On 22nd October, Twitter India erupted, yet again, about a non-cricket sport. But unlike the day when Bengaluru FC won the hearts of Indian football fans by qualifying for the AFC Cup finals, the Twitter trend seemed to be rather ‘influenced’ by genuine social media celebrities a.k.a ‘influencers’. From Sachin Tendulkar to random films stars (read Abhishek Bachchan), everybody ‘big’ on Twitter was talking about it.
Anyway, India won a World Cup and that is certainly reason enough to bring out the tri-colours and wave them with our inflated 55-inch chests. Yes, WE BECAME KABADDI WORLD CUP WINNERS. AGAIN.
But let these facts sink in as well. Yes, there is something called a Kabaddi World Cup. It was last played in 2007 and was won by India. It happened in 2004 as well. That was won by India too. Since 2010, Badal government in Punjab has been conducting unofficial ‘circle style’ Kabaddi World Cups in Ludhiana and we have been winning all of those tournaments too. Yes (in case you were wondering), there are other countries who can play the game. No, there was no Pakistan (who are apparently the only nation to have come close to challenging us) in the tournament. No, there was no Canada either (wondering where those Punjabis go to?).
So why was India winning a Kabaddi tournament a big deal? A game in which our team has lost only once in the last 25 years. How is this victory anything bigger than one of our athletes winning a gold in South Asian Games (yeah that boring tournament where India defeats everyone and wins everything)?
Sorry for sounding hyper critical. Let me get this straight. Kabaddi is a game I’ve recently learned to love and respect. And yes, considering how poor we have been in most sports, it’s certainly nice to see our men dominate a game. But as a sports journalist, and most importantly as a sports enthusiast, I can’t help but wonder if this sudden overload of Kabaddi is just a bid by a TV channel to tap into potential (which yields TRP and money) of a game. A sport that they own most rights to and to give them credit, a game they have most certainly helped revive.
I was a huge fan of Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) when it arrived. In a country like India, there is a desperate need to promote ‘non cricket’ sports. Kabaddi is a traditional game that has roots within the country and Star Sports packaged it into a product that was certainly TV friendly. Suddenly new stars were born and people were talking about Kabaddi. Brilliant. Then they decide to make PKL biannual. Not so brilliant but whatever. If Fast and Furious can have (what 8?) sequels, surely PKL can survive a little bit of overdose. But after first three seasons that saw a steady surge in TV viewership, the results of PKL 4 left a lot to be desired. Patna Pirates won the tournament again and the organisers had us believing that the tournament was a success especially in terms of TV viewership. And then out of nowhere, they decide to revive the Kabaddi World Cup.
So why bring back the Kabaddi World Cup?
BECAUSE there is nothing like a World Cup to widen the reach of the game. No, I’m serious. It’s good for the game that other nations are playing it. It’s still far from becoming an Olympic game (you need atleast 75 nations playing the game to be considered in Olympics) but like Manjeet Chhillar explained prior to the tournament, this is the closest this generation of players will come to an Olympic medal. Strong performances from the likes of Thaliand and Kenya show there is definitely a future to the game in which India is head, shoulders and waist above everyone else. Iran will challenge us in future World Cups (which will apparently be conducted every two years) once they find quality raiders. But then everyone has talked about these things. This is clearly what the organisers would want you to believe.
Before I make some wild predictions (accusations or whatever), I must admit I do not know these details and would love to get more information.
1) When was it decided to start/revive the Kabaddi World Cup? We journalists started hearing about it this year around the time PKL season 4 was going on. That’s June and definitely too late to decide on something as big as a World Cup surely.
2) TV viewership of PKL 4. I don’t know anything about it. What I do know from the little research I did online is that Star Sports and Mashal Sports (a start-up by Anand Mahindra and Charu Sharma) was very vocal about the TV viewership in the first three seasons of PKL. Every time they have had press conferences to talk about its increasing reach yet in June, NOBODY talked about it. Maybe because it was already a given thing? I doubt it considering the skepticism around the League’s plan to make the event biannual. A rise in PKL numbers would have certainly made news considering how the League would be looking to woo new sponsors.
3) How were the TV (online) rights for the World Cup decided? Was there a formal bidding? It almost seemed a given that Star Sports would be broadcasting the event. Why? Do they own it? If Kabaddi is as popular as Star claims it to be in TV, I’m sure Sony ESPN or Ten Sports would have liked a shot at it. Do we have any details of the bidding war that Star Sports won? I am sure International Kabaddi Federation wouldn’t have been naïve as to just give Star Sports the right to the tournament. But it remains to be seen whose idea it was. Did Star Sports play a role in it?
Listen, I have my reasons for doubting. This is the T&C for the Kabaddi World Cup website.
So the way I understand, somebody got the idea of having a Kabaddi World Cup immediately after PKL 4. Nobody knows whether the PKL season was a success but here is what a Kabaddi World Cup would bring.
i) Extra coverage for the game. With 7 TV channels taking the event across the world, news channels were forced into talking more about it. Although PKL had an array of international players, it was always seen as something within in India. Nothing like a WC to help brand Kabaddi grow. And who benefits? Owners and stakeholders, of course. Who owns the majority stake in Kabaddi? Hmmm.
ii) Kabaddi World Cup offered a key opportunity to sustain interest in the game by offering something new to the audience. Before PKL 4, as journalists do, I had interviewed players and organisers about the logic of making this league twice a year. “Won’t it be too much?” I asked. (READ)
The common logic seemed to be that the organisers were afraid that the audience will lose interest between the seasons. See, between Indian Premier League (IPL) there is international cricket going on. Between ISL seasons there is a LOT of football being played. But between PKL season there was no Kabaddi. Atleast nothing they could watch. To sustain the interest in the sports, to keep Kabaddi trending, it is important that Kabaddi makes its way into TV (and other media) regularly.
So they made it two seasons per year. Now I do not know if a lacklustre season 4 is the reason for the introduction of Kabaddi World Cup or whether it was always in the pipeline, but this sure does help sustain the interest in the game. An international tournament and 2 PKL seasons spaced out between 12 months would be perfect. World Cups will be played every two years. And with the nationalist sentiments on an all-time high (did you know about Kapil’s hyper reaction to a question on Pak’s absence in the WC), the Kabaddi World Cup made all the sense.
Coming back to the point. Kabaddi WC isn’t that big a deal. You and I were made to believe it is a big deal by a company that has huge stakes in the game. India always wins the event. There is no country that can beat us (yes Korea did and Iran led but c’mon). What made the event special is very clever marketing.
If Sachin, Kapil, Sehwag and random actors talk about a certain event, it is bound to become something extravagant. That’s the power of social media and people with followers. If these guys tweet about Dutee Chand winning a Gold medal in SAG, Twitter will go crazy and tri-colours will be out again. But the question is, will they?
India won the World Cup, it’s worth celebrating but you need to know that the team didn’t do anything extra ordinary. You, like me and everyone else, are a victim of a herd mentality, which a certain company has tapped into. We are victims of a beautifully orchestrated marketing plan. Yes, it was great to see all our Kabaddi superheroes come together to be nation’s warriors. Why do you think DC made a Justice League movie after all that Batman and Superman films?
That said, you can’t help but admire the think-tanks. They had us all convinced that something huge had happened.
What Star is doing isn’t necessarily bad though. Reliance’s interest in Indian Super League (ISL) or Star TV’s love for Kabaddi shows there is potential money in alternative sports in the country if you are willing to package it right and have a long-term goal. Hopefully this will result in sports-persons getting some much needed attention.
As always with my blog posts, please feel to correct me where I am wrong. I work as a journalist for an organization but the article (rant) has nothing to do with my employers. In other terms, please don’t sue either of us.