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Madhukar Sabnavis: Kabaddi ahoy!

The emergence of new games can help create a new sporting culture in India

Madhukar Sabnavis 

Madhukar Sabnavis

The average viewers a match for the recently held Pro Kabaddi League was 1.6 million (among viewers 15 and older) vis-à-vis 6.8 milion for the Indian Premier League, or the IPL. Going younger, if you look at viewers four years old and over, the comparable numbers were two million and 8.4 million respectively. The cumulative reach of the professional kabaddi tournament was 101.5 million vis-à-vis the IPL's 149.32 million among the 15-plus audience. In fact, kabaddi has done better than the FIFA World Cup and the Hockey India League in TV viewership!

For a starter event, based on a sport seen as being fundamentally rural and downmarket, the numbers are both encouraging and instructive. Kabaddi was launched with sleekness for the television audiences. The modern stadiums and colourful gear were a far cry from the muddy grounds and uncouth men that are the classic images associated with the game. The introduction of star owners raised the profile of the event, and gave it a bit of glamour for television viewers. City names gave viewers a team to support, even if they didn't know the individual players. The event campaign "jeetega wahi" ("they will win") set the tone by giving both the game and the programme a modern flavour with a zing of attitude. The traditional was repackaged in a new avatar. And for the icing on the cake, as a challenger brand, STAR supported it with a high enough decibel level to gain the attention of the viewing audience. Its mass success provides hope that there is space for sports beyond cricket in this country.

Can cricket be upstaged however? It seems well-nigh impossible. Cricket is the longest-running soap opera on television. It provides the country - advertisers and public - a constant stream of celebrities, high viewership programming and heroes. Top players in the field can hope to make "professional" level money on the back of it - just like footballers in Europe and England. The sport has spawned many ancillary industries, including cricket academies, books and experts. But if one goes back into history, cricket has not always been king in this country.

Roll back to the 1970s, and hockey certainly led cricket in the Indian public consciousness. It was our national game. Dhyan Chand was India's first global iconic sportsman, dazzling the hockey world with his artistry. India had won seven hockey gold medals in the Olympics since 1928 and could be called world champions. I remember the World Cup in Kuala Lumpur in 1975 (the hockey World Cup was big in the days when none existed for cricket). India won by one goal, beating arch-rival Pakistan. Ashok Kumar, son of the legend Dhyan Chand, scored the only goal - a field goal. The victory led to national euphoria. This was hockey's finest hour.

But from there, it was just downhill, as Indian hockey didn't adapt to the changing AstroTurf game that Australia was mastering and the new method of "possession and control" hockey that the Europeans were developing to combat the Asian "attack" techniques. At the same time, cricket saw an upsurge. India won the cricket World Cup in 1983. By coincidence or serendipity, one-day cricket became the defining version of the game just as television began to gain ascendency in India. So cricket became defining TV programming alongside Hindi movie content in the 1980s - 30-minute soaps came much later.

So while hockey was fighting for survival, cricket rode on the television boom. Aided with the Indian team's rise, it began to define "sport" in this country. So while it seems dominating today, it's actually just a three decade-old phenomenon!

If hockey defined Indian pride after independence in the first two decades, cricket has been the definer of the "India can compete and win" spirit in the last two decades, as India opened up. Is kabaddi's emergence a return to "all things local'' pride?

At its core, India is not a sporting nation. We are more a sport-viewing nation. Studies and marks, not sports, define our schooling and our upbringing. If one went back to our cultural roots through the eyes of mythology, only two key sports emerge: archery and wrestling. One is mental and the other physical; both are, interestingly, individual. Overlay this with our collective, social inclination and this presents a conflict between individual excellence and team play.

In this context, cricket is an interesting game. It allows for individual records in an otherwise team game and yet doesn't depend completely on team work for victory. It perhaps explains Indians' success in the game.

Semiotically, kabaddi is much the same - together yet individual. Further, kabaddi, like cricket, allows for enough field spectacle in a condensed time for viewers to enjoy watching - unlike sports like chess and archery which are not so action-oriented and so are "boring" for a casual viewer.

There is no doubt that fatigue is setting in with cricket. There's been something of an overdose. Signs are already visible that upper-class urban India is being attracted to other games - especially with the globalisation of media and the availability of top-quality sport on television and over the internet. Culturally, Indians are assimilative and ready to accept the new if served in the right manner. With new leagues, in football and tennis, around the corner, there is enough experimentation being conducted to provide the viewer with options.

STAR Sports should be complimented for its decision to provide support to alternative sports and propel them into Indians' consciousness. It's a bold initiative. The growth of new sports will, however, depend on a number of other factors: the emergence of champions and role models; how well the federations and organisations sustain their efforts; and what grass-root level initiatives are conducted to promote them. These feed off and into each other.

While there are discussions whether one sport will substitute another, the truth is that other product markets - from automobiles to media to fashion accessories - have shown that multiple categories and brands can happily coexist if they stay relevant. The Indian market is ready for multiple options.

But Cricket India needs to realise that soon there could be options to it, for advertisers and viewers alike.

The fight for sports eyeballs is at a transformative stage. It could be at a point of inflection now. Let us hope the best players win. More sport on TV means more sports involvement for the public and more sportsmanship in India. And that will be, overall, healthy. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, India. These views are his own

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First Published: Thu, October 02 2014. 21:50 IST