The fifth season of the Pro Kabaddi League begins on Friday in Hyderabad. The season is going to be the longest ever in the league’s history – spanning 13 weeks, or over three months. This makes it the longest franchise-based league in India. It’s also the biggest in terms of the number of teams, after the addition of four new franchises this year to the original eight.

Pro Kabaddi, formed in 2014, has grown to become the second most watched league in the country on television. It has overtaken football’s Indian Super League in television reach last year, according to a report on sports sponsorship in India by GroupM Media and Sportz Network.

Kabaddi as a sport also beat football in terms of revenue generated last year – Rs 122 crore compared with Rs 109.5 crore. However, Pro Kabaddi wasn’t the only contributor to this figure. The 2016 Kabaddi World Cup held in India also had something to do with this.

From not having a single sponsor in the inaugural season in 2014 to signing on Chinese smartphone maker Vivo as a title sponsor for a period of five years in a deal valued at Rs 300 crore, the rise of Pro Kabaddi has been phenomenal.

Laughing all the way to the bank are the franchise owners. The Field spoke to the owners and CEOs of six of the original eight franchises that had taken the plunge in 2014 by investing in Pro Kabaddi. Nearly all of them said that they hadn’t broken even yet, but hoped to do so by the end of the fifth season.

When former sports commentator Charu Sharma, along with his influential brother-in-law and chairman of the Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra, had first approached individuals and tried coercing them into setting up a franchise in a kabaddi league, they were turned down quite a few times. “It sounded like a ridiculous idea at the time,” said Sharma, adding that breaking even wasn’t even in the picture when he was trying to sell the idea.

“You can’t guarantee returns even for a visible, popular sport like cricket, then what about one that was virtually underground?” said Sharma. “I was not certainly out to ever promise more than what I can deliver. I said, I know that the sport will do well. It is a fantastic sport, popular in large parts of India, but it is not promoted in the media at all. It had to be a blind leap of faith and that’s what people did, thankfully.”

Taking the plunge

Taking blind leaps of faith worth crores of rupees sounds good in a story, but how practical was it really, considering the high risk factor? Here was a sport that only ever came into public light when India participated in global events such as the Asian Games and the World Cup.

“When you run a sports business company, the economics is very fundamental and we need to make the business viable,” said Supratik Sen, CEO of Pro Kabaddi’s U-Mumba franchise, which was one of the first teams to come on board.

He added, “We also needed to see how sustainable it was – it shouldn’t be a flash in the pan, have and exciting first season and then fail, because that has happened with some other leagues. Will it last for more than three or four years? How do you make it aspirational for both the athlete and the consumer? I was always convinced that this sport would do well, but it had to be done in a certain way.”

Before Pro Kabaddi was launched, all the team owners and broadcaster Star Sports had a round-table discussion on how the league could be jazzed up to make it attractive for a television audience. This was where innovative rule changes such as the 30-second rule (no raid can exceed 30 seconds), the do-or-die raid, and the super tackle, which gave an extra point when three or fewer defenders made a successful tackle, were conceived.

Pro Kabaddi was jazzed up for television (Image: AFP)

It wasn’t just rule changes. Appearance was also key. “We were the first ones to say, let’s give the athletes a certain look and feel,” added Sen. “They are already very well built, so you just have to get attractive clothing, think about how they will run onto the mat, what kind of activities should they do prior to the matches…So we just tried things like that and it succeeded.”

And how. Pro Kabaddi’s first season in 2014 was watched by 435 million viewers, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India. This was second only to the 552 million people who watched the IPL that year. However, the franchises were nowhere close to breaking even at the end of that season. One of the major reasons for this was that Star Sports had decided to not have any sponsors for the inaugural season. Only three of the eight franchises had managed to find sponsors.

Attracting sponsors

“Sponsors were very hesitant in season one,” said Kailash Kandpal, CEO of the Puneri Paltan franchise, which didn’t have a single sponsor in the inaugural season. “But now, in season five, I am getting calls from sponsors. It is good to see so many brands warming up to a secondary sport like kabaddi. We had no sponsors in the first season, but now we have seven.”

Franchises can’t just expect sponsors to come on board, even if the league is doing well. A lot also depends on the kind of marketing and fan-engagement initiatives that the franchises take themselves to attract partners. Last month, Dabang Delhi became the first Pro Kabaddi franchise to cross the one million followers mark on Facebook. How did the franchise achieve this?

“Last year, we had tied up with about 40-45 restaurants and bars to host kabaddi-themed events,” said Saumya Khaitan, CEO of Dabang Delhi. “This year it is around 100-105 outlets. We have also tied up with schools and NGOs across objectives. We have tied up with PayTM to have a very extensive marketing campaign for digital and online. We have a holistic 360-degree plan. We think a lot ahead, so sponsors also come relatively easier because there is always a clear-cut plan and value-add that we bring to the table.”

As for the league itself, Star is selling the longer season five as an opportunity for sponsors to have sustained engagement across three months, 90 match days and 12 teams across the country. Pro Kabaddi has also chosen a different sponsorship model to the IPL, where there is an on-ground sponsor and a broadcast sponsor. They don’t have to be the same and this makes it possible for a league to have two different sponsors from the same category.

Pro Kabaddi, on the other hand, “is quite unique in the way that we go to the market”, a Star India spokesperson said. “Here, the sponsors have the option of being present on ground, on air and digital at the same time. Hence, the key reason to participate for a sponsor is often the associative value that the sport offers.” This way, there is no chance that a sponsor can be outshined in its category by a rival.

Pro Kabaddi generated Rs 100 crore across its two seasons held last year, with 15 central sponsors, according to the GroupM report mentioned above. In terms of team sponsorship, the league raked in Rs 62 crore in 2016. This season, apart from title sponsor Vivo, Pro Kabaddi has signed up Gillette, TVS Motors, the Association of Mutual Funds of India, Bajaj Electricals, Indo Nissin Foods, Lux Cozy, Castrol and United Spirits. “There is a lot more interest in the property and hence there will be more brands in addition to the ones mentioned,” Star’s spokesperson said.

Sponsors have the option of being present on ground, on air and digital at the same time (Image: IANS)

Robust economy

On the eve of season five, Pro Kabaddi is close, if not already there, to being a robust economy in itself. The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax earlier this month has added to the variables for franchises this season. A longer season also means added expenses, but it also ensures more possibilities for teams to earn money.

“There’s still some distance to being a profitable side, but the P&L (profit and loss statement) is very good,” said Sen. “If I count all my overheads, then we are not profitable. But by season five and six, I should be able to say that overall I have completely gone in the green zone of profit.”

Rajesh Shah, owner of two-time champions Patna Pirates, said that he expects the franchise to break even this season in terms of total cash flow. However, he added that for him, it was more about building a brand.

“There is a constant in all sports teams whether you are negative in cash flow or not – the key aspect of the business is to recognise that there is a building up of your brand – the brand of your team,” he said. “This depends on how attractive the sport is and how widely is it reaching out on TV. Everything in the business of the league depends on how valuable you can make the brand of your team, and therefore your team itself.”

Sports should not be looked at as a seasonal business and franchises should have a longer vision, said Khaitan. “If you look at it season on season and you are not making the money that you wanted to, you start cutting costs. This leads to a vicious spiral where you don’t promote the team enough, and then sponsors won’t come back.”

All team officials The Field spoke to concurred with this approach, and this is probably one of the major reasons why Pro Kabaddi has done so well. All the stakeholders have been quite conscious of managing costs and expenses. None of the franchises have outrun themselves in terms of expectations. Everything seems calibrated right. The league also has the backing of a big broadcaster, which in fact owns the league, and is thus committed to expanding the viewership and promoting the sport.

Pro Kabaddi has checked all boxes and, thus, it’s no wonder its stakeholders are a happy bunch.