New Delhi: With viewership of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) rising almost 50% during its ongoing second season, official broadcast partner Star India Pvt. Ltd, expects the league to turn profitable by 2018.

Pro Kabaddi is a professional kabaddi league in India, based on the format of the Indian Premier League T20 cricket tournament.

So far, Star India has invested over 300 crore in the league, including 150 crore in the first season in 2014.

“Kabaddi was seen as a very Indian, uncool sport made for rural India. However, surprisingly for us, we have seen urban viewership grow very strongly each year, with 64% contribution from the metros this year. The ratings for the first 12 games are out and the overall viewership has grown by almost 50% compared to last year," said Sanjay Gupta, chief operating officer at Star India.

Kabaddi is a uniquely Indian sport born in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and now played across the country and in parts of the world with a sizeable Indian population. It is especially popular in Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

The opening game of PKL on 18 July between defending champions Jaipur Pink Panthers and U Mumba, the Mumbai franchise partly owned by actor Ranbir Kapoor, clocked a television rating of 7.2 TVM ( television viewership in millions), according to ratings agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), 45% higher than the opening game of the last season. The cumulative viewership of the first 12 games of PKL, starting from 18 July, stood at 117 TVM, according to BARC data.

The increase in viewership extended to the Internet as well. Hotstar, Star India’s digital platform, clocked in 10 million users for Season 2 so far, compared to the 0.7 million viewers that watched Season 1. “This tells me we are really engaging with the urban youth," added Gupta.

The tournament reached 435 million viewers in 2014—second only to the IPL’s 560 million—but on the ground, teams have struggled to get the right price for sponsorship deals.

The game in itself has caught viewers’ attention because of three factors—it’s power packed to watch, has a short duration of about 45 minutes and the players make for good viewing, said Gupta.

“Every 30 seconds, there is a high point in the game. The sheer intensity of the players is very high. It’s a short game in tune with today’s generation with an attention span deficit. Lastly, one tends to admire the quality of fitness of the players. It adds to the viewership experience," he said.

Gate receipts for the league have been strong, with stadiums pre-booked for Season 2 and mostly sold out with local audiences. Seating capacity for kabaddi stadiums starts from 2,000 and goes up to 7,000.

The league, which did not generate any advertising revenue last season as Star India did not open deals for sponsorship, has got eight associate sponsors on board this year, including TVS Motors, VIP Frenchie and Bajaj Electricals. But media buyers’ estimates suggest that ad revenue generated by PKL will still be just 30-50 crore, a fraction of the overall investment made.

“They’re quite popular. Even last year, it did very well. It’s well-placed during the yearly calendar, as advertising tends to slack during this period. It has managed to generate a television rating of 1 last year, which is only one-fourth of IPL’s and it is managed in a fraction of the cost required to stage IPL," said Mallikarjun Das, chief executive at media buying agency, Starcom MediaVest.

But Ashish Bhasin, chairman and chief executive (South Asia), Dentsu Aegis Network, was sceptical of Star’s ambitious target. “There is no comparison between cricket and any other sporting league. None of the other leagues so far have managed to leave a mark the way expectations have been set," he said.

PKL was launched in 2014 by cricket commentator Charu Sharma and industrialist Anand Mahindra’s sports management company Mashal Sports.

Apart from kabbadi, Star India continues to remain confident about football, with the India Super League expected to start its next season in October. “The only difference between PKL and ISL is that PKL has had a successful Season 2. We believe the second season is a bigger challenge for all these sports as the novelty value is gone. PKL’s growth this year is a far stronger indicator of its popularity than last year," said Gupta.

Still, football is a globally followed sport and interest levels in India are high. “We saw that the ISL auctions held earlier this year saw a great response. For us, almost 70-80% of associate sponsorship slots and the ad inventory are already booked," added Gupta.

In the last three years, Star India has put its weight behind building a national sports network with a focus on cricket, hockey and football, among others. In April 2013, it announced an investment of $1 billion to expand sports programming. Today, the investments committed to by Star India are in excess of $5 billion for the next five years. “We are more confident today than we were three years ago. We continue to invest in multiple sports and are optimistic about the future of the business of sport," said Gupta.

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