When Mamtha Poojari, now 30, first started playing kabaddi, nobody from her village near Udupi in Karnataka understood why “anyone would want to wear shorts and play the game”. Now, the winner of an Arjuna Award, 12 gold medals for India and captain of the Indian team is taking the next leap forward.
As captain of Fire Birds, she will play in the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge, starting on Tuesday at the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai.
The event, organized by the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India, Mashal Sports and Star India, will run concurrently with the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League. Three teams—Fire Birds captained by Poojari, Ice Divas captained by Abhilasha Mhatre and Storm Queens captained by Tejeswini Bai—will play the seven-match league, with the finals to be held alongside the men’s on 31 July in Hyderabad.
“I come from a small village, it’s a backward area and people are conservative. Today not just my family, but my entire village is proud of the fact that a girl has put our village on the map,” Poojari said.
The women’s kabaddi challenge is Star India’s attempt to grow the sport and the league, in under two years of the launch of Pro Kabaddi League.
The broadcaster is fairly optimistic that there will be takers for the women’s tournament—both on ground and on air—considering that women’s programmes have been strong at the local clubs and get support from the public sector.
“It’s a fact of life, not just in India but even globally, that women’s team sport is under invested (in),” said Anupam Goswami, league commissioner, Star Sports Pro Kabaddi. “This decision is coming from some amount of optimism. There is a massive following for the indigenous sport and women’s kabaddi has a strong institutional backing. So there is some scale and strategy to this sport.”
While the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge matches have been squeezed into the Pro Kabaddi League schedule, Goswami insists the new challenge is much more than a token exercise.
The background work on the new league started almost two years ago with the Star Sports team attending national as well as local tournaments across India to scout and spot talent. The team zeroed in on 60 of the best players in India, who were pulled in for a two-day selection process. Forty-two of these players were then enrolled in a month-long resident training camp in Mumbai to prepare for the challenge.
Interestingly, a large part of the preparation was also about getting ready for the arclights, being on television and managing media attention. The girls were put through a grooming process and a beauty regimen, from getting manicures and pedicures to styling. Team members were also given identifying characteristics; for instance, the Fire Birds players have red streaks in their hair.
The players took zumba classes to help them open up and gain confidence. The organizers also let the teams bond over a dance off. The players were also put through camera training and mock interviews.
Traditionally, individual women athletes have fared better in India than those in team sports. For instance, brand endorsements of three athletes, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza and Mary Kom, alone account for 40% of the monies pulled in under endorsements for non-cricket sports in India. According to an ESP Properties-SportzPower report released early this year, endorsements for non-cricket sports grew a spectacular 90% from Rs.22.1 crore in 2014 to Rs.42 crore in 2015.
According to industry estimates, Season 4 of the Pro Kabaddi League has already pulled in Rs.70 crore in sponsorships for Star India. This is 50% higher than what the League pulled in last year, at Rs.45 crore.
“Today, the Pro Kabaddi League is a poster child for other league-based sports,” said Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer at Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions, a talent management firm. “A reason for its success is that it has been packaged and marketed well. If the same lessons are applied to the women’s league, if it can piggyback on the men’s event, this could create an interesting long-term opportunity.”
The Women’s Kabaddi Challenge will be played across multiple cities: Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Jaipur and Pune.
Arun Janardhan contributed to this story.