Over the past few years, many franchise-based leagues have come to occupy the sporting space in India. Infusing razzmatazz and glamour, these leagues have tried to carve a space for themselves in the cricket-crazy country.
Franchise leagues in India have banked on relatively settled sports that already have a potential market and where bringing promotion into the mix makes it an appealing final product.
However, kabaddi never had such a privilege, in spite of the fact that it won international recognition over two decades ago after it became an Asian Games sport. With hardly any TV presence or star to bank on, the odds were stacked against it.
The past couple of months though have introduced a face of kabaddi to the country unseen till now. The Pro-Kabaddi league has been followed on TV and drawn crowds to stadiums in urban areas, a feat most stakeholders in the traditional game would have only dreamt of.
On Sunday, the nearly two-month long league completed its inaugural run with the grand finale at Mumbai’s NSCI arena. The home team — U Mumba — faced the challenge of Jaipur Pink Panthers, a franchise owned by Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan. Pink Panthers won 35-24.
The actor was present to support his team with wife and actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Tickets for the night had been sold out and requests for passes were high.
The players did not let the occasion get the better of them. Mumbai and Jaipur played out a tense match, running neck and neck through the first half. It was Pink Panthers who finally upped their game in the second half to prevail.
At the beginning of the league, most players had never been on TV. The whirlwind tour through eight cities across the country with live coverage to boot has transformed the lives of many players in the league.
The presence of Bollywood personalities has lent glamour to the sport. It was thrilling action on the mat with the players leaving the audience gasping with their leaps, tumbles and bone-crunching tackles.
Kabaddi is a game which is known to leave players breathless in the end. While it is too early to tell if the league can hold the collective breath of the Indian sports fan, the one thing this league has accomplished in the first season is to launch kabaddi into the mainstream. It’s only way from here is up.
The second season is being planned to be staged in March.