Shailesh Kapoor: Pro Kabaddi: A Giant Leap for a Dying Sport?

28 Jul,2014

By Shailesh Kapoor


When I first learnt that Star Sports are investing in Kabaddi, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. A wrestling league, or even a boxing league, would seem like a good idea, given the talk value around these sports in recent years, especially in the wake of India’s creditable performance at the global stage, including the 2012 London Olympics. But Kabaddi?


India has monopolized the sport at the Asian Games, winning all seven golds since its introduction in the event in 1990. But the primarily sub-continental sport has not found many takers outside South Asia. Awareness of the sport is very low amongst young audiences, many of who confuse it with the traditional Indian (dying) sport of Kho Kho.


Star’s decision to invest in Kabaddi, then, can be labeled as ‘high-risk’, a decision that would have to rely on exceptional execution to even find a critical audience in its first season. To their credit, having taken the decision, they have gone all guns blazing, with some good advertising and high media visibility. The simulcast on Star Sports and Star Gold will also help in widening the reach in the first year.


But you can’t “buy” relevance and appeal for a media property. It needs to be intrinsic to the content. Hence, it was with great curiosity that I tuned into the first four games.


My skepticism about the league has reduced considerably, say from 9/10 to 5/10, having watched the first two days of action. The last I watched Kabaddi was probably back in mid-90s. What I saw this time was strikingly different and several notches higher in entertainment than the sport I had imagined Kabaddi to be. Here’s why:


1. Shifting from mud to mat makes the sport visually cleaner and colorful. It is far more appetizing for TV than the ‘brown sport’ I remember from the 90s.


2. The rules have been changed to make the sport fast-moving and contemporary. There is less scope for time-wasting and the speed of action is higher than most other contact sports.


3. Hindi and English commentary are both available. The quality of commentary is very acceptable, and there’s a lot of focus on explaining the rules in the early games, while maintaining the energy of the event.


4. The celebrity quotient is present in good value. If it is only a function of the opening matches being in Mumbai, we will know soon. But if it sustains, the celebs would generate a lot of chatter around the league, a critical aspect in the first year.


It’s difficult to say if these steps will be enough to make the league work. But they at least give it a chance. I believe there’s definite entertainment on offer in the league, but the ratings would tell us over the next few weeks if the young audiences across India connect with this form of entertainment.


Even a moderately successful first year should encourage the organizers and Star to come back stronger in the second year. Other sporting leagues, including the much-hyped hockey league, have struggled to sustain themselves after a season or two. Star Sports Pro Kabaddi will hope to buck that trend.


TV Trails is a weekly column written by Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of media insights firm Ormax Media. He spent nine years in the television industry before turning entrepreneur. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at his Twitter handle @shaileshkapoor


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