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In the Throes of a Power Struggle, Indian Kabaddi Gets a New Pro League

Leslie Xavier |
The new Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IIPKL) plans to build a credible alternative to the popular Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) based on its assessment of the potential in the country. But all this is in the context of a legal battle for control at the top that will prove a pivotal part of the picture
Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IIPKL)

Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda unveils the logo of the new Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IIPKL) in New Delhi on September 19.

From the plot so far — historic losses for the national kabaddi teams at the Asian Games, court cases, allegations of widespread corruption and nepotism, and the dismissal of the office bearers of the national federation, with the court handing over its reins to an administrator — it is clear that Indian kabaddi is in turmoil. So how could one make things better? For one of the warring factions of Indian Kabaddi, the answer seems to be simple even if it is disruptive. Form a new federation, and start another professional league as “competition” to the existing Pro Kabaddi League (PKL).

The breakaway faction of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) has a national body of its own, and has been functioning for almost two years now. Named the New Kabaddi Federation (NKF) — now that’s original —  it launched a professional league in New Delhi on September 19, with a clear-cut agenda to promote the sport at all levels, the organisers claimed.

The new Indo International Premier Kabaddi League (IIPKL) will reach every nook and corner of the country and abroad to find talent and give those players a platform to perform, insisted MV Prasad Babu, general secretary of the NKF.

“Not all players get a shot at making it into the existing professional league,” added Babu. “Our aim is to form a pool of players by selecting them from across the country. It will be a three-month long process which will begin in October, and the first edition of the league will be played early next year.”

Also Read | Selection Farce and Missing Asian Games Teams: Indian Kabaddi Hits New Low

Former internationals C Honnappa Gowda and S Rajrathanam — the duo who filed the court case which led to the Delhi High Court dismissing the AKFI and appointing Justice (retd.) SP Garg as administrator to oversee reforms in the federation — are involved in a league floated by a body which runs parallel to the existing one. Their lawyer, Bharat Nagar, is the spokesperson for the new league. The irony is hard to miss. So much for the noble quest of reforming AKFI and setting things straight.

The new league, and the actions of the new federation, is, by all means, in direct contradiction to the much publicised aims of the case they are fighting at the Delhi High Court. When the court has already set in motion a process, under a former High Court judge, to ensure cleaning of kabaddi administration from the grassroots level, attempting to run things via a parallel body, and start a new professional league, would only complicate things further.

Judging by the way things transpired at the launch event of the IIPKL, Gowda and lawyer Nagar seemed less interested in the “clean and fair” elections of the AKFI, which they had claimed were one of the main reasons for the appeal at the High Court.

“That will take a lot of time and it has to happen right from the grassroots,” said Gowda after the unveiling of the logo of IIPKL. “I, personally, want to work for the benefit of kabaddi and the players. If, for that, I have to work with a reformed AKFI, I will do that in the future. At present, I will be working with the NKF, and will be looking to provide an alternate platform for the many talented players in the country who have missed out on a proper platform to play and blossom.”

Gowda, a former coach with the PKL, however, was quick to brush aside the possibility of both the NKF and the AKFI combining to become a single federation, to be run as per the guidelines set by the National Sports Development Code of India. One could gather that the two governing bodies are unlikely to work together, and that clearly puts kabaddi’s immediate future in jeopardy.

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Advocate Nagar, meanwhile, insisted that there is nothing wrong in having “two, or even more, federations” running kabaddi in the country. “There is provision for that in the national sports code,” he said, clearly ignorant that a sports federation needs affiliation from a global body, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and the sports ministry, for it to function properly. When it was pointed out that only one body gets recognition from the IOA, he insisted that that won’t be the case, but failed to explain how.

Logic-defying or not, the new league is set to roll from next year. Taking the great Indian franchise league route, IIPKL will have eight city-based teams. The organisers claimed that many firms have come forward to sponsor the league and for ownership of the franchises, while DSport would telecast the matches live. They also announced that, apart from the winnings and player salaries, 20 percent of the profit from the league would go directly to the players.

A noble thought, indeed. But the league organisers seem to have not taken into account the difficult business of making profits from non-cricket leagues in India. For a start-up league to break even — if it ever breaks even that is —  it will take a few years, if not a decade. Kabaddi, arguably, has a slight advantage owing to its mass appeal.

PKL, in fact, has done well for itself surrounded by  the wobbly ventures in wrestling, badminton, domestic football, and the now defunct hockey league. The backing by Star Network, and the connect people have with the traditional, yet simple, rural sport might be the reason for that. The action is exciting as well.

The new league could hit the sweet spot with some high octane action, no doubt. However, IIPKL, striving to ride on the popularity of the PKL, should start off with the knowledge that it would be in direct competition with the existing league in the popularity and TRP charts.

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While at some level, it will be interesting to have two parallel leagues in a sport and leave it to the market to decide, based on supply and demand and other dynamics that govern sustenance. If the founders of the new league believe they can find enough talent and that there is enough scope to have two leagues, then they deserve a shot, no doubt.

In theory, once a sport becomes professional, the relevance of the federation should be minimal, or would be limited to just the national teams. The rest of the ecosystem should be independent and talent should be allowed mobility rather than being forced to adhere to the diktats of federation officials.

However, in India, things work differently. And a talent-based professional system will only be on paper as sport, especially one that falls under the Olympic or Asian Games banner, would always have the looming presence of the federation in the background.

Also Read | India at Asian Games 2018: The Truth Behind Government's Claims

In Kabaddi’s case, there are two involved, and they are at loggerheads. That could result in one set of players being barred by the other and vice versa. With one of the federations ultimately controlling the national teams and its composition, that would only mean one thing for the kabaddi player, whose ultimate goal is still a gold medal for the country, and the related windfalls.

While many involved in the new league might be in it to help the players, like they claim, there is a likelihood that they might end up doing the exact opposite. Let’s hope that won’t be the case, even while bracing for the worst.

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