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How an NBA head sparked the birth of Pro Kabaddi

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Pro Kabaddi (PKL) is the top franchise-based kabaddi tournament in the world. With a blend of local and international talent, Pro Kabaddi has helped revolutionise the sport of kabaddi in India since it started in 2014.

An initiative by Mashal Sports, the league was organised in association with the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF), Asian Kabaddi Federation (AKF) and Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI).

The league was the brainchild of Charu Sharma, the founder of Mashal Sports. He was inspired by the sport when he covered kabaddi during the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. At the Asiad, the Indian kabaddi team has been a dominant force, winning all the titles on the trot from 1990 to 2014.

“(The fact) that the sport had immense popularity throughout India - from the street to the national level - was an eyeopener. I wondered why the game hadn't been made more available to us,” Charu Sharma said.

“We want to do more for our own sport,” Charu added. “Unless commerce catches up, you cannot grow the sport. With a league like this, advertisers and sponsors will come in.”

However, Anand Mahindra, a noted businessman and co-founder of Mashal, took a little time to get onboard. He was eventually convinced by former NBA International president Heidi Ueberroth.

“She made me think about kabaddi seriously,” Anand Mahindra told the Economic Times. “In 2010, during her visit to India, Heidi convinced me that kabaddi was ideally suited for television audiences. That conversation got the ball rolling in setting up the Pro Kabaddi League.”

Mashal went all out to bring the sport up to league standards. They acquired a broadcast partner in Star Sports, booked a prime time spot, established a home and away format, lined up state-of-the-art indoor stadiums and tweaked rules to make it TV-friendly.

Corporates and big names took interest and stepped in to launch their teams, each with their own colours and identities.

Soon, more than 100 kabaddi players from India and abroad were made available for the teams to build their squads.

As it turned out, the first-ever auction of Pro Kabaddi was held on May 20, 2014. Rakesh Kumar emerged as the top buy after Patna Pirates snapped him for INR 12.80 lakhs.   

Since its inception in 2014, PKL has been played every year except in 2020, when it was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A better version of regular indoor kabaddi, Pro Kabaddi includes additional rules like do-or-die raid (a mandatory raid followed by two consecutive empty raids) and Super Tackle (tackles worth two points if three or fewer defenders are on the mat) to encourage scoring and arouse more interest in the game.

Initially starting with eight teams, Pro Kabaddi expanded to 12 teams in Season 5 in 2017 with the addition of Gujarat Giants (formerly called Gujarat Fortunegiants), Haryana Steelers, U.P. Yoddha and Tamil Thalaivas. 

Patna Pirates are the most successful team in Pro Kabaddi winning the PKL title a record three times in a row in seasons 3, 4 and 5. 

U Mumba vs Jaipur Pink Panthers: The first Pro Kabaddi match

Pro Kabaddi started in 2014 with the first-ever match of the inaugural season played between U Mumba and Jaipur Pink Panthers at the Dome, NSCI in Mumbai on July 26, 2014.

U Mumba won the match 45-31 with captain Anup Kumar as the top scorer with 13 raid points. 

Incidentally, both the two teams met again in the final of the season at the Dome, NSCI where Jaipur Pink Panthers beat U Mumba 35-24 to emerge winners of the first season of Pro Kabaddi.

Anup Kumar won the Most Valuable Player Award in Pro Kabaddi Season 1 for scoring 155 raid points in 16 matches.

Featured photo: PKL / Website 

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