Covid-19 impact: Players on back foot; uncertainty plagues nation’s smaller leagues – other sports

Saurabh Duggal & Sandip Sikdar

Hindustan Times, Chandigarh/New Delhi

Representative image of the Pro Kabaddi League.
Representative image of the Pro Kabaddi League.(Milind Saurkar/HT Photo)



Less than three years ago, Deepak Hooda, the only earning member of a large family, couldn’t afford a bicycle. Today, India’s kabaddi captain drives an SUV. Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) changed Hooda’s life—the player fetching Rs.1.15 crore in the 2018 auction from Rs.12.6 lakh in 2014 which then was the second-highest price. Subhankar Dey, Ashmita Chaliha and Ajay Jayaram use earnings from the Premier Badminton League (PBL) to fund careers. It was with his Rs.7 lakh from the volleyball league that helped Rohit Kumar build the family home with in Uplani, Haryana.

Franchise leagues, modelled or inspired by the Indian Premier League (IPL) that began in 2008, have impacted the lives of India’s sportspersons. Cricket leads the way followed by football, which has the Indian Super League, but kabaddi, badminton, table tennis, tennis, volleyball, wrestling and boxing too have helped many make a living from sport. A kho-kho league is also in the works.


“The league has been a major source of financial stability for our boxers as well as the entire ecosystem of technical officials, coaches and referees,” says Ajay Singh, president of Boxing Federation of India, which held its first Big Bout Indian Boxing League last December.

The Covid-19 pandemic though threatens India’s status as a nation of leagues. The big ticket IPL, valued at $6.8 billion in 2019 by global advisory firm Duff and Phelps, has been postponed indefinitely and with corporates reeling from the economic impact of a lockdown it will be tough for many leagues. “But for Covid-19, the federation would have organised the league this year too. Now roping in sponsors won’t be easy. Let’s see when we have the next professional league season for volleyball,” says Amir Singh, Arjuna award winner and former India captain, who was part of the committee set up by Volleyball Federation of India to monitor the league which began last year. Each of the six teams in the league spent Rs.75 lakh on players; prices going up to Rs.14 lakh from a starting bid of Rs.3 lakh at the auction.

“The commercial cycle can’t be forced. Market will respond, but at its own time. We are six years old and we have to be patient,” says Charu Sharma, who co-founded PKL in 2014. “In India where the major chunk of the sponsorship goes to cricket, this pandemic, we reckon, will have a negative impact on sponsorship,” says Vita Dani, chairperson and co-promoter of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT).

“Next year will be a huge challenge. Luckily, the league is (more than) eight months away…Vodafone has been our sponsor for all these years. Next year, I don’t know,” says Prasad Mangipudi, executive director of SportzLive which organises the three-week PBL spending around Rs.40 crore.

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The fifth edition of PBL ended on February 9. PBL is one of the most high-profile leagues after IPL thanks to the game’s image built by Indian players led by PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth among others. Last year, Sindhu and Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying attracted the joint-highest bid of Rs.77 lakh which was the maximum allowed.

Each of the seven PBL teams had a purse of Rs.2 crore and together spent Rs.13.40 crore of the Rs.14 crore. Ko Sung Hun went for Rs.55 lakh with Lee Cheuk Yiu (Rs.50 lakh), Shin Baek Cheol (Rs.45 lakh), Sourabh Verma (Rs.41 lakh), Tommy Sugiarto (Rs.41 lakh) and Hendra Setiawan (Rs.40 lakh) were some of the other big purchases.

This could dip without continued corporate backing. Mangipudi says he is looking at roping in more investors for smaller amounts should the title sponsor back out. PBL will also try to leverage better the traction it gets in South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Denmark and Spain because of players from those countries, he says.

Asking Badminton Association of India (BAI) to reduce licensing fees is one way of paring costs, he says. Renegotiating player contracts is another.

“We are definitely going to request the players because those are substantial costs for the team owners, almost half the cost for them. I am sure players will respond because, at the end of the day, it is their league. After lockdown ends, we will present this to all the stakeholders: BAI, players, team owners,” he says.

Not just costs

While costs would be a major impediment, it is not the only one. UTT’s Dani says, “To conduct the league, the following is necessary: players, venue, logistics and operations. At present, there is uncertainty across all four areas.

“Players need to travel to reach the venue; at present, there is no clarity on when aviation activity will resume.” UTT does not plan to hold the league without foreign players. The last season was held in New Delhi in July-August 2019. Dani says it will have to look for a suitable 18-day window this year.

The Tennis Premier League is hoping it can hold the third edition in December but co-owner Kunal Thakkur says plans to announce foreign players in August have been put on hold. “Even if (travel) restrictions are lifted, a lot of players might not want to travel now,” he says.

Though he says PKL wouldn’t be affected commercially because most of the deals are not high-value, Sharma thinks it is best to look at 2021. “Instead of force feeding the (2020) season into any kind of schedule, moving to 2021 is perhaps a sensible thing to do…. PKL is not a small event which can be forced into one week. There is an enormous amount of planning and logistics involved. It’s a 12-venue affair,” he says.

PKL cashed in on its popularity in 2017 when majority owner Star India signed a Rs.300 crore, five-year deal with mobile company, Vivo. The 12 franchises spent Rs.50 crore on players, two of them fetching over Rs.1 core and 10 being in the Rs.70-99 lakh category.

In 2018, Star reportedly earned around Rs.150 crore from advertisement revenues and sponsorship, and industry experts had projected an increase of that income to Rs.200-230 crore for 2019.

Last year, PKL was spread over 13 weeks (July 20-October 19) and had a prize-money pool of Rs.8 crore, with the winning team getting Rs.3 crore and the runners-up Rs.1.8 crore. With the sports economy expected to take a big hit, the organisers will be glad even if they can hold the tournament. No date has been announced for this year’s tournament or the players’ auction.

(With inputs from Avishek Roy, Rutvick Mehta and Abhishek Paul)

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