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Ronnie Screwvala’s grand plans for Kabaddi

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MUMBAI: If you've got to invest in sport in India, then it has to be the multibillion cricketing extravaganza the Indian Premier League (IPL) which attracted audiences like a zillion bees to a honeypot. Nothing else comes even close to it. Well at least that was the perception a couple of years back.

But cricket's hypnotic influence is waning, as other sports have begun to attract a following. And that’s mainly because game changing innovators have got into develop the business of sports. Amongst them figure Mashal Sports promoter and TV commentator Charu Sharma, Star India boss Uday Shankar and firm believers in disruption like Ronnie Screwvala. The trio picked up a game you and I have all played at some time or the other during our school days.

A game that is played in each and every part of India, a game which the national team has emerged triumphant in each and every level it has participated; a game that we all know but did not talk about much. In no time, it has  emerged as the second most popular sport on television.

We are talking about the game called kabaddi which has flowered as the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League, a tourney that Screwvala’s Unilazer Sports had an eye on from day one. The entrepreneur invested and acquired the Mumbai franchise and named it U Mumba. The first season saw his team play well. Well enough to reach the finals. But not well enough to take home the gold and the trophy; second place was all that it could manage.

But second best was not good enough for Ronnie. Came ProKabaddi League Season II, and Ronnie's boys took home the gold.  What helped them across the winning line?

 “It’s teamwork. From day one we focused on teamwork, and it has worked for us,” pat comes Screwvala's response. “Ours was the only consistent team which reached the finals in both the seasons. In sport, talent nurturing, morale and teamwork are most important things, so once you get that right - the body language, the aura around it, and the perfection falls in place.”

The success of U Mumba was not limited to the ground. It was reflected in the number of sponsors on the team jersey, in the full houses at the arena when the team played, and in the balance sheet as well in terms of revenue generation.

“I think we had a very focused approach to winning, to perform and that’s what sport is all about, and I feel that’s what has worked for us,” explains Ronnie.  “So when people look at it and say this is the organization which is committed to take sports further, it is committed to its people. It is unlike any other organization when you see the body language and when you see the culture of the company; people invest in the culture of the company. We want to win.”

 He has been working on another level too: that of building the franchise of kabaddi. Like other team owners he realized that there were limitations with the ProKabaddi League. Being a once-a-year competition played over a few days, it could not stack up against other sports like cricket or tennis or football that are played throughout the year and have large mind spaces amongst sports lovers. Hence, sustaining its brand value would be difficult[ - forget about enhancing it - which is what most team owners want: an appreciation in the value of their investment in their teams.

So he initiated a discussion with the other stakeholders and they came up with an answer, make the ProKabaddi League a twice a year proposition.

 “The thought we had was very clear and I think it came from everybody saying that we should have a longer season or two seasons. In cricket you can have a six weeks league and it still captures people's minds as the sport is played throughout the year. Our point was that if you want to make a  sport a national interest sport and build it up into an even bigger property, you can’t play it just six days a year. We were pushing everyone and proposing to everyone that we should have two seasons a year and that was our goal. It took all of a year but fortunately now we will we will have season three in January 2016,”  says Screwvala.

The ingredients are all there to make kabaddi a national phenomenon like cricket. The sport has its popularity across India but it was considered to be a non-glamorous sport played on the streets or on dusty grounds by the not so-well-off Indians; not something the rich or the upper middle-class could enjoy. Earlier coverage of the sport on television, especially Doordarshan, had also made it look unappealing.

Hence, kabaddi needed many an innovation to make it look exquisite on television. And there came the great collaboration between Mashal Sports, Star India and the Kabaddi federations. Making the game compact was an important first step, explains Screwvala,  

Says he: “I think what Star and Mashal have done to the sport is incredible. What Mashal did is put the sport on a platform that would make everyone look good. And that’s where the line, time, mat came into picture. If the game was played on mitti (soil) in an open field the compactness would have been missing. The sport would be even more engaging when the spectators were close enough to feel like they were a part of the action.”

 Star India too brought its production and creative skill sets to the table and made the sport look larger than life. Ronnie highlights out that Star did not film the league like they would cover a local sport, rather they went the Full Monty, with all the bells and whistles to make it look like a global spectaclur sport.

"Indians like action. The action genre is very big here and the gladiator feel that Star’s coverage has brought is incredible” says Ronnie praising Star India. 

Having tasted success and taking home the booty with his team U Mumba as the champ, Ronnie is brewing further plans relating to ProKabaddi.  

"The sport needs to become aspirational. And we can do that through an animation series, TV series, movies and games. At least two of them will be unveiled in the coming one year,” says the billionaire media baron turned investor. “We have a plan drawn out for the next 18 months and we will do everything possible to make kabaddi an aspirational and regular sport in India. We are investing in a national hunt for new talent, so that we have future stars ready. This is a program to develop kabaddi at the grassroots level. It is an initiative to discover 100-200 Kabaddi talents across pan India. The interaction in rural area has been quite magical so far.”

He is pretty happy with the returns he has got. “Last year we had revenues of Rs 12 crore,” he reveals with a wide smile on his face. “In 2016 we are targeting Rs 40-50 crore.  Mashal kept the acquisition price low and reasonable and thanks to that break even has already happened.”

In terms of sources of revenue, despite the ticket prices being high, sponsorships and alliances lead the tally, followed by gate collections and TV revenue.

“We did decently well in first season but now we are looking for a FourX jump,” he clarifies.” We cannot undersell Kabaddi rather we should not undersell Kabaddi. It is the number 2 sport in the country in terms of viewership…above football so it cannot be the number 4 sport in terms of advertising. It is watched by urban as much it is watched by rural so why do we under sell it?”

He believes a lot more can be achieved if advertisers and agencies correct their perceptions about kabaddi.  Says he with a lot of passion in his voice:  “My only problem is certain advertisers who are in complete la la land.. the complete dinosaurs in my opinion. They still ask questions like:  are urban people watching it? Lets do a research and see who is watching it. And my answer to them is that we will find urban is as much into it kabaddi as rural is. So these perceptions are amateurish.”  

Indeed this is a man who has made it a business to build enterprises and then finding customers who buy into them. And making a fat packet in the process for himself. Not once but several times over. The last one was when he got a very stringent media and entertainment major, the mouse house, Disney to buy out his interests in UTV. Kabaddi is definitely going to be a lot easier. 

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