Kabaddi’s Evolution May Mirror That Of Football’s In England
Today, football and footballers dominate viewership. It is then possible that sometime in the near future, the reach and appeal of kabaddi in India becomes such
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The December 2018 edition of a sports magazine has on its cover Pro-kabaddi players Pardeep Narwal, Rahul Chaudhari and Deepak Hooda, groomed and attired in elegant suits. The young sportsmen look suave, fashionable, confident and ‘international’—everything the sport is becoming and aspires to be.
The visuals embody a change in consumers’ consciousness in the five years since the emergence of the Pro-kabaddi league and indicative of the sport’s future. PKL, already the second-most watched sporting league in the country after cricket’s Indian Premier League, has pulled the sport out of villages and the northern belt into urban India. It’s no longer about kabaddi players seeking acceptance from a pan-Indian audience as legitimate sporting stars—they already are that—but it’s now about an urban India wanting to get its hands dirty in the sport.
Pro-kabaddi’s strength is now in its multi-dimensional inclusiveness and reach. Television popularity of the league has created a continuously growing set of new and young players, Naveen Kumar from Dabang Delhi, Patna Pirates’ Manjeet and PR Shrikant Jadhav of UP Yodha, all barely in their twenties, have emerged from nowhere and are competing with the best.
Coaches too are in high demand. Children from established, upscale and urbane schools of Mumbai and other cities want to learn kabaddi along with various prevalent martial arts, demonstrating the sport’s growing popularity across social boundaries—and a form of ‘reverse’ inclusiveness. The sport that was once on the fringe is now in the mainstream and everybody wants a piece of it.
The league has also opened the doors for players to become more actively connected with fans. That has given them more confidence in themselves and as performers—which shows in the magazine cover, for example. This newly acquired glamour quotient also contributes favourably to the contemporary image of the game and makes players better role models.
Fierce competition and recognition drive any sport and sportspersons to perform even better. The rigour of this sport, in particular, demands that players must be absolutely at the pinnacle of physical fitness equal to that required from the most demanding of sports. Playing kabaddi requires not only strength, but also gymnastic agility to dive up, down or sideways or enormous spurts of energy. Kabaddi players’ athleticism is evident from television and has therefore become aspirational.
It is instinctive for sports team owners, generally well-established businesspersons, to be even more strongly competitive than players. The craving to be the owner of the winning team has led them to invest substantial resources to usher in expertise for diet, training, strength and skills. If Virat Kohli is experimenting with veganism to improve his performance, kabaddi players’ new methodologies allows them to leap farther, fly higher.
The combination of factors has put the sport on par with several other, already well-marketed disciplines like cricket and badminton—so the probability of a child in a metro choosing to play kabaddi is almost the same as him picking up squash or football.
Every sport has its own arena to make the match experience more enchanting for fans—a stadium for cricket, courts for tennis, a field for football, but there are no special kabaddi stadiums. In NBA basketball, for example, the spectator experience is so intimate that you could be sitting at hand-shaking distance from LeBron James. For kabaddi to evolve further, it needs such facilities, localised for its audiences in several towns so that 3000-4000 people can experience it close and personal, feel its energy in flesh and sweat.
Unlike most of our current favourite sports, all bequeathals of our colonial past, kabaddi is indigenous and we have exported it to other nations. Although momentarily disappointing for us, the spread of our ‘soft power’ has been so triumphant that countries such as Iran and South Korea could defeat the India team at the recent Asian Games.
Kabaddi’s evolution may mirror that of football’s in England a while ago, when it was the rough sport of and for the masses and the working classes, while cricket was a gentleman’s game played in white flannels. Today, football and footballers dominate viewership. It is then possible that sometime in the near future, the reach and appeal of kabaddi in India becomes such.
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