It takes a brave man, or very smart marketing people, to go global with a sport that is intrinsically local. Some feel the World Kabaddi League, now set for its second stop in expatriate-dominated Birmingham, would have made a splash if it had started at home in Punjab.
But the London launch is not really a push into alien territory. The earthy sport has spread roots in patches of UK, Canada and US thanks to Punjabi expatriates, who migrated to these parts in the 1960s.
Initially, their focus was religious, as they built two of the oldest gurdwaras in the UK – Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Smethwick, and Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall. Then came a push for weekend entertainment and community outreach and kabaddi was chosen as the sport to bring the youth together.
And with expatriates from Punjab establishing their businesses, tournaments began to be organised better. “Today, there are 16 clubs in the UK. The craze for hockey declined with India not doing so well, but interest in kabaddi has grown,” Ravinder Singh Powar, a former Punjab U-19 hockey player, who migrated to Birmingham in the 1980s, told HT.
When he was the president of a gurdwara, one of his main jobs was organising kabaddi matches. “Most teams have their origins in gurdwaras,” he said. “Initially all the players got was langar (food from gurdwara), then businessmen got involved.
There is no outside financial support.”
Today, in UK alone, there are at least 10 big clubs spending anything between £30,000 (around R30 lakh) and £100,000 (R1 crore) a season, which runs from May to July end. Matches in Birmingham are the most popular, with attendances around 7,000 for each game. National kabaddi bodies have been formed in UK, the US as well as Canada.
Players come mainly from India and Pakistan. “A top player can earn up to £20,000 (R20 lakh) a season here. At least 20-25 players take home that kind of money,” Powar pointed out. “See, Punjabis look for goodwill, they get peace of mind when they organise kabaddi, which they see as social service.”
Local male players have not taken to kabaddi, but English women have shown some interest. A team formed mainly of women rugby players are invited for exhibition matches during tournaments.
Indoor matches, as in WKL, however, are still a novelty. But for those like Talwinder Hyre, co-owner of United Singhs, the change in ambience should draw a wider section of fans. “We have a set audience, but efforts are on to get more women and children, as earlier they were kept away because of unruly crowds.”