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How Kabaddi became India's fastest growing sport

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How Kabaddi became India's fastest growing sport
Key Points
  • Kabaddi is now the second-most watched sport in India.
  • It has inked the biggest TV sponsorship deal in India for a non-cricket sport.

'Kabaddi on television? Completely unheard of. Why would somebody watch it? How are they going to present it?'

These were the questions, according to Star Sports creative director Siddharth Sharma, that people across India were asking when the Indian TV network bought the rights to the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) back in 2014.

"It was a sport that was not embraced by urban India, (they) completely overlooked the sport." said Siddharth, before adding, "The settings of the sport was such that it use to be played on dusty bowls."

Four years later and kabaddi, a body contact sport of raiding and defending between two teams, is now the second most watched sport in India behind cricket.

From 2016 to 2017, the PKL increased its TV viewership India by almost 100 million people. And while it's still second to India's premier cricket competition the Indian Premier League, the Pro Kabaddi League has managed to attract more Indian viewers than soccer's World Cup, one of the world's most watched sporting events.

In December, the sport underlined its growing popularity after three Pro Kabaddi League games enjoyed higher TV ratings than the Indian cricket team's recent Test match win against Australia.

Season 6 of the Pro Kabaddi League
Hindustan Times

Investment in the league has also increased. In 2017, the TV network Star Sports signed the biggest sponsorship deal in India for a non-cricket sport, worth more than 40 million dollars.

As a result player salaries have also increased. Following the 2016 player auction, the highest paid player was on just under $130,000 dollars for the season's salary. This year the number rose to $210,000.

There's also signs that India's favorite indigenous sport is growing outside the country.

At this year's Asia Games neither the men or women's India kabaddi teams won gold, as Iran took the honors in both competition. 

"Of course we are the country who lost, which is bad for me as a fan" said Vinod Bisht, vice president of GMR Sports, owners of the kabaddi team U.P. Yoddha.

"For our game of kabaddi it is, an ultimate manifestation of how the game is growing. There are two, three more teams who are on any day depending on the performance are able to beat a country like India where the game was developed and grown."