The ancient Indian sport of Kabaddi found a new lease of life with the birth of Star Sports’ Pro Kabaddi League. Being a game pioneered and dominated by India since its inception, the overwhelmingly positive reception of the League by the Indian audience has given an opportunity to the promoters to bring back Season 2 of the League. Appreciated and followed by millions of people around the country, the League was a major hit, for both the game and the promoters. Let us now look at the emergence of the Pro Kabaddi League, right from its birth till the day it matured to become one of the most loved and followed tournaments in our country.
For long Kabaddi was thought to be a game played in the rural areas of our country, with not much interest shown in the game by those living in cities. Not even fit to be a part of the Olympics, India had to fight hard to keep it alive in the Asian Games, right since it was introduced in 1990. India, being the reigning unbeaten Champion of the game, has won seven gold medals in the sport on the trot. After the idea to start a League based on Kabaddi was made, it caught the attention and attracted not only the Indian audience, but also film stars and corporates who enthusiastically took part in the bidding process of the teams and players.
Never before had a sport created so much of buzz in our country. Talking about the numbers and statistics, 22 million viewers tuned in to Star Sports to watch the inauguration ceremony on July 26, 2014. Within the first few hours of the League, there were around 140 million Tweets received by Twitter. The numbers were equally astonishing on Facebook. The League took our country by a storm, something that was not thought of when PKL was still in the pipelines. The tournament exceeded all expectations, and it gave an opportunity to the promoters and those involved in the organising committee to think of ways to make PKL even more popular. The way PKL was embraced by the Indian audience; no one ever thought the game would get as much of appreciation as it got.
An initiative of Mashal Sports, PKL was based on the lines of IPL. Eight teams took part in the League and players from all over the world participated in the tournament. The first season of PKL started on 26 July 2014, with U Mumba and Jaipur Pink Panthers facing each other in the first match. There were double round robin matches, with 56 games being played in the first round. 2 semi-finals and a match for the third place and the finals took place, once the round robin matches got over. There were in total 60 matches being played by 8 teams, with Jaipur Pink Panthers emerging the champions of the inaugural PKL after beating U Mumba 35-24 in the final, which took place on 31 August 2014, in the Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel Indoor Stadium, Mumbai.
Bollywood was not far behind, and stalwarts and legends like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan made sure that there were star attractions at the matches. Abhishek Bachchan was the owner of Jaipur Pink Panthers, and he made sure to come and watch all the matches and cheer for his team. The stars helped the game to grow, as even when viewers did not know the name of the players, they still knew which sides their favourite actors were rooting for. Retail giants like the Future Group, who owned the Bengal Warriors, made sure that the corporate world was also a part of the PKL.
The Pro Kabaddi League Season 1 was organised by the International Kabaddi Federation, Asian Kabaddi Federation, and Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India. Star Sports was the official broadcaster of the tournament, and the game was watched by around 435 million people all over the country. It was the second most watched League in the country, after the Indian Premier League (IPL). The eight teams participating in the League from different parts of the country were Jaipur Pink Panthers (Jaipur), U Mumba (Mumbai), Bengaluru Bulls (Bengaluru), Patna Pirates (Patna), Telugu Titans (Vizag), Dabang Delhi (Delhi), Bengal Warriors (Kolkata), Puneri Paltan (Pune).
Many world renowned players took part in the tournament. Anup Kumar of U Mumba was the best raider of the tournament, with a total of 153 points. Other raiders who performed exceedingly well were Rahul Chaudhari, Maninder Singh, and Surjeet Narwal. Manjit Chillar of the Bengaluru Bulls was the best defender, with a total of 51 points. Some other defenders who did well in the tournament were Rohit Rana and Ravinder Singh.
Jaipur Pink Panthers was the most successful team, having won 11 of their 15 round robin matches. They also went on to win the League, beating U Mumba in the final. The players were overwhelmed with the kind of adulation and response that the league got. Anup Kumar, the skipper of U Mumba, never in his wildest dreams had thought the league would make him a household name. Star India CEO Uday Shankar, the brainchild behind the success of the PKL says the toughest part is yet to come. “We are very excited about Kabaddi, but these are early days. We believe in building content on a long term basis and our positions and moods don’t swing based on day one ratings! We strongly believe in the potential of Kabaddi and that is the reason we are working so hard to build it. Kabaddi has every ingredient, including skill, strategy and speed, to emerge as a serious sport and win a fan following. The opening week response is especially encouraging given that it is a true-blue Indian sport.”
Looking at the phenomenal success of the League, one can’t help but wonder why PKL wasn’t conceptualized earlier. The happiness of the coaches and players knows no bounds, as they are proud of the fact that a game that has been dominated by India like no other team has finally found its rightful place amongst cricket and football in our country. The fact that a game so deeply attached to the roots of India is being loved and appreciated everywhere gives us more hope for equality and homogenization of opportunities being given to other sports as well. Whatever it may be, PKL is here to stay, and Kabaddi has finally got what it deserves.