A 4000-year-old Indian sport hits prime time

One of the thousands of Kabaddi matches played every day across India

The young, well-built kabaddi player inhales deeply and crosses the centre line muttering “Kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi…” He’s in opposition territory and the objective is to get back to home turf after raiding the opponents. He can stay there as long as his breath holds, which is roughly about 25-30 seconds. Managing to touch any opposition player, with a lunging arm or leg, gives him a point and the player who is touched has to sit out the game until a team member manages to ‘out’ a player from the opposite side. If they ‘capture’ him before his breath runs out, they score a point and the ‘captured’ player, likewise sits out the game until he can be won back into play by his team. The team that ‘wipes out’ all opposing players wins. That’s the game.

Any quadrangle in the backyard will do. Seven players to a side. No bats, racquets, nets, or any other game equipment. It can be started and disbanded within minutes. A quick congregation does not take more than 10-15 minutes to wrap. Scoring is simple. All that’s needed is a drawn-out rectangle on flat ground with a line in the middle demarcating the territory the players have to stay within. And intensely physical gameplay requiring lightning-fast reflexes. The only change is what players mutter under their breath – hu tu tu, sadugudu…depending on which part of the country the game is played.

The commoner’s game

A Pro Kabaddi league match. Pic: Hindustan Times

Kabaddi is not sophisticated. It’s primal. There’s a rough and tumble core that can’t be changed. It does not even pretend to be subtle. Sweaty male bodies go up against each other – kicking, grasping, slipping and lashing out to secure an advantage. When a capture is made, the defender lunges for the ankle, or a thigh-hold to deter movement and ensure that the opponent does not cross the centre line. The others on the team have to instantly decide between getting involved and keeping their hands off. If they all get involved and the opponent still manages to break free, they all have to sit it out and lose precious points. 

Its rural origin and ethos have dimmed the urban appeal. Children in metros rarely play the game in school – and the fact that no equipment is required means the commercial motivations to promote it are negligible. The close quarters’ physical gameplay may be exceptionally intense for the video game generation. All these would have been factored during the packaging of the game and evaluating its appeal before the launch. India is a cricket-obsessed nation, ever since 1983 when it won the Cricket World Cup for the first time. Few other sports, like badminton and wrestling, have even middling viewership on sports channels. Football is popular but India has yet to produce a team that competes on the world stage.

The long route to a breakthrough

The Pro Kabaddi League has come a long way. Pic: Latestly,com

Strangely enough, the seeds of Pro Kabaddi were sown as far back as 1951 when it was staged as a demonstration game during the Asian Games. Almost forty years later, in 1990, it became part of the official Asian Games schedule. Though the Kabaddi Federation did its bit, the game would languish until Charu Sharma, a well-known sports commentator was asked to be part of the world feed for Kabaddi commentary at the Asian Games in Doha in 2006. To prepare for the job, he visited prominent rural outposts of Kabaddi to get a feel for the sport. As he saw the involvement and enthusiasm of crowds and the players, he realised media had neglected or not understood the game’s business potential. Charu Sharma was also related to Anand Mahindra, the chief of one of India’s major auto companies and pitched the idea to him. Mahindra has a presence in tractors, so the connection with the rural masses would play well for the brand – the pieces were falling into place.

A Pro Kabaddi match

In spite of the momentum, it would take another eight years for the launch of Pro Kabaddi – in 2014. By then, the template for blockbuster event properties in India had been established in cricket by IPL. There was investor interest in the next big thing. Though Kabaddi was popular, its ability to garner TV ratings was untested. And the packaging, format and branding were crucial if it had to take off from the launchpad.

Tournament or League

Football, basketball, and cricket have prospered by extending the run-up to a final. By ramping up the number of matches played between the competing teams and having large audiences tune in for longer periods drives television viewership numbers and opens up additional slots for advertising. A tournament is about matches and steady elimination alone. But in a league format, teams get multiple opportunities to show off their skills and players develop fan followings with their gaming exploits. This is now a well-traversed formula.

In 2014, the teams and the players were virtual unknowns, getting acquired at extremely low prices. But in just 5 years, there has been a complete transformation. Star Sports put up an impressive show with high-end graphics, multiple cameras and well-executed telecasting, right from the first season. Promotions featuring the players were splashed across media and their exploits in the matches written up in magazines and soon, the players themselves became mini-celebs, though nowhere near the dominance of the country’s cricketing gods. Brands stalking the rural markets saw a great fit and the advertiser’s profile has been steadily growing from year to year.

Making a primetime splash

Getting the big-game feel. Pic: Prokabaddi.com

The most impressive statistic was the viewership garnered from the starting block. On Wikipedia, it shows the astonishing strides the Pro Kabaddi League has made: As per the available data of the opening two weeks, Star Sports Pro Kabaddi viewership on TV increased by nearly 56% from the 2014 year’s viewership. During the inaugural season, viewership was 43.5 crore (435 million) viewers, which was the second in India after the 56 crore (560 million) of IPL viewership. The online viewership also increased to 1.3 crore unique visitors, which is 18.5 times than of last year’s 7 lakh unique visitors. The third season which was flagged off on 30 January, recorded a surge in viewership with the opening week ratings 36 percent higher than the week one viewership for its last season 

A different game is now being played behind the scenes. Star Sports has a 74% stake in Mashal Sports and the next round of auctions is due in 2020. The interests of the team owners and the broadcaster are at the crossroads and now that the Pro Kabaddi League has become extremely valuable, it’s a high stake battle. But this one will remain out of the floodlights and the public eye!  

Read Next: Ferrari’s Instagram clash

Or this: What does ‘please’ mean?

Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started over 14 years ago. I have over 35 years of experience in building brands in businesses as different as fairness creams, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising