PKL Commissioner shares league’s journey from ₹12 lakh to ₹1.51 cr player

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Kabaddi has emerged as the best success story for Indian sports. Cricket excluded. Better recognised as an Indian rural or sub-urban sport, Kabaddi year on year is creating professional benchmarks for non-cricket sports in India.

Last year, PKL’s title sponsorship deal with Vivo for ₹60 crore per annum was a national record. Cricket excluded yet again. Ahead of Season Six this year, PKL has given Indian sports the highest paid athlete, surpassing country’s biggest football icon Sunil Chhetri’s ₹ 1.5 crores annual deal with Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC. PKL franchisee Haryana Steelers stole the show at the Vivo PKL auction in Mumbai on Wednesday with a ₹ 1.51 crore bid for Monu Goyat. Commercial history for Indian sports is rewritten yet again.

The League is also the biggest in India in terms of 12 teams. The journey and growth over the past five seasons has been phenomenal. The league that has kicked off with a ₹60 lakh auction purse and ₹12 lakh best salary package, in the sixth season has seen ₹1.51 crore going to a single player from franchisees’ ₹4 crore auction purse.

The Vivo PKL Commissioner Anupam Goswami during the player auction in Mumbai shared this phenomenal journey for kabaddi with Here are the excerpts.

InsideSport: PKL has driven kabaddi from that unwelcome tag of a “non-descript rural sport” to one of the most aspiring sporting disciplines in India. From a ₹12 lakh best salary deal for a player in the inaugural year to seeing country’s richest non-cricket athlete now, how has this journey been?

Anupam Goswami: In the first season the player purse was ₹60 lakh and the highest paid player Rakesh Kumar had a salary of ₹12 lakh. Today the collective players’ purse is ₹48 crore plus (for 12 teams). For a ₹4 crore purse, a franchisee is going to employ 18 to 25 players. So, if you see sports leagues across the world, with the exception of the IPLs and the Premier Leagues or Wimbledon, kabaddi is basically giving a salary that should sustain a sportsperson financially. Now there are kabaddi players with a $100,000 plus professional contracts. In Europe many hockey players don’t get this kind of salaries. The basketball outside the NBA or elite leagues don’t pay this kind of salaries.

I think we have done well. However, a quarter of the player purse going to a particular player will have its own implications. We will look into that collectively. When six players are in the region of $200,000 to $250,000, there will be only elite leagues that will make this kind of a claim even in Europe.

I am the league commissioner. The league is owned by Mashal Sports, who have some shareholders. It is a fantastic initiative, a fantastic business and a fantastic achievement for Indian sports. That achievement vests in Mashal. In season one, under the then Mashal team that conceived the kabaddi league, people were circumspect about where will kabaddi go. There was an ambition. The dynamics of that ambition were created by Star. The role played by Star is reasonably recognised.

The ecosystem also consisting of the franchisees and the federation has worked really well. I am foreseeing a surge of interest in kabaddi. This sport is becoming aspirational.

IS: Where does this latest surge lead the league now?

AG: Committing ₹ 1 crore or ₹1.51 crore salary is just the starting points. What you do with these crore rupee assets is more important now. The teams will have to build up that player further. The players will have to perform even better. There is also a risk factor. But it will fire the imagination of people to play kabaddi.

If we are going to increase the player purse, the teams will also have to earn more. Need more sponsors. It will vitalise the economy overall.

The Season VI is truly historic for the fact that it has created six ₹ 1 crore plus athletes in the league. How many sports in India are going to achieve this over the next 365 days?

IS: As you said teams are ending up 25-35% of their player purse on a single talent. With this kind of a talent pool and aggression on the auction tables, shouldn’t the teams have a deeper pocket to build teams?

AG: I am sure this issue is going to come up when teams start planning for the next season. We have already announced that Season 7 will be from July 2019.

In Pro Kabaddi, the players purse has so far not been seen to be a burden on the franchisee economics. In fact, proportionately it is one of the most attractive player purses among other (non-cricket) sports in India. We will not like to over increase the burden. The player’s salary should not be too heavy. When we say there is an imbalance, if you look at process of decision making there is a lot of rationality on the people sitting on the franchisees’ desks.

There is a lot of understanding of the league and the players among the people sitting on the franchisee desks in the auction hall. There has been a bullish trend as people were ready to take the punt on players, which indicates that something is working very well between the team owners and players. That sentiment or faith on a player that he justifies such a big punt speaks quite fantastically for the relationship between a kabaddi team owner and a kabaddi team player.

So, the call for a better pay purse will also come from the franchisees. To have a balanced economy and sustained growth for all is the beauty of this league.

IS: Kabaddi was seen as a rural sport with an opportunity to celebrate once in every four years after an assured Asian Games medal. What all have you done to transform kabaddi into a celebrated professional sport. How did that belief come that we will make it, and you have made it through the five seasons of the league?

AG: We were putting up a totally re-invented sports portfolio in Star Sports. The leadership in Star was always very clear that in a country like India there will have to be a scope, opportunity and potential for a home-grown or indigenous sport. In that wisdom and in that understanding they have chosen kabaddi. Now you see how well it has worked!

All of us have skills, assets and resources. We have brought in that much-needed belief in the sport. These are still early days for kabaddi. Look at season 5, there was ₹93 lakh bid and we said vow. Now the Season VI has six players with ₹1 crore or more salary. Top corporates will be talking if we were kabaddi players. These are very early days and we have got a lot of headroom in this sport

With regard to kabaddi being a non-descript sport, I would agree that it was fading. But it was an urban sport too in the sense that in Mumbai it was mill workers’ sport. There might have been a class bias to kabaddi, but it was an urban sport too. Kabaddi Federation of India has given this sport a formal administrative and competitive structure. Today when we people are making efforts, that structure is certainly showing up.

IS: The one best compliment you have received as the League Commissioner for Pro Kabaddi.

AG: People do say nice things. It has been a great story.

IS: Kabaddi through PKL has exceeded expectations of the nation. Do you also feel that its surging beyond your own expectations too?

AG: This is just a start. We are saying that it is second only to cricket. These are very early days for kabaddi. Let cricket be the parameter and see how much headroom we have for growth. Our ambition and commitment are both becoming stronger each time we work with kabaddi.

IS: Where does kabaddi go from this high of the six ₹ 1 crore athletes? There being a ₹1.51 crore player is a big traction for your sponsors, franchisees and other business associates.

AG: It will definitely be a very strong inflexion point. Which other wholely grown Indian sport will offer you six ₹ 1 crore salaries in an auction. This has been a historic auction. The game is going to change from here. take, in Indian sports ecosystem, cricket remains beyond the commercial horizons for any other sport. This is a common notion that comparison with cricket for any other sport in India will defy logic. The PKL player auction in Mumbai on May 30 and 31 on this aspect too has scored a point worth mention by establishing a certain edge over the fancied IPL in terms of percentile growth in players’ salaries.

The best IPL salary figure over the 11 seasons has grown from ₹6 crore to ₹17 crore – a 184% rise since Dhoni had the best ₹ 6 crore deal in IPL’s inaugural year to Kohli’s ₹ 17 crore retention fee now. The PKL going into the sixth season has registered over 1,250% growth – from ₹12 lakh best bid in the inaugural season to Goyat’s ₹1.51 crore deal now. The journey has just started as the league commissioner time and again emphasises there is still “a big head room” for PKL to grow.