Move over cricket, for in Punjab’s heartland and in high-profile gatherings in Canada, UK, the US and some European countries, kabaddi is king. Believe it or not, the rural sport, which is played predominantly in Punjab and mostly by Punjabis all over the world, has an annual budget of Rs 200 crore, comparable only to cricket in India. In fact, many kabaddi players earn more in a year than some of India’s best cricketers.
This sport is a part and parcel of Punjab’s culture and heritage, because of which the Punjabi diaspora has a strong affinity with it. To cash in on this love for the game, the Punjab government initiated the Kabaddi World Cup in Punjab in 2010, which entered its fourth season on November 30 (to end on December 14), carrying a total prize money of a whopping Rs 6.67 crore. With the world cup, the sport has seen a further boost in terms of investment of money as well as finding takers outside Punjab’s borders, as the rural sport is now pursued even in far away countries such as Kenya and Sierra Leone in Africa.
“Though there is a huge Punjabi population settled in Canada, the US and Europe, they remain connected to their roots. Because of this, kabaddi has a huge fan following in these countries. The patronage of NRIs over the years has made kabaddi a million-dollar sport,” affirms Karan Singh Ghuman, owner of the International Punjab Sports and Cultural Club in Toronto, Canada. The budget of kabaddi in Canada, says Ghuman, is almost `50 crore, and in UK, it touches Rs 25 crore. “The Kabaddi World Cup is also contributing in a major way to the present scenario of the sport. Because of this, kabaddi has got centrestage in Punjab and the players are earning more than what they used to when they were playing professional leagues in Canada and other countries,” adds Ghuman.
“Kabaddi is very popular in countries that have large Punjabi populations. A good player can earn his living through the sport itself,” says Kulwinder Singh, belonging to Kapurthala and a former captain of the Canadian kabbadi team. Singh had gone to Canada in the early ’90s to play professional kabaddi for a Vancouver club and later settled there after marrying a Canadian citizen. His point is explained by figures that suggest that a player who plays professional kabaddi either in Canada, UK, the US or Europe over the summer and later joins the Indian season (from November to March), earns a minimum of Rs 6- Rs 8 lakh per year, with the best earnings being between Rs 40 - Rs 80 lakh, including gifts in kind.
It’s not that money has started pouring into the sport only after the start of the Kabaddi World Cup. Blessed by the patronage of a large number of NRIs, club leagues of the rural sport exist in Europe, Canada, the US and even Australia. Indeed, having a top-ranking kabaddi player on their club’s rolls is a bragging right for most NRIs, so they spend lavishly in order to get the best into their fold and even visit India to scout for young talent at the rural sports festivals."I’ve now played five seasons in Canada after playing as many in UK. Today, if my family and I are in a position to lead a luxurious life, it’s all thanks to kabaddi," says Ludhiana-based Manjit Sehoura.
For that matter, in Canada and UK, the sport is hugely popular, having a well-structured professional club circuit. The four-month season that starts in May in Canada and UK witnesses as many as 350 players slugging it out, including 200 in the Canadian circuit. In Toronto, there are 16 clubs, while Vancouver has 12 clubs. The club matches are played on weekdays and on those days, one can easily find 5,000-odd spectators thronging the kabaddi grounds. The players are graded into three categories on the basis of their levels of playing — the top-graded player gets C$ (Canadian Dollars) 50,000 (`30 lakh) for a season, while a player in the B category gets C$ 40,000. In the C category, a player gets upto C$ 30,000. What’s more, even first timers get Rs 1 lakh, besides free travel, boarding and lodging.
In the UK, there are 16 clubs and the top ones earn around 25,000 pounds (Rs 25 lakh) for a season, while in the US there are also 16 clubs and the top players attract contracts ranging from US $ 50,000 to 70,000 (Rs 31 lakh - Rs 44 lakh). “Each of the kabaddi clubs in Canada and UK has a budget ranging from Rs 1- Rs 2 crore. Every year, around 200 players from Punjab fly to these countries for the professional leagues. And with each passing year, the players are earning more and more money,” says Ghuman, adding, “To improve our own base in the sport, we have introduced the Under-21 category of competitions since last year and have 10 junior teams now.”
Countries such as Italy, Norway and Germany too have kabaddi clubs where leagues are played on a regular basis and offer decent amount of money to the players. It’s easy to judge the high stakes in the sport when one learns of the amount that commentators earn. “A good commentator earns about Rs 3 lakh from the Indian circuit and then another Rs 3 lakh if he goes to Canada or UK. Kabaddi commentary is a full-time profession and my only source of income,” reveals Satpal Singh from Sangrur who visited Canada last year to commentate on kabaddi matches.
The big cup
Credit for taking the rural sport beyond the professional club circuit and help achieve global acceptance must be given to the Punjab government, that took the initiative of organising the Kabaddi World Cup in 2010, which carried a total prize money of Rs 2.16 crore. The world cup has been an annual feature in Punjab ever since and the money was duly doubled in the very next season. This time, the total prize money, including the women’s share, is Rs 6.67 crore, with which the event overtakes all other non-cricket sporting events held in the country.
All the matches of the world cup held so far were telecast live on PTC and viewed widely, not just in Punjab but also in Canada, UK and the US. Over the seasons, the world cup got its own glamour quotient when Bollywood stars including Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra were invited to perform during the mega opening and closing ceremonies of the event.
“Punjab has a culture of rural sports and most large villages of the state host festivals in which kabaddi matches always hold centrestage. For quite some time, kabaddi players have been earning a decent livelihood from the sport. Now, with the start of the Kabaddi World Cup, the sport has got a further boost,” says Sukhdarshan Singh Chahal, a kabaddi statistician who has written five books on the sport. “Because of the money associated with the sport, increasing number of youngsters want to be a part of kabaddi, which helps the sport have a broad base,” adds Chahal.
Breathless in Africa
The third season of the Kabaddi World Cup in 2012 saw the emergence of the rural sport in African nations, as Sierra Leone and Kenya competed in the event with teams comprising natives. In order to further popularise the sport in the world and to encourage foreign natives to take up the sport, organisers of the world cup have introduced a new rule by which only passport holders of a country can represent it.
“Earlier, even those players who were permanent residents of a country were allowed to be part of the team, because of which around 80 percent of the total participants in the previous seasons of the world cup were Punjabis. Now, with this new rule, you will see more natives of foreign lands take up the sport,” says Ravinder Singh Jassal, president of the Sierra Leone Kabaddi Federation. Jassal is responsible, to a large extent, for popularising the sport in his adopted country. “I have played kabaddi in college. Later, when I shifted base to Sierra Leone for business, I found that the natives here can be good kabaddi players as the game requires a strong physique and a good grip. So, I approached the players in the local wrestling club, bouncers at nightclubs and security guards to be a part of the sport,” says Jassal. Initially, he found it difficult to help them integrate, having even had to bear their cost of travel and pay money for their diet from his own pocket. “But now, we have proper teams of both men and women. Because of us, the sport has got a base in Kenya too,” claims Jassal.
The dope menace
Since kabaddi is not a part of any multi-disciplinary event, the sport is not regularised and there are very few checks in place. As a result, doping is one of the main hurdles that the sportsmen face. In the inaugural season, there were 16 dope offenders. In 2011’s world cup, dope tests yielded 53 positive — the highest for any sporting event across the world. Even during the trials for the world cup squad, 20 players failed the dope test; many others shied away from testing for it. In the third season, the number of dope offenders was reduced to five. However, more efforts are required to clean up the sport.
“With the introduction of the dope test in the world cup, awareness about doping has been generated. Now, even the foreign clubs want dope-free players to compete. In Canada, we have made it mandatory for the players coming from Punjab to get dope test done from the National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) before flying to Canada for the professional league,” says Chahal, who also runs a website dedicated to the sport: www.chakdekabaddi.com.
Lagging behind at home
Despite the presence of a league that is structured on international standards and ample opportunities to earn a living from in India, kabaddi remains confined to Punjab and neighbouring areas of Haryana. Because of its limited reach, this style of kabaddi (called ‘Punjab style’ or ‘circle kabaddi’) has never really got any importance on the national platform. On the other hand, ‘national style’ kabaddi has been a regular fixture in the Asian Games schedule ever since Hiroshima 1994. Kabaddi might not be very close to being considered a global sport, but the world cup has elevated its standards.
A kabaddi player’s earnings
* A player who first plays professional kabaddi in Canada, UK, the US or Europe and then takes part in the Indian season of the sport (November-March) earns a minimum of Rs 6-Rs 8 lakh per year, with the maximum (including gifts) touching Rs 40-Rs 80 lakh.
* In 2009, Dulla Pehelwan, a player from Punjab who is settled in the US, got an 18-wheel truck worth US $100,000 (R50 lakh) from the owner of Shahid Bhagat Singh Sports Club for helping the club win the American Kabaddi League. This year, Sandeep Ludhar earned around R60 lakh.
* Around 1,000 players across the globe earn their living through the sport.
* The professional kabaddi season is from May-end till August.
* The total number of clubs are 35 (across Toronto, Vancouver and Alberto). The main hubs of club leagues are Toronto and Vancover.
* The total expenditure, including the sport’s organisation and players’ salaries is about R50 crore.
* Every year, around 200 players from Punjab fly to Canada to compete in the club league, but this year the clubs sought only 30 players.
* Grade A players get C$ 50,000 (25 players are in this bracket), Grade B players get C$ 40,000 (40 players in this bracket) and Grade C players get upto C$ 30,000 (around 100 players). But a player can represent a different club in each of the three cities, earning as much as C$ 1,00,000 per season, in addition to individual cash awards and other incentives.
All around the world
* The English season (16 clubs) starts from May till August, and sees around 100 players from Punjab participate. Top players earn around 25,000 UK pounds.
* Leagues in Europe include Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Norway and Holland. During the season, which lasts from June to September, around 40 players come over from Punjab.
* The kabaddi season in the US (16 clubs), which also lasts from June to
September, sees participation from around 50 players from Punjab. Top players earn around US $ 50,000.
A Taste of India
* The domestic season in Punjab lasts from November till March.
* In Punjab, there are 85 registered clubs and three kabaddi federations (North India Kabaddi Federation, Punjab Kabaddi Academies Association and Punjab Kabaddi Association).
* The three federations organised a total of 200 tournaments in the state last year, the biggest of which were the Parsurampur Cup (budget: R25 lakh), Purawala Cup (R60 lakh) and Dirba Cup (R40 lakh).
* Apart from that, there are numerous kabaddi tournaments held during the rural meets organised by almost each of the 14,000 villages in Punjab.
* In India, around 30 players earn around R10 lakh, 50-70 earn in the range of R5-R7 lakh, while about 150-200 earn anywhere between R2-R3 lakh per annum.
Kabaddi World Cup: big innings
* In the first season of the Kabaddi World Cup held in 2010:
Total prize money: R2.16 crore
Team comprised:9 players
* In the 2011 World Cup:
Total prize money: Rs 4.14 crore
Team comprised: 14 players
Winner: India: Runner’s-up: Canada.
The women’s team had 4 players, the winner was India and the runner’s-up was UK.
* In 2012
Total prize money:R5.7 crore
Team comprised: 15 players
Winner: India; Runner’s-up: Pakistan.
Women’s team had 7 players (India won and Malaysia was runner’s up).
* This time, there are 14 players.
Women’s team has 8 players.
Stars of the game
RaidersSandeep Ludhar, 26: Active in the international circuit for almost eight years now, Ludhar hails from village Dirbha in district Sangrur. He was a part of the Indian team in the second world cup and is rated among the top raiders since the last four years. He has played in Canada and Europe.
Gurlal Ghanaur, 32: Ghanaur hails from village Marhu in Patiala and has been active in the international circuit for the last 15 years. He was a part of the Indian team in the second and third world cup. This year, he played in Belgium.Sultan Singh, 24: Rated as one of the top raiders since the last four years, Singh hails from village Samaspur in Patiala. He was a part of the last world cup squad.
Sukhbir Saravaan, 29: Saravaan is the only Indian raider who was a part of all the three world cup squads. He hails from village Saravaan in district Muktsar.
Balbir Singh, 24: Popularly known as Pala Jalapur in the kabaddi circuit, Singh hails from village Jalapur in district Jalandhar. He was a part of India’s world cup squad last year and performed very well.
Ekam Hathor, 25: Hathor was the best stopper of last season’s world cup. Hailing from village Hattor
in district Ludhiana, Hathor’s two brothers Nirbhay Singh and Nanak Singh are also renowned kabaddi players.
Narinder Ram Bittu, 30: Bittu is popularly known as Bittu Dugal in the kabaddi circuit and is the only stopper who was a part of the Indian squad in all the three world cups. He hails form village Dugal Kalan in Patiala.