How Billionaire Backing Turned Kabaddi Into India’s No. 2 Sport

On this episode of Next in Sports, we meet Anand Mahindra as he tries to push an ancient Indian sport into the Olympics and beyond.

(Bloomberg) — Around the time of the 2008 launch of the Indian Premier League (IPL), billionaire Anand Mahindra was asked to invest in the now-hugely successful short-format cricket tournament that transformed the global fortunes of the sport.

The tycoon, who heads the automotive and industrial conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., wasn’t particularly interested in what he considered a dull, passive vanity project. But it did spark an idea. 

“It’s much more fun to create a league and take maybe an Indian sport and give it a professional sheen,” Mahindra said. But “how do you come in and even occupy some legroom with cricket in India?” 

On this episode of the Bloomberg Originals series Next in Sports, we discover the answer to that question. The sport he chose was kabaddi, which if you’re based outside South Asia you’d be forgiven for knowing nothing about. Originating in southern Tamil Nadu, its name is derived from two words: kai pidi, meaning holding hands. It is said to have been played thousands of years ago, even by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Deepti Patwardhan, a sportswriter based in Mumbai, describes it as “somewhat like tag and a bit of wrestling,” and mainly known as a rural or playground game. 

As Mahindra sought to get his idea off the ground, he met in New York with Uday Shankar, then the head of Indian broadcaster Star TV, who told him kabaddi could be the next biggest sport in India after cricket. 

“You’ve been smoking something illegal,” a skeptical Mahindra recalled telling him. 

But Shankar urged him to go big, and in 2014 the Pro Kabaddi League was launched. It followed the IPL playbook, mixing high-octane production with Bollywood glamor and investment—associating the game with Indian megastars, including Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. 

The formula worked, and it’s now the second-most popular televised sport in India. Unique viewership rose 17% to 222 million in season nine of the tournament compared with the year before, according to Anupam Goswami, the league’s commissioner. Walt Disney Co.’s Star Sports, which broadcasts the game in five languages across the country, acquired the 2021 to 2025 media rights to the league for about 1.8 billion rupees ($22 million) a year, up from 900 million rupees in the last contract. 

Of course that’s peanuts compared with the $6.2 billion spent last year to secure the IPL’s five-year media rights. Still, Mahindra’s goal is ultimately to help kabaddi become a global sport—even one that’s played at the Olympic Games. But outside of South Asia, currently only a handful of other countries compete at an international level, making his dream elusive—for now.

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