MUMBAI (Reuters) - The success of the Indian Premier League cricket tournament has spawned several copycat competitions in other sports but kabaddi left them all trailing in its wake with a string of record bids at last week’s auction of players.
While cricket maintains a stranglehold on the sporting landscape in the country of 1.3 billion, the indigenous mixture of team tag and wrestling has grown in stature since the launch of the Pro Kabaddi League in 2014.
Bankrolled by Twenty-First Century Fox unit Star India and Mashal Sports, which counts India’s Mahindra group chairman Anand Mahindra among its promoters, the league has transformed the homegrown sport into a high-octane televised spectacle.
The viewership numbers have grown steadily with each edition and last season’s final witnessed a jump of over 70 percent from the previous title match with 26.2 million tuning in to watch the Patna Pirates beat Gujarat Fortunegiants.
The league’s popularity - the 10th final of cricket’s IPL attracted only 13.2m more viewers - has also resulted in quite a windfall for the players, who were all amateurs until the PKL started.
Monu Goyat ended up fetching 15.1 million rupees ($225,609) at the two-day auction in Mumbai when the 25-year-old raider was bought by the Haryana Steelers for the sixth edition - slated to start in October.
That made Goyat the highest valued non-cricketer in Indian sport, bringing him more money than the national soccer captain Sunil Chhetri, who was retained by Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League for 15 million rupees last season.
“I am extremely happy to be the highest paid player this season,” Goyat said.
“There is a huge responsibility to deliver and I am glad to receive this opportunity. I will now focus on increasing the standard of my game and playing the best I can.”
Revolving around very basic skills, the game is played by two teams of seven with a ‘raider’ entering the other half of the court to try and tag or wrestle opponents before returning ‘home’ while holding his breath and chanting ‘kabaddi, kabaddi’.
The sport, which requires no sophisticated equipment and is hugely popular in South Asia, was included in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing for the first time as a regular discipline.
Indian men have won all seven gold medals in the Asian Games since its introduction and also won the women’s event in the two Games since it was introduced in 2010 in Guangzhou.
The money Haryana paid for Goyat’s services was over 60 percent more than the top bid of 9.3 million rupees Nitin Tomar received during the auction for the fifth season.
Four more Indian players, including Tomar, crossed the ‘10 million’ mark during the auction while Iranian defender Fazel Atrachali was the lone foreigner to touch the mark when he was bought by U Mumba.
“Kabaddi has proven to be a viable career option for emerging talent and with six players crossing the (10 million) mark,” league commissioner Anupam Goswami said after the 12 franchises spent a total of 459.3 million rupees.
“It is a defining moment ... setting a benchmark for inspiring youngsters who look to make a difference in the game.”
($1 = 66.9300 Indian rupees)
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney