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Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi: Is There Trouble In Paradise?

The results of the bidding will be known in a couple of weeks. Whatever be the verdict on the channel of choice, one thing is for sure: millions of viewers are waiting excitedly for the return of Kabadddi Kabaddi Kabaddi to their television screens!

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When sports management company Mashal Sports announced last month that it would conduct an open market media rights auction for five Pro Kabaddi League seasons to be held during 2021 – 2025, quite a few eyebrows were raised. The eighth edition of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) was scheduled to be held in July last year, but it was postponed due to the Covid pandemic.  Before the League could resume this year, came the surprise announcement: in effect an open split from the Star TV network which has hosted the League almost since its very inception and owns 74% in Mashal Sports, originally promoted by Anand Mahindra and his brother-in-law Charu Sharma. 

Kabaddi as a traditional sport has seen a surprising resurgence in recent years. PKL Season 1 had an unbelievable viewership of 552 million, second only to IPL. PKL grew 20% YoY from Season 1 to 2 and 35% YoY from Season 2 to 3. This spurt in growth resulted in the introduction of 2 Seasons / year format with the 2016 having Season 3 & 4 just 4 months apart. The exponential rise in the viewership of kabaddi was in fact seen as a major feather in the cap for Star Sports. From being a non-descript rural sport, kabaddi has witnessed unprecedented success in the past few years. Vivo signing up at Rs. 60 crore a year as title sponsor, for a sport that was not cricket, was unbelievable, in fact music to many ears that have tried to create alternatives to the only game India seems to watch and enjoy. 

Ahead of Season 6, PKL gave Indian sports its highest paid athlete, surpassing the country’s biggest football icon Sunil Chhetri’s ₹ 1.5 crores annual deal with Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC. PKL franchisee Haryana Steelers with a ₹ 1.51 crore bid for Monu Goyat, topped that. The league that had kicked off with a ₹60 lakh auction purse and ₹12 lakh best salary package for Rakesh Kumar, its top player that season, had by the sixth season got each franchisee spending ₹4 crore as the yearly auction purse. Quite a meteoric growth!

The PKL initially had 8 teams; subsequently 4 more teams were added. Today, the twelve franchises … Bengal Warriors, Bengaluru Bulls, Dabang Delhi, Gujarat Fortune Giants, Haryana Steelers, Jaipur Pink Panthers, Patna Pirates, Puneri Paltan, Tamil Talaivas, Telugu Titans, U Mumba, UP Yoddha … have Ronnie Screwvala, Uday Kotak, Abhishek Bachchan, Rajesh Shah, Gautam Adani, Kishore Biyani, Rana Kapoor and Parth Jindal amongst the proud owners. Sachin Tendulkar is said to be a co-owner of the Chennai team. Akshay Kumar is to have a stake in the Kolkatta team. Shahrukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor have been seen at PKL matches. So the league has both money power, and star power. 

With the PKL league doing so well, why then this seeming rift between PKL and Star network, the broadcaster, and hence the need for public bidding of the rights? There has not been much discussion in media about it but it really is surprising that despite being 74% owner of the league, Star TV will now have to compete with all and sundry to re-win the broadcast of the PKL, a property they ran on 8 of their channels. There are differing views:

  • The coming in of Disney at the helm of the Star network has changed equations. Mashal had strong equity with Uday Shankar and Sanjay Gupta, the Star CEO and COO who signed the PKL deal and nurtured ties with the league for years. But Uday and Sanjay are now gone. And Mashal no longer enjoys the privileged status it used to enjoy hitherto at Disney-Star. A feeling of being somewhat neglected, if not ignored, has triggered the media bids.
  • The PKL franchisees have been feeling restless of late. There has been an overwhelming feeling within them that Star TV has not been parting with an adequate enough amount of the supposed Rs. 160 crore of ad revenues generated from the league every year. A public bidding, they feel will put Star on best behaviour. 

Will the media tender that includes digital rights and even a fantasy league, bring more value to Mashal? My assessment is at best 50:50. From current appearances, neither Sony nor Colors as networks have the visible appetite to fork out upwards of Rs. 200 crore a year, or more, on a property that is good, but not necessarily a must-have. It is doubtful whether a Facebook or Amazon or Google would have active interest in the full tender that primarily is front-ended by television. They may bid for the digital sub-parts but the big moolah for now is still television broadcast. There has been good advertiser support to the league in the past with the likes of Dream 11, Ultratech, Airtel, Thums Up, Tata Motors and others having spent reasonable budgets on the property. But it is still a blockbuster in the making. Still a work in progress, that requires heavy duty selling to achieve advertising volumes and value.

Star TV could well end up being the top bidder in the Mashal tender, albeit at somewhat higher revenues. After all, the league does enjoy a cumulative reach of 352 million, touches about 1.2 TVRs regularly on telecast and gets an impressive 70 million video views on digital and social media. At 22+ minutes, its TSV is highest among sports and all other media properties. PKL has been the handiwork of Star as a network; they would hate to see the baby they nurtured so lovingly being snatched away by a rival channel network. 

So, is the media tender a good idea for PKL? In a manner of speaking, perhaps yes. A public bidding of the rights will help in better price discovery, a better understanding of the value of the league for all, including Star TV. It will atleast alleviate the grievances of the franchisees who have been feeling short-changed. 

The results of the bidding will be known in a couple of weeks. Whatever be the verdict on the channel of choice, one thing is for sure: millions of viewers are waiting excitedly for the return of Kabadddi Kabaddi Kabaddi to their television screens!

Dr. Sandeep Goyal has been more than 35 years in advertising & media. He is Chairman, Mogaé Media. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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