In 2008, the Indian Premier League (IPL) popularised the concept of franchise-based leagues in India. In just eight years, the IPL has become a model for sports ranging from wrestling, tennis, hockey and badminton, which have all seen leagues with varying success.
From this year, the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) will go where no league, not even the IPL, has been before. It will hold two seasons each year in a move that is sure to pique the interest of other leagues around the country.
Currently in its third season, the PKL will have its fourth edition in July-August after the current season ends on March 5.
While PKL franchise owners admit that the concept will add to their annual expenditure, they are confident it will be a hit. For one, two seasons a year will mean that the sport is on television for a prolonged period, something which will build fan loyalty, feel franchise owners.
“If you’re a cricket fan, you get to see the sport 12 months a year. Same is with tennis and football. But if you’re a kabaddi fan, you get to watch it only for five weeks a year. That’s not enough,” said Sandip Tarkas, CEO of Bengal Warriors.
“At the start of the first season itself, we (stakeholders) said we need to increase the number of days kabaddi is played for. Because if we want some sort of loyalty from viewers, we need to be visible over a longer period of time,” he added.
Many have wondered whether the two-season format would lead to overkill, but Uday Sihn Wala, the owner of Bengaluru Bulls, brushes aside such concerns.
“Cricket sells every time it is on air. When India play Australia, it sells. Right after that, you do an IPL, it sells. Nobody questions when cricket is sold 10 times a year. Similarly, kabaddi will also sell.
“Here you have a high-performance sport like kabaddi that is delivering numbers. Then why will it not sell?” asked Wala.
“It has been proven that kabaddi is the No 2 sport in the country after cricket. The games are quick, the viewers are loving it, the spectators are turning up at the stadium, which shows the popularity of the game,” reasoned Kailash Kandpal, manager of the Puneri Paltan franchise.
The two seasons will also make kabbadi easier to market, the franchises believe.
“This two-season format will be more beneficial because it actually gives a planned frequency through the year for marketing activities. It’s easier to work out a plan,” said Wala.
As for the financial outlay, the franchises claim they are in the sport for the long term.
“In terms of money, it is a bit of a problem because to find sponsors for two seasons in a year becomes a huge issue,” admitted Tarkas.
“The money we have to invest into the franchise annually will double due to this concept, but so will the revenue. Kabaddi franchises are a lot healthier in terms of revenue than teams from other leagues like wrestling and badminton. The Bengaluru team is on the cusp of breaking even in the next two seasons itself. Originally, the target was the fifth year, now we will break even in Year 3,” said Wala, adding that his team recovers nearly 85-90% of its expenditure a season as of now.
“It does put added financial burden, but when you’re in a league, you don’t look at it season by season. You’ve got to be there for the long term. Yes, in the short term it’s very turbulent but over time it will settle,” said Kandpal.
Whether the concept is successful remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, if it does, it will force other sports leagues in the country to consider it.