Already a game-changer, ProKabaddi League ramps it up

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Season 5 will see a dozen teams, up from eight last season, competing over three months, starting July 28, for ₹8 crore

The ProKabaddi League enjoyed a blockbuster opening in 2014, when it reached a staggering 43.5 crore viewers. Only the Indian Premier League – until then the undisputed king of Indian sports leagues – laid claim to a bigger audience. The indigenous sport was off to the races.

To reach the top is one thing, but to stay there presents a tougher challenge. The numbers – backed by less scientific indicators like spectator-interest and demand for tickets (read as free passes) – have shown that the PKL is here to stay.

While Target Rating Point (TRP) figures for Season 2 have not been made available, the first two weeks of Season 3 were watched by 18.9 crore viewers. The data for Season 4 is not available either, but most venues witnessed packed houses. The fifth edition commences next Friday, July 28, and there is a sense of anticipation in the air.

Early fears that the multi-city extravaganza was nothing more than a one-hit wonder have died down. For PKL co-founder Charu Sharma, this is truly satisfying. “The fact that we are still going strong is proof that it wasn’t the glamour, the film-star owners, or the big lights that appealed to the fans. The core attraction is the sport of kabaddi. Over time, the bells and whistles fade away, but the game remains,” Charu says.

He is, unsurprisingly, all praise for the key role played by the broadcasters, Star Sports. The slick production, use of action replays, energetic commentary and wide reach have all contributed to the PKL’s popularity. In 2015, Star Sports bought a majority stake in Mashal Sports (co-owned by Charu and Anand Mahindra). “We were more than happy to allow Star Sports to take the lead. After all, they had invested a tremendous amount of time and effort in the project,” Charu says.

Last year, two seasons were held – the first in January-February and the next in June-July. This was done to keep the sport fresh in the fans’ memory for a longer period. This time around, the action will be packed into a three-month window. “All major sports competitions like the NBA, NFL, and the EPL run for many months through the year. The television mantra calls for a good programme to be spread over a long period. You want to tie the viewer in, and make kabaddi a part of his/her staple diet,” he says.

Another major change comes in the form of four new franchises – Tamil Thalaivas (co-owned by Sachin Tendulkar), Gujarat Fortunegiants, Haryana Steelers and Uttar Pradesh Yoddha. With all these States boasting of a strong kabaddi fan base, the decision to bring them into the fray was an easy one. “Someone in Chennai, for example, no longer needs to support a team from a neighbouring State. Eight teams did not do justice to our large and diverse nation,” Charu says.

While it’s too early to estimate if the expansion will be a success, the new entries certainly present a chance for more athletes to showcase their skills. Nearly 90 players form the four squads, increasing the pool of talent.

Former India international and Puneri Paltan head coach B.C. Ramesh understands the value in shining bright on the big stage. In his heyday, well over a decade ago, there was little to gain from playing the sport.

An interview with Ramesh, which appeared in The Hindu in November 2002, starts on a sombre note – ‘He plays a truly Indian sport and he is the best in his chosen field. However, when he returns home from international jaunts, there are no welcome banners at the airports. No autograph hunters. No jostling crowds. No flashbulbs going berserk. A star without stardom, so to say.’ The article goes on to say that the Arjuna awardee had just returned to Bengaluru after winning gold at the Busan Asian Games with the Indian team.

Things have changed for the better. “It’s good to see kabaddi players getting recognition,” Ramesh says.

A longer league comes as a blessing, Ramesh believes. In the past, if an athlete got injured, he would have to play through it, or miss the entire tournament. Now, he has more time to recover and rejoin the team. “Earlier, we had to play almost every day. Now, we have sufficient rest between matches. If you have a muscle issue, you can continue to compete, but a ligament injury needs time to heal,” Ramesh says.

As for the increased prize money – up to ₹8 crore from ₹2 crore – it remains to be seen if the players get a slice of the pie. The cheques go to the team owners, who can disburse the winnings as they deem fit. While some owners have been known to gift their players mobile phones and other items, others have been less benevolent.

Ravinder Pahal, Bengaluru Bulls vice-captain, is not concerned about what he can collect from the prize-money pot. He was bought for ₹50 lakh, which he feels is more than sufficient compensation. “Making money is important for all of us, and the PKL has allowed us to earn a good living. Most of us come from humble backgrounds, so of course, financial security is a key,” Pahal states.

The defender from Sonepat (Haryana) is living the good life. “We are seen on live television in every part of India. This is a massive honour. When I go to Sonepat, the entire town comes home to greet me. We have a nice celebration and enjoy ourselves,” a pleased Pahal says.

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Women’s games cut after PKL expands

The June 2016 edition saw the launch of the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge, which consisted of three in-house squads.

Matches were held when the PKL had only one fixture scheduled for the day.This year, with more teams and a tight schedule, the organisers say there are no free spots. As a consequence, the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge has been discontinued.

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New injury protocol in place

There is a tendency in kabaddi – which is prevalent in several contact-sports – to shrug injuries off. The medical diligence required is often not followed.

During the Bengaluru-leg last year, for instance, a raider was knocked out cold when he took a knee to the head from a defender. Much to the surprise of everyone present at the venue, the dazed attacker was allowed to join his teammates on the mat within a few minutes of regaining consciousness.

PKL stakeholder Charu Sharma says this will change in Season 5. The organisers have now put a system in place, where an injured player has to be cleared by the team physio before returning to action. If a head or neck injury is suspected, he must be taken to the medical room (every venue is equipped with medical rooms, trained doctors, and an ambulance) for a thorough examination.

“In the past, I’ve often seen that play simply continued even when someone got badly injured,” says Charu. “This was inhumane. For heaven’s sake, stop play and check on the player. I have made it my mission to inform all of our referees to halt the match, even if it is only a minor injury.”

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