This essay was published in my weekly newsletter on Jan 2, 2020.
Kabaddi, a sport that originated in India and popularized in leagues since the 1920s, was never the topmost sport in the country. Until the late 1980s it was Hockey, after which India started obsessing over cricket. As cricket grew in popularity, it created so many careers. Not just for the players, but the managers, organizers, coaches, etc. If you visit any city in India, you can view how popular cricket is by looking at streets or fields. You would find several interpretations of cricket, with rules being tweaked to suit the conditions and space.
But, Kabaddi did not die. India has been a consistent performer in Kabaddi at the world stage. It has won all 3 world cups that have happened so far. The sport doesn’t qualify in Olympics yet, because of the limited number of countries playing, but the growth trajectory of Kabaddi could lead to a World Cup berth in a few years’ time.
Pro Kabaddi League
In 2014, Mashal Sports and Star Sports launched the Pro Kabaddi League with 8 teams from across India. This league is modeled after the success of a similar Cricket league, the Indian Premier League.
Over the years, the PKL has become the second most-watched leagues in India. In fact, in 2018, the PKL managed to attract a higher India viewership than the soccer world cup, one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. In December 2018, the league was rated higher than the Indian cricket team’s Test match win against Australia in 2018.
The trend of growth is echoed in Google Trends as well. This is a chart showing the percentage of people searching for Football, Hockey and Kabaddi in India.
Look at the interest in Kabaddi during the June to September period, right when the Pro Kabaddi League happens. Kabaddi is giving serious competition to Football, the second most searched sports in India after Cricket.
According to Nielsen Sports, interest in Kabaddi itself has grown by 14% year-over-year since 2015. At the same time, player salaries have also grown by quite a lot. The maximum salary in Season 1 was ₹12 lakh. In Season 6, one player went for ₹1.5 crores, the highest-paid professional athlete in the country outside cricket. Star India likely earned Rs 200 to 230 crore from PKL in 2019, a significant jump from 2018 when their revenue was likely Rs 150 crore.
A lot of this comes at the backdrop of smart production and packaging of the sport. Kabaddi is a short-format sport packed with action, with something or the other happening every minute to keep the audience engaged. Each side gets a chance every 30 seconds. At the same time, there is a lot of strategy involved, which keeps people guessing about the outcome.
Why is this important?
Looking at the numbers, we can expect Kabaddi to keep growing over the next decade. Revenues from Kabaddi would grow while creating many more jobs, not only for players and their staff, but in marketing, advertising, and whatnot. The growth in viewership will inspire younger generations to take up the sport.
That said, why should PKL be the only league that earns all the revenues?
In Cricket, apart from IPL, there are several local leagues, which are broadcasted live on YouTube. Tennis Cricket, a channel that exclusively streams local leagues in Maharashtra, has 637k subscribers. With the growth of a bigger league, several smaller leagues popup.
We can expect something similar in Kabaddi.
I am sure that there are smaller Kabaddi leagues happening across India at the junior level. With investment in production and marketing, businesses can be built on streaming these leagues. Revenue can come in from sponsors as viewership increases.
With YouTube, distribution is practically free. You don’t have to pay to upload videos. The easiest way to start a business today is to take your phone, shoot videos and upload them to YouTube.
In fact, why should such a model be restricted to Kabaddi only? Think about Football, Hockey, Basketball, etc. There is a huge revenue potential to be earned by streaming sports at a local level. For example, district-level school tournaments are great for viewership by school students. If students view their peers on screens, they are likely to engage in the sport more often, even getting encouraged to play sports more often.
For India to be a sporting nation, sports have to reach the nooks and corners of the country. So far, only cricket has been able to do that. Would Kabaddi be the next?
I hope it is.
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