The Pro Kabaddi League, popularly abbreviated as PKL, has brought life to a dear sport that quite many affirmed had already got one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. While it comes as no surprise that the League has indeed garnered a rural support base, the increasing urban traction is the most significant takeaway from this model.
For the first time ever in the last Asian Games, the Indian men’s Kabaddi team fell just short of what would have been their 8th consecutive Gold in the Games. Since the introduction of the sport in the Asiad Games in 1990, there hasn’t been any occasion that India hadn’t been victorious; be it be in the men’s or women’s competition, both! Also, let us not forget all the glorious World Cup titles won proudly by our Indian men and women over the years in the sporting arenas.
For Kabaddi, this was definitely a turning point and what finally seemed to have some level of competition to India in the form of the powerful Iranians and the swift and nimble Koreans. Much of the credit can go to the PKL which was conceptualized with the intent of not just re-popularising the indigenous game but also taking it from our heartlands and giving it a taste of the urban audience via television! Cut to 2018 and the sixth edition of the now extremely popular Pro Kabaddi League is underway and how six successful seasons in four years with the popularity close to IPL speaks volumes about the rise of Kabaddi which could now be taken seriously as a dependable sports career option.
Pro Kabaddi League sure started as a surprise package but its continual efforts to retain its charm on sports enthusiasts across India made it a huge success in no time. The league got on board everything one could ask for: big sponsors, high-profile owners, a taste of regional loyalty and entertainment. The two most-watched and played sports in India are undoubtedly cricket and football for many years now. However, in terms of TV ratings and reach, kabaddi is today the second most popular sport in India, behind cricket and the IPL, leaving the popular ISL far behind. Since the launch of the Pro Kabaddi League, interest in good ol’ kabaddi has risen and it now competes with football as India’s most popular sport after cricket
Kabaddi’s resurgence is also confirmed by another measure – none other than Google Trends! This bodes good tidings for mobile gaming too. Like TGPL – TicketGoose Premier League which saw a warm response in its avatar of being touted as India’s first virtual cricket strategy game. Of course, all this interest in football and kabaddi pale in comparison with the interest in cricket. Over the last few years, search interest in mobile cricket has exceeded football interest on Google by nearly eight-fold in India. But, despite all these queries, Indians do not seem to be the most cricket-obsessed nation, strangely.
The league started with an overall spending cap of just 60 lakhs in the first season. Rakesh Kumar at 12.8 lakhs was the most expensive player at that time, with several players roped in for just a few thousand rupees. There were hardly any avenues for professional rewards and most of the players were dependent on their employers for a moderate-income for sustenance. The only time there was financial reward was when they picked up prizes at the Asian Games or other regional events.
Kabaddi’s journey from a low profile rural sport to a league with an international fanbase has been a spectacular ride. It was an inspired creation by Charu Sharma, erstwhile sports commentator turned entrepreneur, who created the league in 2014. It was a move that altered the dynamic fundamentally for Kabaddi in India. 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.
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.”
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, fewer 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.
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