India chants ‘kabaddi, kabaddi…’

The Pro Kabaddi league is the most watched non-cricketing league in India. Patriot traces the rise of the tournament and the impact it has had on the sport

Cricket is the most popular sport in India by a country mile. But can anyone guess which is the second most watched sport in the country? Neither is it football nor hockey or badminton, but kabaddi.

According to Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) data, the Pro Kabaddi League is the second most watched league in India, after the massively star-studded India Premier League. Amongst non-cricketing leagues in India — including leagues like the Indian Super League and Premier Badminton League — the Pro Kabaddi League is the most watched with 61% viewers tuning in.

But how did kabaddi, a fringe sport till five years ago, suddenly come to the limelight and become one of the premier sports in the country? The credit can be given to Mashal Sports, an organisation started in 1994 by Anand Mahindra, Chairman of the Mahindra Group, and Charu Sharma, a leading TV presenter.

The 2010 Asian Games was a sort of an eye-opener for both Charu Sharma and Mahindra as they saw how the finals between India and Iran was well-received by the Indian public. It was then that they decided to scout players all over the country and start an IPL-like league.

After extensive scouting and research, the first Pro Kabaddi league auction was announced in 2014, with the broadcasting rights given to Star India — the leading sports broadcasters in India. In fact, the Pro Kabbaddi league was the first non-cricket league that was announced in the country in 2014, a few days before the Indian Super League was established. Even though it was established amid much fervor, with big names like the Bachchan family being involved in it, no one had expected the success that followed.

The first season was received quite well with a staggering number of views — standing at 86.4 million, according to a CII-KPMG report. This was the
second most viewed tournament after IPL season 7, just 20% less than the latter.

The views continued to grow with a cumulative growth of 39% over the past five seasons, the highest among any league in India, even the IPL. The league had garnered such massive popularity that the 2017 saw two seasons of the PKL being played.

In 2017, the viewership of PKL was 312 million, which was second only to the 411 million of the IPL. This was more than any other non-cricket league in the country. The viewership was even more than high-stakes international events.

The viewership was nearly three times that of the FIFA World Cup (110 million) and Asian Games 2018 (112 million) and more than 16 times the viewership of the Wimbledon (19 million).

After the first season, Star India not only attained the viewership rights, but also became the main sponsor of the tournament for the next three years by taking a 74% stake in Marshal Sports. The deal was back then the biggest for any non-cricket tournament in India.

In 2018 when the deal expired, companies lined up to become the main sponsor of the PKL. The battle was, however, won by mobile phone giant Vivo for a humongous deal of Rs 60 crore a season for the next five seasons, which amounts to a mammoth 300 crore. This is bigger than any deal ever made for a non-cricket sport in India, even greater than the Indian Super League.

Back in 2014, 96 players were registered in the first ever PKL auction. The cap of each of the eight franchises was set at 60 lakhs. Now, six seasons later in the 2018 version of the auction 181 players from nine different countries were purchased by different franchises, the number of which went up from eight in 2014 to 12 in 2018.The salary cap of each team went from Rs 60 lakhs to Rs 4 crores.

Back in 2014, Rakesh Kumar was the highest paid player in the league as he was picked up for a price of Rs 12 lakhs. In the auctions for the PKL season 6, the prices went through the roof. For the first time this season, six players were picked up by teams for a price in excess of one crore — Monu Goyat (Rs 1.51 crore), Rahul Chaudhary (Rs 1.29 crores), Dipak Hooda (Rs 1.15 crore), Nitin Tomar (Rs 1.15 crore), Rishink Devadiga (Rs 1.11 crore) and Fazel Atrachali (Rs 1 crore). In fact, Fazel Atrachali from Iran became the highest paid foreigner in the league.

Monu Goyat, with his price tag of Rs 1.51 crore became the highest paid non-cricketing sportsman in India, surpassing the 1.50 crore that was paid to India football captain Sunil Chhetri by Bengaluru FC, his ISL franchise.

However, kabaddi has always been a part and parcel of India. The game itself originated right here on the Indian soil. In fact, all the Kabaddi World Cups that have been held till now — both men and women — have been won by the Indian sides. At the Asian Games, India has won a gold almost every year since the sport was included in this event; the only exception being in 2018 when they secured a silver medal.

But in the 2016 World Cup, the first and only since the inception of the PKL, was watched by 113 million viewers, thus becoming the most watched non-cricketing international tournament in the country. So, even though the sport was always a part of the sporting structure in India, it was the Pro Kabaddi
league that brought it to the limelight.

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