Mumbai: Last year, Monu Goyat became the most expensive participant in the Pro Kabaddi League’s (PKL) brief history when Haryana Steelers purchased him for ₹1.51 crore at the player auction. Telugu Titans bought Rahul Chaudhari for ₹1.29 crore, the second highest sum. This April, the Titans outdid themselves, securing Siddharth Desai for ₹1.45 crore, the highest amount, while Puneri Paltans landed Nitin Tomar for ₹1.2 crore.
These numbers are a sign of PKL’s growth, considered the second most watched league in the country after the Indian Premier League (IPL). Though viewership dipped in 2018, the 12 teams of the league spent more than ₹50 crore in this year’s auctions for Season 7, buying 200 players.
“We would need a relentless understanding and sensitivity to consumers even as we hold true to the sport and quality of competition," says PKL league commissioner Anupam Goswami in Mumbai. “We are India’s No. 2 sports league and will become more strong, whatever it takes." Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the indicators from this year’s auctions?
The auction has now become an established part of the league process. It brings durable value on a recurring basis. This year, the player purse was ₹52.8 crore and ₹50.9 crore has been deployed. That’s a high metric of efficiency. Last year was about the crorepatis we created. That story continues to be strong. The big jump in deployment money is in the ₹60-90 lakh bracket for players. We have gone up from 10 players (in that bracket) in Season 6 to 20 in Season 7 (in 2019). The number of teams that bid in that scale was nine in Season 6. This time it’s 11. In any league, a player auction should achieve the optimal balance between the requirements of teams and players.
What has PKL’s evolution trajectory been?
One fact is the large figures in TV viewership and people engagement. Other leagues run into trouble sometime around the third or fourth season. We are in the seventh, which is a big achievement. What we have done for the sport is approach it from a spectator lens, which meant engage consumers, excite fans with quality of competition, and make the sport aspirational. The first problem in any sport is the stadium. There is no dedicated stadium for this sport in the world, except, maybe, in Patna. We work with multiple utility stadiums. We have created heroes out of players. The maximum salary in Season 1 was ₹12 lakh. In Season 6, we had a player going for ₹1.5 crore, the highest-paid professional paid athlete in the country outside cricket. Initially, we had 96 players. Today, we have 200-odd players earning through PKL.
The 12 teams you have in the league, is that the optimum number?
When we went from eight to 12 teams in 2017, it was a strong achievement. That’s qualitatively different from other leagues that made attempts to expand but were not able to achieve it. In many sports, expansion is based on mutual goodwill than a systematic, transparent method. In each territory, we had multiple choices. In each of our territories, we did not choose the top bidder, but went for quality. We have four solid corporate houses—Iquest Enterprises Pvt. Ltd (consortium)-Tamil Thalaivas; Adani Group-Gujarat Fortunegiants; GMR Group-UP Yoddha, and JSW Group-Haryana Steelers—that have entered this sport. Even in 2014, it was difficult to imagine corporate India taking to kabaddi.
The viewership fell by 25% in Season 6. What were the reasons for that?
This is the second highest viewed sports league—Barc (Broadcast Audience Research Council) data showed 313 million Indians viewed Season 5. We were at 296 million for Season 6. We take it (the drop) seriously. Sport needs time to incubate, but we are going for a shorter gestation period. This league is a borrowed concept. It comes from economically mature markets with capacity. If leagues are going to be sensitive to fandom, any drop is serious. In the next phase of growth of PKL, our priorities will be decided by what consumers think of the sport.
There could be several factors (for the slide). One big difference was that the window (of the league) changed: We are normally in June-July. We went to October (last year) to accommodate the Asian Games. That could have been a factor.
Is viewer fatigue one of them, as often discussed?
Fatigue is a word that comes easily because that is a precept of content and programming. All sport is that. If you create good quality supply, it will find consumption. The reason I am hesitating on this is because TV matrixes are your real indices for consumption and viewer fatigue is a TV nomenclature.
How did the economics of this league work out while others, as you mentioned, haven’t?
Our biggest impact was shock and awe. It’s a great sport—it’s a short format, one of the few sports which give each side a chance every 30 seconds. It’s got great value like physicality, strategy, skill plus new faces. One of the key successes of kabaddi and PKL is that we have been the fastest to introduce new faces to the sport, and that story is still unfolding. It means we have momentum, which has some way to play out.
Was glamourizing the sport one of the necessities to make the league work?
In a nation as diverse as India, one form of solidarity works around heroes. Any sport has that. We have to look for heroes from sport, make them role models and icons. Some of our heroes have evolved through PKL. This league is creating careers. In places where kabaddi has a strong grassroots presence, there is a mushrooming of academies. Families are increasingly confident of putting their youth into Pro Kabaddi. All cricketers would like to play the IPL and all kabaddi players want to play in PKL.
The Women’s Kabaddi Challenge did not take off after the initial launch.
It was something we experimented with. As and when a women’s league is done well, it will be the strongest women’s contact sport in the world. We have had that learning, but there is a little way to go before we have the player pool to draw on. The women’s challenge was not a league, but a strong, successful demonstrator. In 2016, the Kabaddi Challenge final rated higher than the final of the women’s ICC World T20. When we do it, we should create the same shock and awe as with men’s PKL. In any sport, the women’s component is considered sub-par in effort and investment compared to men. In emerging economies, that disparity is more marked. In emerging sports in emerging economies, it will be stark.
How have sponsorships in PKL evolved over the years?
If you look at studies in the market, kabaddi is a breakout opportunity for sports sponsorships, which itself is an emerging genre of spending on advertising in the country. That habit will emerge when people start seeing aspiration, consumption and good governance.
What are the concerns for team owners?
India is a unique country where, other than cricket, all sports have primary employment elsewhere from public sector units, government, and the paramilitary. All sports franchises—and there are a fair number of them—would like a longer-term association with players. As leagues mature, we would move to long-term squads. We are in a situation where PKL is the only competition of its standard for the sport. All these things come together to offer a set of operational issues. Solutions emerge with sensitivity, ecosystem management and spirit of mutuality with all stakeholders.
Some see a conflict of interest between league co-owner Mashal Sports Pvt. Ltd and broadcaster Star Sports because both are owned by Star India Pvt. Ltd (which has a majority share in Mashal)
Star Sports is the most desirable broadcast partner in the country. There is a contractual process, which is well determined. There is strong separation between Star Sports and Mashal. There is a process and timeline where media rights will be negotiated. (Goswami declined to comment on the media rights that come up in 2020).
What are the plans for Season 7?
First is the restoration of the June-July window. Second, we have to concentrate on the first generation of kabaddi stars that have emerged and build bigger heroes. There is a clear indicator that affinity would be around great players. We have to do more of it. We have to continuously make the quality of competition better. We are working on that seriously to create the next generation.