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Pro Kabaddi League and IPL: A tale of the two most successful sporting leagues in India

The Indian Premier League 2021 is set to begin on April 9, as the sponsors’ battle is underway. While IPL 2021 is expected to be huge once again on monetary terms, including player salaries, the Indian Super League and Pro Kabaddi League’s rise has also attracted substantial player salaries, alongside tremendous sponsorship.

Pro Kabaddi League and IPL: A tale of the two most successful sporting leagues in India-ayh
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Bengaluru, First Published Mar 9, 2021, 5:08 PM IST
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Meta: The Indian Premier League 2021 is set to begin on April 9, as the sponsors’ battle is underway. While IPL 2021 is expected to be huge once again on monetary terms, including player salaries, the Indian Super League and Pro Kabaddi League’s rise has also attracted substantial player salaries, alongside tremendous sponsorship.

₹1.45 crore a year as salary! Now, that is something one would associate with CXOs of large organisations, film stars, or cricketers in India. It would not be surprising if you would not be able to guess it to be for a kabaddi player even on your tenth attempt. Yes, a kabaddi player! That is precisely how much Pro Kabaddi outfit Telugu Titans paid to buy Siddharth Desai’s services at the 2019 Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) auction.

For long, cricket was the only sport considered worthy of a career in India. One could argue that all other sports were given stepmotherly treatment in the country. However, it seems like times have changed with sports like kabaddi and football competing for screentime and attention from the average Indian sports fan.

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Cricket establishing itself as India’s dominant sport
Dwindling success in hockey in the 80s and the 1983 World Cup win by Kapil Dev and co resulted in a categoric shift in the focus sport of the Indian audience after decades of monopoly by hockey as India’s favourite sport. Since then, cricket has ruled the roost and has become akin to a religion in the country.

The advent of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008 took the sport to astronomical heights and the money it generated for sponsors dwarfed anything they could muster through any industry, let alone sports. Salaries went through the roof over the years, exemplified by Yuvraj Singh’s purchase by Kings XI Punjab for an astonishing amount of ₹14 crores in 2014.

How Kabaddi established itself in India?
Looking at the success of the IPL, plenty of leagues were formed for different sports aiming to emulate its success and popularity. One such league that was initially looked upon with scepticism was the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), which was formed in 2014 to take the indigenous sport of kabaddi to the masses. There were few takers as sponsors of the league, which saw the co-owners – Star Sports – take up the title sponsors’ role.

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All doubts that were raised for the PKL were swiftly dismissed in the first season (2014) itself as over 435 million viewers tuned in to witness the league. In comparison, the 2014 IPL was viewed by 560 million and the Indian Super League (ISL) later in the year by 429 million users. To see the PKL almost match the IPL in terms of viewership despite being six years behind the IPL was astonishing, to say the least.

According to an observation in a Betway article by Adam Drury, in the five years since its inception (2014 till 2019), the PKL has outpaced ISL and is closing in on the IPL as the most viewed sport.

Although PKL has some work to do to match the social media following of ISL (690k) and IPL (6.49mn), treating it in isolation looks impressive. For a sport that was barely played, let alone followed, amassing a following of 300k users on Twitter is no mean feat. During the tournament, it is well observed that nearly every top trend is a Pro Kabaddi related one on Twitter and other social media platforms.

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The rise of the league ever since it caught the fancy of the Indian audience in 2014 has been nothing short of meteoric. Sponsors flocked in after understanding the untapped potential of the tournament. 2015, Vivo signed the biggest non-cricket deal in Indian sports history – a 300-crore agreement to become the league’s title sponsors. The 2018 edition saw over 70 sponsorships, while Dream11 sponsored the last edition in 2019, while bigwigs like Tata Motors and Honda retained their sponsorship for the tournament despite the clash with the Cricket World Cup.

The growth of the league has benefitted the players hugely, evidenced by their salaries growing almost ten-fold. The most expensive player in the inaugural edition was at 12.8 lakhs, while it was up to 1.45 crores just five years later. What’s surprising to see is that the salaries have either stagnated or fallen in the IPL.

There’s no doubt about the ongoing dominance of cricket and especially IPL among Indian sports fans. However, it is glaringly obvious to even the staunchest critic of the sport that kabaddi has carved a space for itself in the territory of Indian sports.

Having shaken up the established order, Pro Kabaddi League has now become the second most followed sporting competition in the country, behind IPL. With the growth the league has seen over the years, it would not be surprising to see it go toe-to-toe with the domestic T20 league soon. To paraphrase the most common saying in the PKL, the lines have been drawn and the game is truly on!

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