Image author Amir Hosseini
Back in 2014, Star Sports bought the rights to India’s Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). Siddharth Sharma, the company’s creative director, had to do a lot of work to defend the network’s decision to do so.
Why? Despite the sport’s history and overall popularity, not many Indians believed that it could be a success. The sport did not have a track record being televised, people had not been clamoring for it to be added, and urban India generally turned up its nose at the sport.
Not only that, it was technically difficult to get it done. Kabaddi was traditionally played on dusty sports fields; how would you present the sport? How could you televise it without mass confusion? Turns out, Star Sports was onto a winner right from the start.
Kabadi’s Soaring Popularity
In 2021, all of these doubts seem a little silly. The sport increased its viewership base by 100 million. It’s not quite managed to knock cricket off its perch, but it currently sits pretty as the second most-watched sport in the country.
This means that Kabbadi now beats major sporting events like soccer’s World Cup, essentially the most popular series of fixtures anywhere. Not only that, three Pro Kabaddi League games actually managed to beat cricket test matches in a tv-ratings standoff.
The suits have taken notice of the sport’s stratospheric growth, with the league seeing a rapid upswing in investment. In 2017, for example, Star Sports signed a sponsorship deal worth over $40 million. Excluding cricket, it was the biggest sports sponsorship deal ever signed in India.
Perhaps even more surprising, the sport isn’t just popular in India. In 2018’s Asia Games, for instance, Iran beat both India’s men’s and women’s teams to the gold medal. India no longer dominates in the sport, with other countries starting to invest and seeing fan viewership grow.
It’s embedding itself in many other countries, attracting fervent fan support. Alternatively, measure it in betting terms; the sport is now no longer several clicks away from the sports line, with many companies now offering a wide range of markets. According to Journalist at Superlenny.com, Tanvi Clarke, fans on sports betting sites no longer pose a question ‘what is kabaddi’, but head straight to its section to place bets.
What’s Behind the Surge?
The new wave of interest started in 2006 when many fans were introduced to Kabaddi through the Asian Games. After the league was launched in 2014, alongside televised games, consumer feedback showed that fans saw the game as innovative and entertaining, a modern alternative to traditional sports.
While the barebones qualities of the sport do a lot of the heavy lifting, Kabaddi could not have succeeded without the innovative approach of the league and production teams. The smart production during televised broadcasts, the innovation on the format and presentation of the sport, all of these things combined to engage the average viewer.
It’s clear that those behind Kabaddi had a clear strategy in mind, employing widespread coverage from large media channels, social media engagement, contracting big-name celebrities, as well as creating a solid infrastructure for the sport to succeed in the long term.
How Kabaddi Works
Even many Indians were a little confused when the sport first hit television screens. It’s an ancient game, but urbanites, in particular, had never seen it being played. To the untrained eye it essentially looks like a free-for-all game of tag. There’s a lot of running, tackling, grabbing of the ankles; it looks fun, for sure, but a bit of a mess. But then again, so do a lot of other sports, until you understand the subtleties of what makes it work.
Here are the basics: two teams, 12 on each. The court has a midline, with a ‘raider’ on one team battling it out against seven defenders on the opposite squad. With chants of ‘kabaddi’, the raider is tasked with tatting as many opponents as possible after crossing the midline. They must return back to ‘their’ half before being tackled. Every player tagged = 1 point. However, if they’re tackled, no points.
The defenders can also earn points when they stop the raiders in their tracks. When a raider is tackled or tagged by the opposition, they’re out of the game. However, if their team scores a point, they can go back into the mix of things.
The game’s history is a little murky, with arguments still ongoing about the true origins. The game in some form has links to ancient India, and developed as a modern competitive sport last century.
The Future of Kabaddi
Even though the sport’s history isn’t quite so clear, the future seems to be set: kabaddi is growing to become a force to be reckoned with. Increasing viewership, a wider range of sponsors, and interest from beyond the Indian subcontinent point to a very bright future. Future Olympic sport, perhaps?