Game on, India

A forgotten village game, reinvented for modern India

The lights. The fans. The buzz. Suddenly there’s absolute silence – only the muted sound of deep breathing. Then, just one word is spoken, over and over. Kabaddi. Kabaddi. Kabaddi. Kabaddi. Kabaddi. Kabaddi.

Kabaddi World Cup, 2016

In just 40 minutes in the midst of the 2014 monsoon, India’s sporting history experienced a revolution. In a country traditionally obsessed with cricket, we transformed kabaddi – a sport that was dismissed as a rural pastime, and reintroduced it to the world in a high-octane TV sporting event.

The power of belief

We had unwavering faith in kabaddi. How fascinating, thrilling and magical is a game where a lone player storms the den of seven mighty opponents, tags them and runs for dear life as his rivals grab his limbs and furiously try to pin him down?

Children learning to play kabbadi at school

Our heart was beating with India’s. To evolve a country of nearly 1.3 billion people into a sports superpower, we have to invest in a national culture where people are genuinely interested in various sports – not just cricket. Our efforts with hockey, football and badminton had been encouraging. But kabaddi was different. It was our very own. Our desi, homegrown, full contact sport with a history and legacy that seemed to have been forgotten. In small pockets where it was played, the talent was there. Players had a burning desire to excel and become heroes but they were hardly recognised, and the fans felt abandoned.

Marking out a kabaddi pitch

Kabaddi’s history and legacy

Legend has it that kabaddi originated in Tamil Nadu over 4,000 years ago. Past fans include the Buddha, and the princes who played to display their strength and win their brides.

Kabaddi was being played at a competitive level internationally. The sport became part of the Beijing Asian Games in 1990. Women’s kabaddi also got introduced in the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. India won the Gold Medal in all the editions and several kabaddi players were awarded with the prestigious Arjuna award. Sadly, in spite of the accolades, kabaddi never got its due recognition and was almost forgotten post 90’s.

Anyone born in India before the 1980s would have played kabaddi during their youth. For them, the sport was synonymous with skill, speed, strategic thinking, fitness, thrill and drama but many people from the next generation perceived it as just rural entertainment and urban India had little or no interest. This misconception had to change.

Giving kabaddi a makeover

Kabaddi needed a breath of fresh air. The sport had to be modern and entertaining with heroes and role models for young India. It was important to reach every home across India and beyond. We did just that.

The League, promoted by Mashal Sports and Star, received a new identity. The village fields gave way to state-of-the-art indoor stadiums. We replaced the dusty mud pitches with coloured mat surface courts. Bare-bodied players now had smartly designed kits. Thumping music, firecrackers, bright lighting and high quality broadcast transformed the sport into a world-class experience. For millions, a childhood memory and an old passion were re-ignited. For young India it was a new sport that thrilled them and gave them heroes to root for.

Kabaddi now had a market. Players around the globe were screened and auctioned and teams representing eight Indian cities were born. Celebrities and India Inc. backed our efforts with Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan even buying the Jaipur team. His father and India’s greatest superstar Amitabh Bachchan sang the League’s inspirational theme song, ‘Le Panga’.

Le Panga Song, PKL Season 2

2014: The opening season

Pro Kabaddi’s first season had a mind-boggling 435 million viewers. A viewership that is second only to the 552 million people who watched the Indian Premier League, making it India’s second most loved sport after cricket, incredibly beating the popularity of football and hockey.

2015: The second season

Could we repeat our successes of 2014? This was the real test. Unbelievably, the season ended with the total viewership increasing by nearly 20% for all age groups in the urban market. Kabaddi was in demand becoming the only league to grow in its second season.

The fans were hungry for more. Team owners and players were excited and investors believed in our property. One season that year was simply not enough. Therefore, in 2016, Pro Kabaddi came back with two editions.

2016: The third season

The season began on a patriotic note: actor Aamir Khan’s awe-inspiring rendition of the National Anthem celebrating the core Indian sentiment of kabaddi.

With stadiums packed out, the broadcast reached over 100 territories, including the United States, United Kingdom, Middle East and Latin America. There was another reason for fans to cheer. The League had the honour to include India’s bravest with the teams selecting 12 players from the Indian Armed Forces. Men who were not only guardians of our borders, but are also from the institutions that have brought India glory in sports, including at the Olympics.

“The sport has truly become a unifier in its appeal, second only to cricket. This brings us a great sense of pride and is a reflection of our commitment.”

Star Sports

2016: The fourth season

From season one to season four, Pro Kabbadi’s impressions had grown by 38% for all age groups in the urban market. The number of live games increased from 60 in 2014 and 2015 to 164 matches in 2016 which included the Kabaddi World Cup.

India’s new sporting heroes

But the greatest satisfaction for us was the transformation in the lives of players.

Dabang Delhi's Kashiling Adake, PKL Season 4

For 23-year-old raider Kashiling Adake life back in his native village of Kasegaon in Maharashtra’s Sangli district was a constant struggle against poverty.

The sudden death of Adake’s father - a wrestler, forced him to be the family’s sole breadwinner while he was just a teenager. In the scorching heat, he tilled fields and worked hard at sugarcane factories often surviving on just one meal. His break came when his uncle, a kabaddi player, called him to Mumbai for trials. That’s where the Pro Kabaddi scouts spotted him and Delhi Dabang signed him for Rs 10 lakhs.

Vishal Mane from Bengal Warriors, PKL Season 4

There’s also the story of Vishal Mane. Mane was just another boy who lived in central Mumbai in a modest home and played kabaddi at club tournaments. But his talent as a defender for Pro Kabaddi’s Mumbai franchisee turned him into an instant celebrity. Walk out of the Currey Road Station and his posters adorn the narrow by-lane all the way to his home.

“They gave me a hero's welcome and took turns to lift me on their shoulder… Everybody was singing and dancing.”
Vishal Mane, Player, Pro Kabaddi League
The story of Kabaddi

Women’s kabaddi: crossing the line

Fans loved the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge as 38 million viewers watched the first two matches – even higher than the second New Zealand vs. West Indies semi-final during the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup – the highest rated women’s game at that point of time! The viewership of Women’s Kabaddi even surpassed that of the Euro 2016 championship.

Women's Kabaddi Challenge

Nearly 40% of viewers were women, making it one of the only sport that's not completely dominated by male viewers. Star’s #CROSSTHELINE campaign was not just a literal expression of kabaddi. It was about women pushing boundaries and ending stereotypes. In 2016, we introduced the Women's Kabaddi Challenge with three teams, playing on the same court as men. Kabaddi’s success was rubbing off to other women’s sport. In an ironic role-reversal, cricket was now being inspired by kabaddi with many demanding IPL to have a league just for women!

Kabaddi World Cup glory

With the huge success of the League, the revival of the Kabaddi World Cup was the next step. India had won the Cup twice, but since 2007, there was no money to promote the sport. That had changed with Star leading the way. India won the Cup in a tournament where twelve international teams – at least one from almost every continent – had come together in Ahmedabad in October 2016.

Team India lifts the Kabaddi World Cup, 2016
Kabaddi World Cup

Kabaddi at the Olympics

Our dream is for kabaddi to be recognised as an Olympic sport. That means it has to become a global phenomenon with at least 50 countries playing the sport. Currently 41 nations are affiliated with the International Kabaddi Federation.

We will continue to promote and believe in kabaddi. We hope the ever-rising viewership and popularity of this resurrected Indian sport will spread to many more nations, earning it a rightful spot with other international sports.

Imagine more
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