Are you watching kabaddi? If not, you are clearly in a minority, according to incredible viewership figures indicating that the Pro Kabaddi League reached 218 million viewers in its first week of broadcast, beating the FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon 2014. Showing this hitherto rural sport has found huge numbers of fans in its new slick, modern avatar. Including a non-stop two-day Twitter trending spree.
This weekend’s schedule includes a four-day bonanza in Bangalore, so the curious will get the chance to watch the excitement up close from August 24 to 27 at Kanteerava Indoor Stadium. I plan to – I’m intrigued.
Such a phenomenon deserved to be delved into, so I turned to the MD of Marshal Sports, Bangalorean Charu Sharma to explain the inexplicable stuff happening. (Getting a word with him has become impossible since kabaddi’s crazy new success. I finally caught up with him late at night rushing between meetings).
“I didn’t expect this super success,” he confessed right away, “I knew it was right, driving our own sport in our own country. I knew that if properly presented and partnered by the right people with the right reputations, it would work.” (The right people include corporate biggies Anand Mahindra, Piyush Pandey and Rajiv Luthra).
“Kabaddi had every element to make it a viewer’s delight,” he adds. “Physical fitness, athleticism, a compact court, slo-mo appeal. It’s just never had television coverage like this before. I knew the first day would change the game, but it was just my gut feeling. Now there’s a warm glow of relief.”
Sharma played every sport (yes, including cricket) in his school days, so he knows what’s what. But why pick kabaddi over others for the pro-league? He’s irritated, “Let’s not forget kabaddi is a recognized sport in the Asian Games. Why do we Indians knock our own indigenous sports? Americans worship their football, Australians their Aussie rules football. Why can’t we?” True.
Kabaddi is getting recognition like never before, especially in rural areas and smaller towns where large screens are up in village squares for the population to watch. “I hear crazy stories everyday,” says Sharma. “Like, rioting reduced in Muzaffarnagar while kabaddi was showing, or women refusing to cook dinner while the game’s on (30% viewership is female!).” The masses connect to the sport in an “umbilical cord kind of way,” he says.
Has the heavy-duty Bollywood backing helped? Abhishek Bachchan owns the Jaipur team, and Amitabh, Jaya, Aamir and Shahrukh were spotted cheering at games. “Perhaps,” says Sharma, “But stars can’t be daily draws — fans don’t come to the stadium for them. It’s the sport.”
Meanwhile, the kabaddi players are quickly becoming famous, mobbed for autographs, photographs. “They’re thrilled. But when I ask them ‘Where are your feet?’ they reply, ‘Zameen pe. (On the ground).’
Ruma Singh presents a column on observations, insights and
what’s buzzing in the city.