Kabaddi is an ancient Indian contact sport that has been played in villages and rural parts of India for centuries. However, despite its rich history and popularity at the grassroots level, kabaddi remained relatively unknown in the mainstream sports scene in India for a long time. There were hardly any large scale professional kabaddi tournaments or leagues in the country.
Things started to change in the early 2010s thanks largely to the efforts of Anand Mahindra, the chairman of the Mahindra Group, and Charu Sharma, a renowned Indian sports commentator and promoter. Anand Mahindra, a kabaddi enthusiast himself, felt that the dynamic and TV-friendly sport of kabaddi had huge untapped potential for growth. In 2005, his company Mahindra Group had sponsored a world-class kabaddi tournament called “Mahindra MCA International Kabaddi Challenge” to promote the sport. Though successful, it was still an invitational knockout tournament.
Anand Mahindra wanted to take things to the next level by launching a longer and more professional league on the lines of hugely popular cricket leagues like IPL. He got Charu Sharma onboard for his business acumen, contacts, and experience in commentary. They decided to create a franchise-based league on the lines of some top international leagues, complete with auctions, celebrity team owners and players, music, entertainment and glamour quotient.
The Beginning of Pro Kabaddi League
After months of planning and subsequent approval from the International Kabaddi Federation and the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India, the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) was formally launched in early 2014. The inaugural edition in 2014 featured eight city-based franchises from various parts of India – Bengaluru Bulls, Bengal Warriors, Dabang Delhi, Jaipur Pink Panthers, Patna Pirates, Puneri Paltan, Telugu Titans and U Mumba.
Innovations in Format and Rules:
Pro Kabaddi League brought in some innovative rules and format changes to make the traditional style of kabaddi more appealing and entertaining for spectators as well as TV audiences which is crucial for any modern professional league to succeed.
One major change was the introduction of a playoff system after the round-robin league stage unlike the straight knockout formats of previous tournaments. The eight teams compete in a double round-robin format where each team plays the other seven teams twice, once at home and once away. The top four teams qualify for the playoffs consisting of eliminators, semi-finals and the ultimate finals match. This extended format allowed fans and viewers to closely follow their teams for a longer period and led to higher engagement.
A number of new attacking and defending “techniques” were also introduced as part of PKL rules like running hand touch, chain tackle, empty raids etc. to add more dynamism and tricks to the games. New substitution rules were also implemented to give more tactical opportunities to the coaches and captains.
The duration of each match was compressed from 40 minutes (two 20 minute halves) traditionally to just 40 minutes total now with each half lasting only 20 minutes. This ensured faster paced and higher scoring matches more suited to limited attention spans of modern audiences. Over time the PKL rules regarding number of players, do-or-die raids, super tackles etc have continued to evolve to maximize entertainment quotient.
Getting the Formula Right:
Pro Kabaddi’s promoters also focused extensively on getting the overall packaging and presentation of the league right before the first season itself in 2014 by incorporating many critical elements…
Celebrity Team Owners – Many famous names from various fields like Bollywood stars Abhishek Bachchan (Jaipur), Shilpa Shetty (Bengaluru), cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar (Kerala) were roped in to own franchises through bidding. Their celebrity appeal and reach on social media helped publicize the new league.
Glitz and Glamour – Bollywood-style elaborate opening shows packed with entertainment, music, dances and appearances by film stars kicked off every PKL season and helped capture eyeballs.
Innovative Arena Setup – Instead of playing on mats, PKL matches took place on synthetic turf which enabled better speed and visibility. Each circular playing arena was surrounded by loud music, 360-degree camera setup and jumbo screens for close-up player images visible to spectators.
Broadcast Innovation – To ensure TV viewers could clearly see the tiny ankle holds in live matches which make or break raids, players wore color bands on their limbs during matches. Multiple camera angles were added specifically for band visibility and referee close ups during decisions.
Massive Marketing – Extensive marketing campaigns across print, digital, outdoors and TV featuring top Bollywood stars promoted PKL aggressively to penetrate India’s fragmented mediascape across languages. Stars like Akshay Kumar, Ranbir Kapoor, Rana Daggubati endorsed the league targeting youth.
Inclusion and Grassroots Focus – Part of the franchise license deals involved owners committing resources towards kabaddi infrastructure and training facilities in their home states to drive youth participation.
Affordable Ticket Rates – Ticket pricing was kept low through online discounts and bundle offers to attract families and bulk bookings from schools, colleges and workplaces. Top European football leagues were studied to benchmark best practices.
Regular Innovations – Novel ideas liked coloured mats denoting lobby areas, tracer lights showing raider trajectories, “water breaks” introduced tactical intrigue. Creative pool introduced new games and variations during timeouts like “Thigh-Five” featuring player interactions.
The combined effect of all these innovative elements made Pro Kabaddi Season 1 in 2014 a big success – targets were exceeded by large margins across viewership, attendances and revenue. Encouraged by the response, the league has carried forwarded the journey with more teams and longer seasons.
Emergence of Homegrown Stars:
One of the most important and positive outcomes of the Pro Kabaddi League has been the emergence of high profile homegrown stars from the sport of kabaddi. Over the past few seasons, players have broken out from relative obscurity to gain name, fame and financial security.
Modern sports fans love to passionately support and follow individual stars who drive their team’s fortunes and PKL has managed to create iconic player heroes through storytelling, media hype and consistent performances.
Here are some prominent examples:
Rahul Chaudhari (Raider)
- Holds record for most raid points in PKL history
- Poster boy of Tamil Thalaivas franchise
- Known for quick toe touches, flashy dives and tattooed biceps
Manjeet Chhillar (Defender)
- Among the top tackling defenders in PKL history
- Led Jaipur Pink Panthers to title wins
- Credited for lethal ankle holds from left corner position
Pardeep Narwal (Raider)
- Holds record for most points in one PKL season – 369
- Specialist in dangerous “dubki” diving back kicks
- Single handedly won titles for Patna Pirates
Ajay Thakur (Raider)
- Called the “bonus king” for his ability to cross baulk lines
- Captained India to Asian Games Gold in 2018
- Scored crucial do-or-die points for Tamil Thalaivas
These individual stars have gained large, loyal fan followings thanks to their consistent displaying game winning skills, daredevilry and athleticism in pressure situations along with vibrant personalities. Their heroics on the mat as well as human stories of humble origins and hardships have made them household names across India.
Kabaddi stars are now role models for many youngsters, especially from rural pockets where the sport is actively played during monsoons. They are featured in many TV ads and get backing from top brands. The solidification of individual kabaddi stars with fans has been a force multiplier for PKL as home team fan bases blossom around their exploits.
The well packaged and high octane competition of Pro Kabaddi League proved to be a massive commercial success as well right from the start.
Sponsors and Investors:
By credibly modeling itself after much bigger sports leagues like IPL, PKL managed to quickly attract blue chip sponsors and esteemed investors drawn towards the league’s transparency and broadcast reach.
Title Sponsors: Companies like Star Sports, Vivo and Flipkart have splurged top dollars in bagging the coveted title sponsor slot for PKL seasons which fund bulk of the league’s operations and prize money.
Team Sponsors: Franchises have also been successful in roping in a diverse set of lead sponsors for their teams across sectors – Panasonic (Bengal Warriors), Billion (Bengaluru Bulls), Ultratech (Dabang Delhi) to name a few.
Celebrity Investors: After seeing healthy ROIs and soaring valuations from early franchise owners, more businessmen including Ronnie Screwvala, Sourav Ganguly and Adani Group acquired teams later for massive prices demonstrating long term confidence.
Pro Kabaddi’s television viewership has consistently surpassed expectations and set new records. The 2014 opening season itself garnered 435 million viewers on TV – way ahead of targets. PKL viewership today competes neck-and-neck with much established cricket leagues like IPL.
225 million people watched the PKL finals in Season 7 – the highest ever for any non-cricket match in India. Multiple matches have garnered more than 100 million+ views indicating the league’s growing appeal. PKL’s short format is very well suited for today’s shrinking attention spans across both linear and digital mediums.
As internet penetration deepens across India, Pro Kabaddi League has witnessed massive growth in its digital footprint as the league strategically invests in shareable short video content for social media and localized language commentary for YouTube etc.
Facebook: 15 million dedicated PKL community receiving real-time match updates
Instagram: 1.2 million highly engaged followers consuming player profiles and behind-the-scene features
Twitter: More than half a million fans get latest league news and reactions
Given India’s younger demographics and cheap data prices, digital is slated to drive the next wave of PKL fandom much like IPL earlier through gamification and vernacular interfaces across screens. Star India network will continue to leverage technology to feed this habit.
Pro Kabaddi League has managed to make kabaddi, often unfairly labelled as predominantly a rural sport, genuinely aspirational for youngsters even from metros, a far cry from tepid interest levels seen before.
Kabaddi academies and coaching camps have mushroomed across cities and small towns to feed this increased demand as more kids take up the indigenous sport. Arjuna Awardees like Kripa Shankar talk about greater acceptance from urban families now when recommending kabaddi for their children.
From a viewership standpoint, PKL has managed the uncommon feat of attracting TV audiences from both the traditional kabaddi strongholds of rural India as well as newer urban youth / family segments thereby broadening its appeal. Advertisers love the unique combination of rural penetration and metro eyeballs that kabaddi viewership offers.
Even popular culture has started celebrating kabaddi thanks largely to PKL’s emergence. Bollywood is releasing films like Padmaavat and Sultan that showcase kabaddi in key sequences due to its rising profile. Sony Music released an anthhem song “Kabaddi Kabaddi” for the 2018 Asian Games when India won gold. Star Sports produced a 15 episode youth drama series “Kabaddi Once Again” in 2019 to bring fiction to PKL’s success.
Mainstream news media, initially skeptical about kabaddi’s appeal, today dedicates regular front page column space for Pro Kabaddi during its seasons as a top performing sporting league on consistent basis.
While Pro Kabaddi League has managed to achieve dizzying success since its launch in 2014, growing the league to even greater heights has its own challenges in the road ahead. Here are some key issues:
No Club Rugby Culture: Unlike Europe’s football leagues fuelled by historically deep rooted city clubs and fan loyalties, kabaddi is still new for many supporters without long term city-based bonds making fan retention tricky.
Overexposure Risk: Critics argue kabaddi’s short 7 week duration frames are leading to viewer fatigue and potential overexposure by squeezing years worth of matches within 2 months annually. Concerns exist on whether such rapid expansion will implode if viewer numbers decline.
Foreign Players: Unlike cricket’s IPL which allows strong participation from elite global talents, Pro Kabaddi still lacks impressive quality or quantity of foreign player influx for which rules need relaxation. Wider talent pools can raise playing standards.
Nurturing Grassroots: While many players have emerged from the system as stars, critiques point PKL must invest more funds into amateur circuits to strengthen domestic player depth beyond the novelty factor instead of excessive focus on entertainment alone.
Stiff Competition in Sports Market: Olympics, Soccer World Cups, Badminton and the almighty IPL mean limited sports budget for advertisers who tend to favour more established properties over Pro Kabaddi. Long term visibility still needs to be proven.
In spite of above challenges, Pro Kabaddi League’s foundation today after 7 years looks fairly robust given the surging younger demographics of India, rising penetration of cheaper data access and explosion of screens with diverse content consumption habits across languages.
Kabaddi as an aspirational homegrown sport enjoys distinct advantages which shrewd management can leverage to trump most global sports over the next decade even if current dizzying growth levels are not sustained forever. With strategic nurturing, Pro Kabaddi may soon emulate Indian cricket’s giant leap from a colonial pastime to a mega billion dollar industry today.