When we talk about technology, there are two aspects to it. All technology in sports is around the narrative. It creates a new kind of content or analytics. PKL is one of the most camera-intense productions in the world of sport. The court is 10 x 13 metres, and at any given moment, the action is in a 6.5 x 10 box, i.e. in one half of the mat. I don't think there's any other sport where so many cameras are trained in one area to capture the action. There's a huge amount of technology involved to capture that action.
Then comes detailed processing of that information. Technology is needed to create a new line of narrative - it may be about personal performances of a player, tactics, officiating decisions. PKL is the only form of kabaddi in the world where you can have a video referral simply because there are so many lenses at work that helps you arrive at a decision.
With time, more teams have been added in PKL and the structure of the league has been changed twice. Does it affect players in any way?
I don't think it affects them in a negative way. Whatever we do is far better than what they used to do. This time, we have tried to lower the number of home matches in home legs. That is not an easy thing to do, because on certain days you won't have home team playing. We know fans turn up either for home teams or for big names, but we are willing to see how it goes.
PKL is one of the best-designed kabaddi tournaments in the world in terms of rest and recovery for the players. The caravan format gives players enough time to recover, and also helps in fan engagement. We have sharply reduced the variance in the number of matches played by any team at any given moment of time, and by the time we come to the 66th match of the league, all teams would have played the same number of matches. The second half of the tournament will thus be as relevant as the first half. It is a big exercise we have undertaken, and I think it will make a difference to the fans.
The seventh season of PKL is into its first week. What kind of expectations do you have from this edition?
The league is returning to its core cities (Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Jaipur), and we are hoping for greater engagement of fans between teams and players. Also, there is a slight change in the timings of the matches. The idea behind starting the matches at 7:30 pm is to ensure that the second match will start a little earlier, and it helps spectators. Most of our stadiums are not best served by public transport, and when matches finish by 10:30, as was the case earlier, it becomes tough for children to travel. But more than anything else, we have a new generation of players and we are trying to give them a great platform to play great kabaddi.
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2019 14:55:39 IST