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HomeFeaturesPro kabaddi, kho-kho leagues chase IPL viewership. India rediscovering regional sports

Pro kabaddi, kho-kho leagues chase IPL viewership. India rediscovering regional sports

Viewership data shows that Pro Kabaddi League and Ultimate Kho Kho have taken over Central and South India.

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Collecting scrap along with his father was a routine exercise for Ramji Kashyap until a year ago. He was keen on playing kho-kho but his parents advised him to look for a conventional job, to support the family of nine in Maharashtra’s Solapur district. His heart was stuck on the sport. Cut to September 2022, Kashyap was adjudged ‘player of the tournament’ in the inaugural season of Ultimate Kho Kho or UKK as it is known as—‘India’s first-ever professional kho kho League’.

Kashyap is not the only player finding his feet in the game. And kho-kho is not the only sport to receive massive adulation among sports enthusiasts in a cricket-crazy nation. Nine years ago, Kabbadi paved the way for indigenous sport in India, and now kho-kho is carrying the baton ahead. The latest season of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) raked in 222 million viewers, according to viewership data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India — 17.5 per cent more than the 2021 season. Kho-kho, which ventured as a league only in 2022, also clocked in a massive audience of 184 million across various platforms. In comparison, Indian Premier League, country’s most successful professional league, garnered 370 million in 2022 season, according to BARC. Clearly, India is steadily rediscovering its traditional sporting roots.

“I don’t think we can in any way compete with the popularity of T20 cricket in India. However, Kabaddi can certainly compete with Test matches in terms of growth, popularity, and acceptance,” Charu Sharma, one of the co-founders of Mashal Sports, the organisers of the Pro Kabaddi League, told ThePrint.

Both Kabaddi and kho-kho are sports of the soil. While cricket has enjoyed its monopoly over sports consumption for years in India, indigenous sports like Kabaddi and kho-kho, have been and are still played in the nooks and corners of small towns of the country. Besides being part of our DNA, the production value and broadcast of the two sporting leagues in regional languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and Kannada add to the mass appeal of both PKL and UKK. And with the evolution of sports, the two fast-paced sports are steadily garnering fans and eyeballs across the country, and beyond.

And just like IPL, the kabaddi league too attracts international talent. “Because of Pro Kabaddi League, I am more famous here [in India] than in Iran,” says Fazel Atrachali, an Iranian Kabaddi player, who captains Puneri Paltan in the league.

Also read: Kabaddi’s rural cousin has recovered from Covid. It’s now giving Harley Davidson as prize

How national teams are coping

While the two sports — Kabaddi and kho kho — are vastly different, some similarities tie them together. Besides agility and high-adrenaline matches, the route to secure a berth in the national teams is somewhat similar.

A player can enroll in clubs affiliated with the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) and Kho Kho Federation of India (KKFI). Once the player begins playing for the academy/club, he/she would be eligible to compete in the district-level matches followed by the state-level tournaments and national championships. However, since December 2019, the Indian teams have not competed in any international matches, primarily due to the Covid pandemic, and also because of the demise of Janardan Singh Gehlot, founder president of the International Kabaddi Federation in 2021.

“With the Government of India’s initiative of Khelo India programme, many camps, and tournaments are being organised on the national level to bring in more players from across the country,” says Sudhanshu Mittal, KKFI President.

The federation also follows a ratio of 75:25 as the rule of thumb while selecting the players, with 75 per cent being decided on merit and the other 25 per cent for representation. There is a large concentration of kho kho players in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. To encourage players from all over the country, KKFI looks at regional representation also.

“Similarly, in a team, 15 players are selected among which 10 are active players and four are inducted based on regional representation,” says Mittal, who is serving his second term as KKFI President.

With the leagues coming in, more and more players are enrolling for the sport in the district-level camps, according to Mittal. Much like cricket, the players are scrutinised and selected for the national teams based on their performance in the leagues.

It helps when the league matches are telecast on TV and streamed. Besides transitioning from the traditional mud or sand courts to synthetic padded mats, the best camera angles are also being taken into consideration to provide a superlative experience. Who knows a high-octane match or a super raid might go down to inspire a kid sitting in his drawing room.

Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan owns Jaipur Pink Panthers in PKL and, singer Badshah co-owns the Mumbai team in UKK. Both have brought the two sports into the limelight.

Also read: Influx of foreign talent in Kabaddi hints towards a new trend

Viewership pattern

If viewership data is to be believed, Pro Kabaddi League (Disney+ Hotstar) and Ultimate Kho Kho (Sony) have taken over Central and South India.

Among the states watching the leagues, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu lead the charts, catching maximum eyeballs.

But what is most surprising is that North India is not watching as much as the popularity of Kabbadi in states like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Anupam Goswami, CEO of Mashal Sports and league commissioner of PKL, seems unperturbed by this fact. “There has been a steady and noticeable trend in the increasing consumption in Hindi-speaking markets like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, along with Gujarat. So, we are okay. You can never be apologetic for what your strength is,” he says.

If one looks at the cultural cognisance of Kabaddi, the overall picture is that the sport is “very well-spread”, according to Goswami.

States like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka — both coastal and hinterland — have huge number of players right across their territory, regardless of whether they are competing in the nationals.

The cultural differences and pattern of viewership also play a vital role. In states like Haryana and Punjab, community viewing is still prevalent. “Even today, one whole village will sit together to watch a match on a television,” says Randhir Singh Sehrawat, head coach of Bengaluru Bulls, who has been part of the PKL since its inception.

“It [Kabaddi] is a more nationally consumed sport than regional. Cricket came from overseas, and so did hockey. Wrestling, one may say, is an ancient sport, but was shared by many cultures,” says Sharma.

Ironically, in Ultimate Kho-Kho, the six teams competing in the league — Chennai Quick Guns, Gujarat Giants, Mumbai Khiladis, Odisha Juggernauts, Rajasthan Warrior, Telugu Yodhhas — have no representation, in terms of nomenclature, of any state from North India. However, the players across teams come from different regions of the country and much like other sporting leagues a player from Maharashtra represents Chennai, and someone from Delhi represents Odisha.

“We were supposed to have a Delhi team but it didn’t work out. I had a vision of covering the diamond of India. The bigger question in my mind, after selling Hyderabad, Gujarat, Maharashtra and others, was that the East was vacant, and that’s when the Odisha government came in. Much like kho-kho, which is played everywhere, the inclusivity of India came in together for the league,” says Tenzing Niyogi, CEO of Ultimate Kho Kho.

Also read: How Tamil Nadu Premier League became a feeder series for IPL

Leagues — a new lease of life

Of the 243 players slotted for auction in UKK, 150 were sold to be part of the six teams that competed in the league. Many of these players were involved in the game in some form or another, but their day jobs hardly sustained their livelihoods.

The 19-year-old Kashyap, who was sold for Rs 3 Lakh in UKK, still cannot believe that his life has taken a 360-degree turn. “We did not have a house to live in earlier. The league changed my life in the blink of an eye. I am also able to pursue education on the side now,” says Kashyap, who is in the second year of his BA programme.  Vishal, who plays for Odisha Juggernauts, used to be a delivery boy in Delhi before he was picked up for the league. Both used to play for their local clubs in their free time.

“Without kho-kho, I’d be a nobody,” says Kashyap, who plays for the Chennai Quick Guns as an all-rounder, in UKK.

Several Kabbadi players, who have played in PKL for nine years now, have gone through the same drill.

Pardeep Narwal, who plays for UP Yoddhas, comes from the heartland of Kabaddi — Rindhana village in Sonipat district, Haryana. But despite the immense popularity of the game, it was only after PKL 2014, that Narwal, a self-described misfit, finally felt at home.

For Bawana’s Pawan Sehrawat, it was the dream to play with veteran Kabbadi players like Manjeet Chhillar, which worked as the driving force. “When I used to watch him play on TV, I used to wonder if I would ever be able to play alongside him,” says Sehrawat, recalling that he actualised his dream when he was selected for the Railways team. “It was my biggest pride that I managed to play alongside him even before playing in PKL,” he adds. But his stature as a player catapulted overnight when Randhir picked him for PKL for Bengaluru Bulls. Since then, he has played across teams and now is part of Tamil Thalaivas.

Another successful Kabaddi player Rahul Chaudhari, from UP’s Bijnor, who represents Jaipur Pink Panthers, had been playing for India for years but it was only after he became the first player to score 500, 700, and 800 raid points in Pro Kabaddi League, that he rose to fame.

“If it was not for my coach, I wouldn’t have been able to reach where I have,” he says, referring to his sister-in-law, who also happens to be his coach.

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