Who would have imagined that the television viewership for the Pro Kabaddi* League would attract a whopping 22 million viewers on Day One? That’s a cool ten times more than the first match of FIFA 2014.
Who would have thought that a sport, which had long been lost in fuzzy childhood memories of 50 + Indians, would set social media channels abuzz? The Pro Kabaddi League began on July 26th. Fourteen days later, media reports have it that there were de dana dan* around 140 million Tweets and reportedly an equal number of frenetic Facebook updates.
Who would have dreamed that Kabaddi could go pro successfully and capture center stage in a nation’s collective consciousness, leading to a new fascination for what was surely seen as an antiquated sport?
What could account for such a huge mega success? So much so, that the Pro Kabaddi League managed to get international attention. To the extent that even The Economist carried an article titled ‘Not Cricket’ in its August 2, 2014 issue. Marketing genius? Or something else entirely?
To understand the runaway success of the Pro Kabaddi League, one perhaps needs to hypothesize as to how and why Anand Mahindra, Charu Sharma of Mashal* Sports and Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy picked on Kabaddi.
Mashal Sports says its mission is to be the torchbearer for promoting sports in India with the highest standard of integrity, professionalism and transparency. On an aside, doesn’t professionalism encompass the other two attributes?
Anyway, to come back to the point, I can quite visualise a brainstorming session between the principals on how Mashal should go about achieving its mission. Something that would only be possible by first getting Mashal into the public eye of the sports world and legions of sports fans. The conversation would have possibly gone something like this:
“Cricket is too crowded and besides, the sport is ruled by the BCCI. And anyway, viewership for cricket is dropping rapidly. The public doesn’t have the time to watch day long games. True, T-20 cricket addresses the time factor, but clearly public love for the sport has eroded post the number of scandals. Why else did the IPL fare badly this year? Because, the public feels there is no fun in watching a game, which has probably been fixed. The public verdict is out….the BCCI and cricket has become a spoilsport or soil sport.”
“If not cricket, then what? A badminton league has been tried but there wasn’t much interest. I don’t think tennis will work either. Such sports are great but they lack the sheer animal spirit and adrenalin of a team sport.”
“So, it has to be a team sport? What about soccer or football?”
“No, those wouldn’t work. It would take years to drum up interest across India. These sports are too elitist right now. It has to be something that will immediately fire up young and old across the cities, towns, villages and gully-gully in India. Something that will keep them glued to their television screens, screaming for their team to win.”
“I have it! What about kabaddi?”
The word kabaddi would have first startled the room into silence. And then, an excited conversation would have ensued with everyone talking at once:
“Hu tu tu*…tu,tu,tu! Kabaddi, kabaddi, kabadi…iii…iii……I bet there are very few Indians who wouldn’t recognize these familiar refrains. For many, the sounds and the rhythm are sure to trigger childhood memories of romping around in friendly and at times, not so friendly, neighbourhood games of kabaddi when one went after the rival team de dana dan*!”
“I used to play kabaddi a lot when I was a kid. It was great fun. The holding of the breath. The kabaddi…di…di chant. The circling of the rival team. Feeling the mud under bare feet. The maneuvering. Playing by sheer wit and grit, egged on by the palpable tension of your team mates waiting for you to bring a rival or two down and score a point.”
“Who plays kabaddi anymore? Maybe in villages, they do. But we need urban sports fans if Mashal has to grow in the sports management business. Besides, won’t the sport be considered as down market?”
“You have a point there. But wait! If we rope in celebs to endorse the sport, we might be able to overcome the downmarket factor. Make it fashionable.”
“You mean brand ambassadors? Will the celebs agree? And won’t it cost too much money?”
“Hmm. You are right. It’s too much of a financial risk. And with celebs endorsing anything and everything, it won’t cut much ice. No credibility. Unless…..”
“Unless….we can get the celebs to buy teams in the league. Then, it will be a business proposition. Crunch the numbers. Let’s see if there is a business model here. In the meantime, I will sound out a few film stars and industrialists to gauge reactions. We should also talk to the Amateur, Asian and International Kabaddi Federations. Also, a major sports broadcaster. ”
And that’s how probably the Pro Kabaddi League was born. But if you ask me, no amount of astute planning would have worked if it hadn’t been for the fact that Kabaddi is uniquely Indian. And, right now, as a nation, we are hungering for a ‘Made in India’ success to make us proud and unite us.
The other major factor behind Pro Kabaddi’s success is probably the fact that we feel we can trust that such a simple, earthy, down-to-earth sport will see fair play!
Go Kabaddi. Pro Kabaddi. De Dana Dan.
Featured Image Credit: Courtesy Uday Sinh Wala of Bengaluru Bulls
*kabaddi – a sport derived from wrestling that originated in India. The word kabaddi is derived from the Sanskrit words kar-badhi, which literally means holding hands. The game has two teams who face off at opposite ends of a field. A dividing line demarcates each team’s home turf. The teams take turns sending a player to ‘raid’ the other team’s turf. To win a point, the raider must take a breath, run into the opposing half, tag one or more members of the opposite team, then return to his home half before inhaling again. To prove that the player is not inhaling, he or she chants ‘hu tu tu tu’ or ‘kabaddi, kabaddi’.
*de dana dan – a phrase in colloquial Hindi meaning an action which happens ‘one after the other’ in a ‘fast and furious’ sort of manner
*Mashal – a Hindi word that means torchbearer
*hu tu tu – the syllables or words chanted in some versions of kabaddi, to prove that the player is not taking a breath.