Pro Kabaddi League: A Rich History and Bright Future

Explore Pro Kabaddi League's history, India's fastest growing sport, from rural roots to pro league with millions of viewers & top players.
Pro Kabaddi League

The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) started its ninth season on October 7, 2022, with Dabang Delhi defending their title with a resounding victory over U Mumba. The match featured colorful player uniforms and attracted millions of TV viewers. However, amidst the excitement, the sport’s rich rural history is often overshadowed by the loud speakers and bright lights.

Origins of Kabaddi

It is widely believed that kabaddi was first played between 4,000-5,000 years ago in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s southernmost states. The sport was created as a way of training people to attack and defend in groups for both fighting and hunting purposes. Over time, kabaddi gained immense popularity throughout South Asia, particularly in India, Iran, and Bangladesh.

In the 1920s, an official ruleset for kabaddi was formalized and published by an Indian committee. The sport continued to grow in popularity, with kabaddi even being demonstrated in Germany just prior to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. International matches began to be played after South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh gained independence post-World War Two, leading to renewed interest in kabaddi during the 1970s.

Rules of the Game

Kabaddi matches run for 40 minutes, split into two halves of 20 minutes. Both teams start with seven players on the court and between three and five substitutes. The sport is played on mats that measure 33 ft × 43 ft for senior men events and 26 ft × 39 ft for women. To play, two teams occupy opposite halves of the court and take turns sending a “raider” into the opposing half. Raiders win points by tagging members of the opposing team and must return to their half without being caught. Raiders have to execute the whole raid in a single breath, chanting the word “kabaddi” to prove they are not breathing in. The Pro Kabaddi League also has a 30-second time limit on each raid.

The Rise of Professional Kabaddi

Professional kabaddi emerged after 2008, following the success of the Indian Premier League. The Pro Kabaddi League was launched in India during 2014 as a joint venture between Mashal Sports Pvt. Ltd and Disney Star. In the first season, eight teams competed over a five-week period to be crowned PKL champions. The league instantly became popular, attracting 435 million television viewers and making it India’s second most popular sport behind cricket.

Since then, kabaddi has consistently ranked as India’s fastest-growing sport. In 2016, PKL began hosting two kabaddi seasons per calendar year instead of one. This, along with improved media distribution, meant that 164 live matches were streamed in 100 different countries in 2016 alone. By 2022, the number of franchises expanded to 12 teams, making the PKL the Indian sports league with the most franchises.

The Pro Kabaddi League has produced kabaddi stars like Pardeep Narwal, Pawan Sehrawat, and Rahul Chaudhuri, who have become legitimate celebrities with hundreds of thousands of fans and enviable lifestyles. The sport has also seen an increase in financial rewards, with Pawan Sehrawat recently traded from Bengaluru Bulls to Tamil Thalaivas for a record fee of Rs 2.26 crore (around $280,000).

Impact on Other Kabaddi Competitions

The popularity of the Pro Kabaddi League has helped boost the profile of other kabaddi competitions. In 2016, the Kabaddi World Cup was held again after being dormant for nine years. India emerged as world champions, beating Iran 38-29 in the final. However, subsequent World Cups have been canceled for various reasons, including the Coronavirus pandemic.

The rise of professional female kabaddi was also seen in 2016 with the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge. The challenge gave three women’s teams a chance to compete, with the Storm Queens being crowned champions after defeating the Fire Birds 24-23 in the final. The Women’s Kabaddi Challenge proved popular and was seen as a fantastic way of providing young girls with strong role models. Females made up 40% of the challenge’s entire viewership. However, for various reasons, the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge did not become a permanent fixture like the male’s PKL.

Future of Kabaddi

The International Kabaddi Federation, players, and enthusiasts aim to see kabaddi become a fully-fledged Olympic sport. For a sport to qualify for Olympic recognition, it must be played in 75 countries across four continents by men and in 40 countries across three continents by women. Unfortunately, kabaddi is not close to achieving either of these requirements at the moment.

Despite this, the sport has not stopped growing. A fully-fledged professional women’s kabaddi league is set to launch in Dubai for 2023, which should make the sport even more popular among women and girls. In terms of the men’s game, kabaddi looks set to continue its incredible trajectory thanks to the ever-popular Pro Kabaddi League and growing interest around international competitions.

Iran’s recent victory in both the men’s and women’s kabaddi events at the Asia Games highlights the growing excitement and competitiveness of these competitions. This should only boost the international appeal of kabaddi.