From a native Indian pastime to a glamorous high-octane televised spectacle, from a dusty mud ground to a made-for-TV, graphic-laden mat, from school-children breathlessly chanting the name of the game to A-list movie stars cheering from the front rows, the game of kabaddi has made quite a leap, all in a span of three seasons. In 2014, the centuries-old sport of kabaddi took flight with the introduction of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), a franchise system that had eight teams and 96 players (26 international ones) in glittering arenas that almost rivalled the IPL. PKL also had the might of Star India, the official broadcaster and a majority stakeholder in the league. It has now completed three seasons.
How did kabaddi become the nation's second most watched sport in its very first season?
GLUED TO THE ACTION
PKL's first season in 2014 reached 435 million viewers over its five-week run, while the IPL, in its 2014 edition was viewed by 552 million. Football oriented Indian Super League's (ISL) first season in 2014 had 429 million viewers. Figures for Season 2 were not comparable because of the BARC-TAM change-over.
In the first two weeks of Season 3, PKL reached 189 million viewers; according to Star, the numbers suggested a 36 per cent rise in viewership over last year. "Star Sports Pro Kabaddi had a vision to galvanise a traditional Indian sport and transform it into an aspirational game for players and fans. The league's bi-annual plans for 2016 reflect the nation's choice and hunger to be associated with an Indian sport that we have successfully modernised," says Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India.
Shankar adds, "We have not only seeded a multi-sport culture but have also presented India with its very own sport and heroes."
In its first season, PKL was telecast on Star Gold, Star Sports - 1 to 4, FTA channel Star Utsav and regional channels (Plus Suvarna, Maa Movies and Asianet Movies). In season 2, six channels (Star Gold, Star Sports - 2 and 3, Plus Suvarna, Maa Movies, Star Pravah) beamed out the action. Season 3 was aired on five channels (Star Gold, Star Sports - 2 and 3, Plus Suvarna, Maa Movies). Star also claims a 33 per cent growth in 'total minutes viewed', on Hotstar, its digital platform, over the first 11 days of Season 3.
India has won the Kabaddi World Cup for five years in row, and has done well at other global sport meets. In early 2006, cricket commentator Charu Sharma was called for the Doha Asian Games as a commentator for the kabaddi matches. Sharma observed that it was the first game to sell out there.
He says, "I had to do my research. That the sport had immense popularity throughout India - from the street to the national level - was an eyeopener. I wondered why the game hadn't been made more available to us." Sharma approached the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF) to do something about it and recalls talking to industrialist (and brother-in-law) Anand Mahindra to consider bringing in some corporate might.
Calling it a 'crazy crusade' he says, "In 2010, at the Guangzhou Asian Games, the story began again, where I spoke to both J.S. Gehlot (president of IKF) and the Amateur Kabaddi Federation's Devraj Chaturvedi." Mahindra and Sharma founded their sports marketing company Mashal Sports, in early 2011, to take the initiative forward.
While Mahindra put in his personal funds, Sharma did the "running around". Rajiv Luthra of Luthra and Luthra Law also helped out. "We got the rights from the Amateur Kabaddi Federation. They gave us long-term rights in full trust - 10 years plus another 5 plus 5 further, with built-in escalation. The next step was live TV. For six months I approached various channels, but no one was convinced. Dealing with the commercial and ad sales people was crushing," recalls Sharma.
According to Sharma, the big change came when Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox acquired ESPN's 50 per cent stake in its JV, ESPN Star Sports. Post this, the Star Sports brand came under Star India, which now owns a 74 per cent stake in Mashal Sports. Sharma then went looking for the teams.
Explains Sharma, "For team owners, we wanted to get high net worth individuals with a good reputation and understanding of India." Ronnie Screwvala was among the first to join in. Other franchise owners include Abhishek Bachchan (Jaipur Pink Panthers), Uday Kotak (Puneri Paltan) and Kishore Biyani (Bengal Warriors). Their 'network' led to high profile faces attending matches and adding to audience pull.
GAINING NEW GROUND
As popularity soared, sponsorship got better. Season 2 had new categories such as automobiles (TVS), e-commerce (Flipkart), apparel (VIP Frenchie), banks (SBI), beverages (Thums Up), electricals (Bajaj Electricals) and government bodies (Department of Atomic Energy), with Britannia and Radio Mirchi as partners.
Season 3 saw TVS Motors, Bajaj Electricals, Flipkart, SBI renewing their deals. Five new sponsors - Gionee Mobiles and Idea as associate sponsors, and Fair & Lovely Men's Face Wash, Indo Nissin and PepsiCo as partners - came on board. Says Nitin Kukreja, president - Sports, STAR India, "Between the league and the franchise we've got 68 sponsors. Since it is not an FCT- or inventory-heavy sport like cricket, there is limited space. In Season 2, we had 46 brands. But there are two significant health metrics - the number of brands has grown season to season, and brands have renewed their sponsorship."
Says Vinit Karnik, business head, ESP Properties (a Group M company), "There is great traction from Tier 1 Tier 2 towns. The fact that people are coming to the stadium in cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai and Jaipur is a good indicator. This also helps in getting in the big boys in advertising like a Flipkart or a Thums Up."
TALE OF TWO SEASONS
This year, PKL opted to go in for two seasons - the first leg (from January 30 till this week) and a second one to follow in July-August 2016. Explains Kukreja, "In other sports, whether it's football or cricket, you get the opportunity to follow your team and your 'heroes' through the year. In Kabaddi, there was a limit to start off with. For instance, the opportunity for someone in Andhra to follow a Telugu Titans is limited. So we needed to expand volumes. While we will look for longer seasons as we go along, the starting point is to have two seasons in a year. In 2013 and 2014 we had just 34 days - this year, we will be doing 70-80 days."
Supratik Sen, chief executive officer of U Sports (owner of Mumbai team U Mumba) sees some merit in this. "Brands are loving the two-seasons-in-a-year concept. We are in talks to tour in countries like Germany, the US and UK, and brands are liking these associations too," he says.
On profitability, Sen adds, "We broke even in second season. The third season will stay the same. We are still in 'investment mode' because we want to do more with the sport. If I do my season-to-season, revenue-to-cost analysis, we spent Rs. 6-7 crore in the first season; our spends between the second and third seasons is around Rs. 12-15 crore... and we plan to take it up to Rs. 20-25 crore by Season 5. We'll aim for profits after that."
Commenting on the overall performance of the league, Karnik says, "Building a league is building a business model. No business gives you returns in two or three years or seasons. Kabaddi is a very controlled environment in terms of investments."
THE NEXT TACKLE
Karnik believes that a robust fan base needs to be developed. "Leagues are clubs," he points out, "and clubs are as good as their players. So the next level would be to see how the fans are following a particular franchise, and the players they like. For emerging leagues like PKL, ISL or HIL, having a mature fan community is the second stage." Looking ahead, Kukreja says, "We will make the sport bigger and classier. It's showing potential, and will need investments in the next year or two, to start delivering the fan base that other sports across the world provide. This is not a flash-in-the pan league, or a flash-in-the-pan sport."
A MAKEOVER THAT CREATED A TRP JACKPOT
Experts feel that PKL is a good example of how a sport can occupy mindspace if packaged well. Says Nitin Kukreja, president - Sports, Star India, "The traditional mindset was that it is for rural audiences. Our goal was to make it aspirational and upmarket for all of India, across age groups to see, consume, and love. That's the lens through which it has been packaged for on-air production and marketing. With a view that 'All modern sports have high quality broadcast at their heart', the team at Star Sports focused on the narrative that this was a sport which millions of Indians have played growing up. The broadcast had to renew that experience, create a sense of re-discovery and re-ignite the passion.
Kabaddi is usually played between teams of seven players each on a court (normally 13 metres by 10 meters for men and 8 metres by 12 metres for women) that is divided into two halves. The game is played over 40 minutes. The players raid the opponent's half and attempt to 'tag' or 'capture' opponents (without being captured by the latter) and must hold their breath while running and repeating the word 'kabaddi' while doing so.
So, how did Star create a broadcast experience that took viewers to the very edge of the field of play?
For PKL, the rules were tweaked to limit the raid block to 30 seconds. This led to heightened viewership interest frequently. Sharma says, "Long raid times (usually 45 seconds or more) slowed down games for TV viewers." A Rs. 25,000 cheque is handed out to the 'best moment of the day' which could be a 'super raid' or a 'super tackle'." A 'Super Raid' rule refers to tagging more than three opponents in a single raid. In a 'Super Tackle' a raider has to be tackled or captured by three or fewer than three players of the defending team.
Season 1 and 2 was about Kabaddi as a 'raider's sport', as also seen by the fraternity. But this season, defence strategies evolved faster, and the role of the defender became very important. If three or fewer defenders manage to catch a raider, they get double the points.
INNOVATION IN PRODUCTION
Though mud in an artificially dug pit was a consideration, Kabaddi had to be positioned as a modern sport. In the Asian Games, it was played on a mat. Star also put a black bonus tape on the mat to help first-time watchers. If a raider touched the tape, the team gets one point (the defending team has to have six or more defenders). In season 3, the purple colour of the mat was enhanced to look better on TV.
PKL has a high camera density, with 18 cameras trained on the 13 metre by 10 metre rectangle of action. At any given time, this action takes place on only on one half of it. The challenge for the network's director is to rapidly choose from those 18 feeds at any given moment.
Most sports see a standard set of replays - action replays, opponents' reactions, crowd's sentimental reaction and then back to the 'hero'. In the fast and fluid sport that Kabaddi is, Star had to create opportunities to enable replays. So it worked with referees too. Moments like the 'big tackle' meant deliberated disentanglement and then began the next raid in a more choreographed manner. The opportunities for referees to be on camera also lifted their status, and enabled them to talk to the players with some gravitas.
This has become an integral part of sports coverage at present. The broadcaster needed to offer deep analysis for viewers to understand the basic framework of the game. The appearance of graphics on the mat took the analysis one level deeper and guided the viewer in terms of what the opportunities and stakes are for that moment. The graphics also offer analyses on individual player performance.
THE USE OF MIKES
The iconic part of the game is the Kabaddi 'cant'. Beginning with Season 3, Star has 'miked' the players, employing audio technology from rugby. These mikes capture the grunts and cants of the men in action. The mat too has mikes (there are 10 tiny pinhole cameras embedded) to capture the sounds of play.
And some more...
Commentators had to be trained from scratch, and the commentary is delivered in four languages - English, Hindi, Kannada and Telugu. Women experts and commentators came on for the first time. In season 2, commentators were seen as great engagers of the game and taken into the line-of-camera on the edge of the field, making them great crowd-pullers.
To create a good stadia experience on-feet and on-air, Star has worked on special lighting and also has LED boards for sponsors. The broadcaster has also looked into the seating in most venues to get rich frames with spectators in it.
Star has introduced the concept of 'Kabaddi Quick' to engage people. During breaks, school children in the stands get to play a game at half-time. The four-minute-long game involves two teams of five players each. Each team experiences the thrill of the sport by making three raids alternatively for a maximum of 20 seconds.
Team logos and mascots were designed to appeal to the younger audience (five years to early teens).
PKL has a caravan format - the entourage travels from one participating city to another, playing seven matches at a venue. Each team plays four games at its home ground.
A Note From the Editor
"Kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi..."
How many of us have gone blue in the face canting - yes, it's canting, not chanting, I've been told - this word as kids? When my boss took a quick poll in an edit meeting last week, surprisingly, two out of the six present raised their hand. Kabaddi is very much "part of India's collective childhood memory," as the author of this Cover Story puts it, ever so Carl Jung-esquely. Okay, I'll admit, of two who raised their hand, one was me. As a child, I played it extensively, with kids from the neighbouring slum.
Despite the memories it evokes, making it watchable for the modern day television viewer, who's used to a staple sports diet of cricket and football, was the biggest challenge facing Star, the official broadcaster of the Pro Kabaddi League. The team worked hard at packaging this homegrown game in a manner that helped it transcendits 'rural sport' tag and appeal to all kinds of audiences, even the snooty, upmarket ones.
How did they swing it? That's precisely what this story is about. This fortnight, we take a hard look at how kabaddi gained popularity that trumped that of football (Indian Super League) and was second only to that of cricket (Indian Premier League).
A lot of it has to do with the way the experience of watching the game has been enhanced - for an indoor sport the 'camera density' is very high and some players have mikes attached to their backs. The mat on which the game is played also has mikes embedded in it. No single grunt, huff, puff or roar goes uncaptured.
In a recent interview, Ronnie Screwvala, who owns UMumba, the team that was crowned champion of the Pro Kabaddi League 2015, said, "Kabaddi is a gladiator arena sport..." While that's the sort of sentence headlines are made of, I'll tweak that to - Kabaddi is a rowdy sport with roots in desi mud and a bright future on a synthetic mat.
(The original version of this Cover Story was published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on March 1, 2016)