With fans back, PKL feels the love

Published on Oct 07, 2022 10:46 PM IST

The Kanteerava Stadium premises had an unmistakable buzz as the Kabaddi League got underway

PKL Season 9 began on Friday.(Twitter) PREMIUM
PKL Season 9 began on Friday.(Twitter)
ByRutvick Mehta

The Kanteerava Stadium premises here has been engulfed with an unmistakable buzz. On the one side is the football ground dripping blue ahead of Bengaluru FC’s Indian Super League home game on Saturday. On the other is the indoor arena bathed in distinct colours for Friday’s opening night of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL).

Outside it, fans trickle in, painting “Bengaluru Bulls” on their cheeks, trying their hands at a makeshift hammer game and posing with player cutouts of the different kabaddi moves. As the Dabang Delhi team bus arrives, most of them charge towards it to capture a snap of the players.

Also Read | PKL's success has not been without some major challenges

The ninth season of PKL is a throwback from three years ago—fans are a big part of the show while players are not tied to a bio-bubble. After the 2020 edition was cancelled, the league was held entirely in a five-star hotel on the outskirts of the city, bereft of spectators and the accompanying spectacle.

The players sure felt it.

“We missed the fans a lot,” Vikash Kandola, Bengaluru Bulls raider, said. “There’s a different energy with the spectators around. We thrive off the noise and it gives us that extra spring on the mat.”

“Playing in front of empty stands was like playing practice games,” Naveen Kumar, the Dabang Delhi captain who notched up 13 points in their win over U Mumba in the opener, said. “The presence of fans also gives us the confidence that these people have come to watch us do our thing.”

Across the globe, sport carried on sans fans amid the pandemic, and so did PKL. However, the smattering of spectators gets amplified in a close contact sport like kabaddi played out in indoor, compact arenas.

“Last year we had those speakers replicating artificial crowd noise, but it wasn’t the same. Someone shouting out your name from the stands has a different feel altogether. And we can hear it when we’re in the battle,” Pawan Sehrawat, the most expensive player in PKL history, said.

“I had been waiting for the crowds to come back. Crowd se ek alag hi level ka game khela jata hai, aur crowds ke saamne hi maine saare records banaye hai (you play a different game in front of crowds, and I have set all my records in front of crowds),” the star raider added.

There’s also the other side to the crowd coin. Young Aslam Inamdar made his PKL debut last season and created quite a stir with Puneri Paltan. He did that amid steady silence, and can feel the added touch of pressure doing it with the eyeballs on him this season. “I’m a little nervous about it,” Aslam said. “I have never played with so many people watching me, and I don’t know what to expect.”

“Too much crowd can also tend to create pressure,” Naveen said. “You can get too pumped up and focused on the noise around you.”

Be that as it may, fans are here to stay in PKL. The popularity of the league over the years is directly proportional to the increase in bums on seats. The Kanteerava was three-fourths full for the opening night triple-header featuring the home team. “Kabaddi has grown so much in India,” Sehrawat said. “People know players by name, they recognise us wherever we go and shout our names from the stands.”

The challenge for PKL, as league CEO Anupam Goswami acknowledged, will not only be to get those fans back in stadiums after the two-year hiatus but also set “new benchmarks of in-stadia experience” for them. It probably explains the bonus experiences—hammer game, cutout poses, make your own banners, etc—for fans on match days.

“Spectators have moved on during the past 2-3 years. It will be important to offer integrated experiences,” he said.

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