Kabaddi’s stock has risen considerably in recent times after the advent of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014. A sport confined to the muddy fields of rural India has managed to find a place in the hearts of the urban audience hitherto indifferent to the sport.

After six seasons of success of the PKL, another kabaddi league – Indo-International Premier Kabaddi League – has come into being. The eight-franchise competition launched by the New Kabaddi Federation – a rival entity to the existing and authorised All India Kabaddi Federation – adopts the standard style of kabaddi format refined and popularised by the PKL, with minor tweaks.

But unlike the NKF that was formed with the basic aim of countering the corruption in the AKFI, the IIPKL isn’t an entity established to compete with the PKL. Instead, it’s a tournament that the owners believe can co-exist with its illustrious cousin by utilising the spare kabaddi talent in the country.

“We have over 10000 kabaddi players in the country. Only over 200 players get a chance to play in the Pro kabaddi league. The rest of the players find it hard to survive as kabaddi players. We are grateful to Mashal Sports and Star Sports for launching the PKL and we believe it has transformed the sport. But we are here to ensure there’s a greater talent pool in the country,” MV Prasad Babu, the general secretary of the NKF and chief promoter of the IIPKL told Scroll.

Sunil Jaypal, a former PKL star is part of the Diler Delhi team in the IIPKL and believes the league will be a financial game-changer for the players involved even if the tournament doesn’t follow similar growth path as the PKL.

“In our villages, all coaches are encouraging us to participate in the league. Even some of the PKL stars are happy with the formation of the new league and want us to play. With two leagues, I feel kabaddi players will feel more encouraged as there’s an alternative if one doesn’t make it to the PKL,” Jaypal suggested.

Uncertain future for players

There’s little doubt that India has the talent and appetite to sustain two kabaddi leagues but in case of the PKL and the IIPKL, the palpable discord between the NKF and AKFI could be an obstacle.

Tejasvi Gehlot, the General Secretary of the newly elected AKFI body hinted that players affiliated to the NKF won’t be considered for national team selection and would be barred from participating in the national championships.

“We have no problem with the league as long as players get to play and earn money. We have discussed a potential ban on the players, but for now, there will be none. We want to see how the league goes and then take a call. But the players will not be eligible for nationals and India selection in future. Since they have their own World Cup, those players can participate in that,” Gehlot was quoted saying by The New Indian Express.

The AKFI is India’s recognised body for kabaddi that holds the rights to pick the Indian teams for the Asian Games. NKF on the other hand is not recognised by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and is just two-years-old.

However, Prasad Babu argues that the AKFI have no legal right to bar players from national team selections, and feels the current member of the newly elected body which he alleges has a history of corruption will soon be voted out of power in the second round of elections slated to happen later in the year after the national sports code is properly implemented at all local bodies affiliated to the AKFI.

Prasad Babu believes “honest” members of the NKF who are mostly former players will be preferred by the various state association bodies in the upcoming elections once the sports code is implemented.

When asked about the future of the NKF if its members are indeed elected in the new AKFI body, Prasad Babu responded by reminding that the NKF was formed with a sole aim of eliminating corruption in the AKFI. “We are there to counter the corrupt forces in the AKFI. The NKF would remain even if we come to power. It’s an association of former players that works in the interests of kabaddi in India.” he added.

The problem for IIPKL would increase if things don’t pan out the way Prasad Babu expects. Looking back at the history of AKFI and its domination by the Gehlot family, it isn’t unlikely that the NKF members don’t garner enough support in their favour. If that’s the case, the NKF affiliated players are likely to be frozen out.

Another major factor apart from potential isolation, that could dissuade players from registering for the IIPKL, is the two-year cooling-off period for the participants.

With an aim to bring in more fresh faces, the league will not allow players to play more than two seasons in the competition. This rule will only add to the helplessness of the players who would be choosing to participate in the IIPKL despite the potential threats to their careers.

The cooling-off period also defeats the point that the IIPKL is being formed to ensure better financial sustainability for the kabaddi players in India as the rewards are just for two years.

No clear revenue model

Even though the league promises to share 20% of its profits with the players, the chances of any surplus in the near future seem highly unlikely at this point. While the benefit of the doubt can be given for the lack of spectators in the stands, considering the league has just started, the lack of a defined revenue model doesn’t reflect well on the IIPKL’s future prospects.

“We are not looking to make money. We just want the players to benefit, we don’t have big sponsorship as of now, but we will see in the future,” Prasad Babu responded when asked about the league’s plans to sustain financially.

The franchises who pay approximately Rs 1.5 crore as fee to the league will have to find ways to sustain themselves. Despite the success of the league, PKL owners are still sweating on their revenues. The challenges for the franchises of a poorly marketed league in comparison would be even higher.

In terms of innovations to the game’s format that have been at the heart of the PKL’s success, the tweaked format adopted by the IIPKL that includes dividing the game into four quarters instead of two halves, and advancing the do-or-die raid after just one empty raid seems like alterations done just for the sake of it. In the games played out so far, those changes haven’t distinctly improved the excitement quotient of the game.

In summary, one wonders if the NKF have put enough thought to ensure the long-term survival of the competition. The league has a half-baked feel to it and seems like a venture to simply have a tangible competition of their own to counter the AKFI.

Time will tell if the IIPKL is able to overcome its obstacles and develop into a viable alternative for the kabaddi players in India or it will be restricted to being a mere by-product of the power tussle in Indian kabaddi.

Indo-International Premier Kabaddi League games are telecast LIVE on DSports from 8 pm onwards