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Star reinventing ancient Indian sport to make Pro Kabbadi League a good TV property

MUMBAI: After an astounding success in the inaugural edition, Pro Kabbadi League (PKL) promises to become an established sporting property for official broadcaster Star India. What is being done to scale up the event? How commercially rich is it going to be?

TelevisionPost.com looks at the reinvention of India’s ancient rural sport as a rich sporting and TV event.

Why having Star India as an equity partner will help PKL to scale up?

Star acquired 74 per cent stake in Mashal Sports that owns the PKL property. That makes it not just a broadcast partner, but also a co-owner and gives it control to design and tailor the product for popularising it among the audiences.

Anand Mahindra, sports commentator Charu Sharma, and Lex & Legal Services’ Rajiv Luthra are the other shareholders in the company. Adman Piyush Pandey is an advisor.

Mashal Sports has taken the rights to organise the league for a period of 10 years from the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF), with an option to renew it further. Star’s aim is to spawn a multi-sport culture in India.

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Will widening the playing window be helpful for Star as the official broadcaster of the property?

The second edition of PKL will have 60 games in eight cities, spread over 37 days. The sport will be better off if it has more competitions running over a longer duration. Other nations have sporting events played over several months. In the US, this is the case with the NBA. Soccer in England runs over 35 weeks. The challenge is to sustain viewer interest for the sport over an extended window of playing time every year.

Is it feasible to have longer duration visibility of the sport?

Unlike the Indian Premier League (IPL), which has constraints of an international cricket calendar fixed by the ICC, PKL has the flexibility to decide its own fate. It can find ways of developing its own calendar. However, it will need many more talented players and create a big bench. Being a contact sport, players can get injured and get tired.

Can kabaddi go global?

Star India is determined to make PKL a globally watched sport. PKL will be telecast this time over 109 countries, including key markets like the US, UK and Middle East. Moreover, international players form part of the teams and will be seen in action this season.

IKF president Janardan Singh Gehlot wants kabaddi, an ancient rural Indian sport, to be included in the Olympic Games. Kabaddi came on the international map in 1985 during the SAF Games in Dhaka. It saw its major breakthrough in 1990 when it was included in the Asian Games during the 11th Asian Games in Beijing. Since then, Kabaddi is a regular discipline in the Asian Games.

What are Star’s plans to widen kabaddi’s television viewership?

The second season of PKL is being telecast in five languages across eight channels to take the traditional Indian sport closer to fans across the country. It will be broadcast on Star’s English, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi channels.

The English feed will be carried by Star Sports 2 and Star Sports HD2. The Hindi feed will be on Star Sports 3, Star Sports HD3 and Star Gold. The Telugu feed will air on Maa Movies and the Kannada feed on Kannada GEC Suvarna Plus.

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Is Star trying out a new language to broaden the appeal of sports?

Yes! Star Pravah will have a Marathi feed on Sundays only. This is the first time that Star will have Marathi feed for a sporting event.

How popular was PKL in its inaugural season?

Star claims that PKL is the second most-watched sport in the country, after the IPL. The first season was watched by over 435 million viewers nationwide. The season finale alone recorded a reach of 86.4 million.

Why was PKL so successful in the first season?

It did three things—made kabaddi an aspirational sport, ensured a good stadium experience and caught the attention of a new generation of TV viewers.

What is Star doing new in the second edition of PKL?

Enhanced graphics, analytics, and commentary will make sure that the viewer experience is far more inclusive in Season 2. It will also have commentary from the field of play, a never-seen-before phenomenon in Indian sports. Star is committed to reinventing the sport and setting it in today’s context. The task is to make the game relevant and aspirational for the millions of young and passionate fans across India. The objective this season is to make PKL bigger and better in terms of quality of play, broadcast and reach.

Has the player pool increased?

This season, PKL will feature a much deeper pool of national and international players. The squad strength of the teams has been increased from 14 members during the inaugural edition to 25 for the second season. This will allow teams greater freedom to not only field local and young talent, but also to ensure that teams are not affected adversely by injuries.

What is being done on the marketing front?

Amitabh Bachchan sang the ‘Le Panga’ song in the ad. This has been another key marketing push for Star Sports after the ‘Mauka Mauka’ campaign for the Cricket World Cup. He will also perform the National Anthem on the opening night.

Is there greater sponsorship interest this time?

Yes! Last time, companies adopted a wait-and-watch policy. Star was not willing to compromise on ad rates when doing deals for the first season. That decision and the faith that Star put into the product has been justified. Now advertisers are finding it hard to ignore PKL. This season, the broadcaster has roped in the likes of Bajaj Electricals, Department of Atomic Energy, Flipkart, Mahindra & Mahindra, State Bank of India, Thums Up, TVS Motors, and VIP Frenchie as associate sponsors.

Franchises get 80 per cent of the revenue from the central pool. Indications are that some are trying to negotiate for better deals from sponsors. They are taking their cue from Star and are trying not to sell cheap.

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How does Star want to build the property?

Star India CEO Uday Shankar has spoken of creating a vocabulary for Kabaddi as the next big aim. The sport needs idioms and phrases that can describe the game. There is also need for formally trained commentators for kabaddi.

Who are the teams and the owners?

Bengal Warriors (Kolkata) – Kishore Biyani, Future Group

Bengaluru Bulls – Kosmik Global Media

Dabang Delhi – Radha Kapoor, DO IT Sports Management

Jaipur Pink Panthers – Abhishek Bachchan

Patna Pirates (Patna) – Rajesh Shah

Puneri Paltan (Pune) – Sumanlal Shah, Insurekot Sports

Telugu Titans – Veera Sports

U Mumba (Mumbai) – Ronnie Screwvala, Unilazer Sports

How viable is the business model of PKL?

The franchises spend much less than their IPL and ISL counterparts. For some PKL franchises, breakeven is expected to happen next year. Each PKL franchise spends between Rs 45 and 50 million annually including a nominal franchise fee.

Which players have a lot of money riding on them?

Iranians have invaded the event and are commanding a good price besides some Indian players. The most costly players include Rs 2.11 million for Hadi Oshtorak from Iran. The bid was made by Telugu Titans. Meraj Sheykh was also signed by Telugu Titans for Rs 2.01 million. India’s Rakesh Kumar was the most expensive player last year at Rs 1.28 million. He is with the Patna Pirates.

What other things is PKL considering to grow the sport?

Abhishekh Bachchan has said that the PKL franchises are in favour of introducing a league for women. This is important because women are good at this sport; they practise with men. You want to put out a product that is as competitive and entertaining as possible. However, this will take time to materialise and issues like finance need to be worked out.

What is the challenge that PKL faces?

The ratings need to be better than the first season. The first season was a novelty. Nobody had seen this kind of a product before. If ratings grow, then the event is on a strong path.