Why Sports Advertisers Are Salivating Over an Obscure Indian Sport

Team Captain Sheetal Ambre struggles against Japanese players in a women's kabaddi match in Mumbai on March 9, 2010. Combining elements of tag, rugby, and capture the flag, kabaddi is a contact sport that dates back centuries in South India. Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times/Getty

This summer, as many as a billion TV viewers will tune in to watch India's hottest new game: not cricket, not soccer, not basketball but a sport little known in the West called kabaddi.

Kabaddi is a contact sport combining elements of tag, rugby and capture the flag and was invented centuries ago in south India. It was first exhibited in the 1936 Berlin Olympics but never became an official Olympic sport. That hasn't hindered its popularity in India: The Pro Kabaddi League, which is on the eve of its fifth season, starting in July, has more Indian fans than any sport besides cricket.

Professional sports have never been as popular in India as they are in so many other large nations, but the country has become an attractive market for global advertisers eager to reach the Indian middle class, one of the world's fastest-growing pockets of consumers. By 2025, Indian consumer spending is projected to triple, hitting $4 trillion a year. (Germans, by comparison, spent $1.81 trillion in 2016.) Interest in entertainment, like music, film and television, has increased in India, and multinational corporations are betting that the middle class will develop an appetite for pro sports.

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A joint venture among Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries, sports and talent agency IMG and Rupert Murdoch's Star India media group is pumping money into sports, such as professional soccer, tennis and mixed martial arts. It is wooing retired football players from English teams, like former Manchester United forward Diego Forlán and Chelsea winger Florent Malouda, and tennis stars, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who reportedly received roughly $4 million apiece from India's tennis league to play in the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, small-time entrepreneurs are starting Indian sports franchises in everything from badminton to basketball. Twenty new professional sports leagues have been created since the founding of cricket's Premier League in 2008.

N one of these leagues has been as successful as the kabaddi league. According to local data company News Flicks, last year's 24-match season attracted nearly a billion TV viewers. Kabaddi is now the second most popular sport in India after cricket.

"Kabaddi has a unique Indian identity," says the commissioner of the Pro Kabaddi League, Anupam Goswami. In just four seasons, excitement in India has built a sport with international participation. Twelve teams, including ones from Japan, the United States and Britain, competed in the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup, which snagged 114 million Indian TV viewers over 16 days of matches.

The sport still has a long way to go to catch up to the popularity of cricket, which also has a deep history in India. Since British colonizers introduced it in the 18th century, cricket has been called the religion that unites India's many castes and communities. In less than 10 years since India's professional cricket league launched, it has become the largest driver of the sport worldwide, with hundreds of millions more viewers than in the U.K., where the sport began.

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Just as the best soccer players in the world travel to Europe to play, the world's best cricketers want to compete in India's Premier League. India's investment in the sport has generated million-dollar endorsement deals for top players like Sachin Tendulkar, who earned enough from brands like Pepsi, Colgate and Visa to rank among Forbes 's top 100 highest-paid athletes worldwide before he retired in 2014.

But the big question for business is whether newly imported sports can achieve the same popularity in India as those that Indians grew up playing . So far, sports with less familiarity here, like soccer, have not generated the same kind of enthusiasm.

Insiders say league officials and franchise owners resort to free tickets and even bussing schoolchildren to games to achieve "stadium fill," in industry-speak. The three-year-old Premier Badminton League attracted only 3.5 million viewers for its 15 matches earlier this year, for instance, while the Hockey India League had even fewer for its 2016 season.

Some of the new sports leagues are thriving. Remus D'Cruz, an executive with the four-year-old Hockey India League, says it is basically breaking even thanks to funds from corporate sponsors like mobile network service provider Airtel and motorcycle maker Hero.

Meanwhile, corporate spending on sports-related marketing is growing in India. Overall, sports sponsorship has risen nearly 20 percent in 2016 over the previous year to reach nearly $1 billion, about a tenth of India's overall advertising spending, according to a 2017 report by SportzPower India. (That is still far less than in North America, where sponsorship spending last year was more than $20 billion.) More encouragingly, perhaps, sponsorships of teams outside of cricket now account for nearly 40 percent of the pie.

Investors aren't the only ones who benefit from a thriving sports culture. Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, kabaddi's title sponsor, is betting more than $45 million this season that the game can win its brand some fans.