Q&A with Nitin Kukreja, head of STAR Sports: Kabaddi’s rise, building a multi-sport market in India

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Nathaniel Brown is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications at 21CF.

I recently visited the Mumbai headquarters of our India business, STAR India, where I saw first-hand how its new STAR Sports brand has taken sports fans by storm. 

While STAR has for some time been India’s entertainment leader, it moved aggressively into the sports market following 21CF’s full acquisition of its pan-Asian sports joint venture, ESPN STAR Sports (ESS), in 2012.

In launching STAR Sports a few years ago, the company set out to remake the televised sports landscape in India. One challenge to this lofty ambition was the inherent programming limitations of India’s nearly singular focus on cricket. So in addition to winning broadcast rights for cricket (breaking the nation’s all-time viewership record with last year’s Word Cup), STAR set out to transform India into a multi-sport market by investing in hockey, badminton, soccer — and kabaddi.

Haven’t heard of kabbadi?

What’s sometimes described as an Indian version of capture the flag, kabaddi is arguably India’s oldest sport. It is fast-paced and doesn’t require any equipment, which may explain why the quintessentially Indian sport has for hundreds of years been a favorite pickup game in neighborhoods across the country. But it had never earned itself a national league, nor a spot on the dial. 

 

Nitin Kukreja

Today, the game that no one was talking about a few years ago just finished its third season as a professional sport – and, astonishingly for the skeptics, one with more than 200 million viewers. 

The rise of kabaddi is certainly no accident. It’s the result of STAR’s thoughtful multi-sport strategy. I sat down with the head of STAR Sports, Nitin Kukreja, to talk about the Cinderella-like transformation of the game and STAR’s broader sports push.

Congratulations on a successful third season of kabaddi. Did you it exceed your expectations?

Absolutely. It’s not just the third season in isolation — it’s actually a journey of a sport over the last two years. Two years back, kabaddi in its current form didn’t exist at all. It has been a phenomenal journey since we launched in July 2014. It’s so exciting to be part of something that will hopefully stay for generations and generations.

When we launched, people were really questioning us. But I don’t think anyone’s asking those questions anymore. With three seasons behind us and each season building on the prior, we’ve proved that it’s not just a flash in the pan.

Scratch just below the surface and you’ll see so many healthy signs for the sport: stadiums filling up, kids playing, and advertisers and sponsors renewing their sponsorships. So I think there’s an underlying story that says the sport is here to stay.

How was kabaddi perceived before you made it a big nationally televised sport? And how did you go about transforming its image?

I think the perception around kabaddi was, “It’s a rural sport; it’s not an aspirational sport. It’s something we played as kids but there’s no career in it, there’s no money in it, and it’s played in school and then we forget about it.” It took a conscious effort for a year-plus thinking of little elements, like what the mat should look like, what the playing surface should be – and this is where we had great debates internally, whether it would be the mud we grew up playing on, or grass, or the mat on which the professional levels were conducted on.

Where did you net out?

We settled on a mat because we were solving for perception, and earth or grass would not solve for that. We played on the mat, but we gave the mat a makeover as well. We also thought about what the lighting in the stadium should look like, how the seating in the stadium should be, what the players’ entry should be like, what they should wear, how they should look, etc.

In terms of the audience for kabaddi, was there a sense, given its humble origins, that this was “the people’s sport”? Or did you want to get away from that?

Yes, we always wanted to make it for the people – a mass sport. Having said that, we were also solving for the aspirational perception of the sport. We said the sweet spot for us is if kids from higher-end neighborhoods like South Bombay start identifying with the sport and enjoying it. And I think that was our biggest accomplishment in Season 1. Somewhere, that sense of aspiration crept in through all that we had done and it registered in the consumers’ minds.

Is it true you’re now launching a kabaddi World Cup? I had no idea other countries played.

Yes, that’s what we’re going for later this year. Other countries do play kabaddi. It is a nation-game sport. It is trying to get to the number of countries that can take it to the Olympics, because there is a certain criterion in terms of how many countries play. Of course, India has always won at the nation games, but I think it’s time to do a World Cup now.

You just launched STAR Sports yet there’s no mistaking when you’re on the ground in India that it’s already the dominant sports brand. Can you walk me through this transformation and what it entailed?

Fundamentally, if I were to put it in one word in terms of the broader thought and strategy was when we took over the sports business, it was “localize.”

I think ESS, STAR Sports’ predecessor, was a phenomenal joint venture, but over time, as a pan-Asian channel it was becoming increasingly difficult to service multiple consumers across multiple geographies. In an era of hyper-localization, the business was becoming more and more disconnected with ground realities in India.

We migrated the business from Singapore to India. Someone likened it to renovating your kitchen while continuing to cook because we stayed on the air even while in the process of moving the studios.

We started doing sports in local languages in India. It was strange that after a 20-year revolution of moving toward programming in local languages, sports was still almost entirely in accented English, which very few people could understand. So one of the first few steps that we did was putting out all cricket in Hindi. Five years back, all consumption of cricket was in English, and today almost every game – 70 percent of the consumption – is in Hindi. So it’s that kind of a dramatic swing.

Kabaddi is part of STAR Sports’ strategy to go well beyond cricket and build a multi-sport culture in India. How much of that is driven by a mandate for localization versus more of just a programming strategy?

I think it’s a bit of both. Fundamentally what we believed was that the Indian sports proposition was underserved and it needed to localize. As I mentioned, language was one very important element of it. The other important element was to do local leagues. If I look at the U.K. or Germany, everyone has a staple, local tournament that becomes mainstream. And even if look at the U.S., there is a different order of localization, between MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL. India did not have any such local tournaments and was predominantly focused on international cricket.

The level of localization had not happened in sports. We were still broadcasting out of the legacy we inherited from ESS – we were broadcasting the NBA at night and early mornings because it was popular in the Philippines and it was a foundation footprint. We used to do equestrian and golf, which are not so relevant for an Indian context. Going back to the localization point, it went down to leagues, it went down to languages as a starting point and it went down to local leagues: Pro Kabaddi League; Indian Super League; and the football, hockey and badminton leagues. And the last element of localization is starting to build out local sport, which is kabaddi.

What do the audiences for these new sports look like?

Cricket has traditionally been more male. I think kabaddi is more family. Very heartening in the kabaddi audience is that kids love it, so it’s over-indexed on kids. We’ve made conscious efforts to make sure that we carry on with that target audience, because those are going to be the consumers of the future.

With your new televised sports gaining popularity, do you see the creation of an entirely new ecosystem? For example, a whole new universe of sports stars and things to aspire to for Indian kids?

Yes, absolutely. As kids, when we were growing up, invariably nearly every parent told a child not to look at sports as a viable career option. If you were part of the Indian cricket team, that’s the only place where you could make some money in sport. So fundamentally in sport, there existed just 11 careers. In came IPL in 2008 and it opened up careers for 120 cricketers instead of just 11. And alongside the 120 careers, there came careers for support staff.

Today, thanks to kabaddi, football or badminton, you’ve got careers for at least 500 sports stars, plus other support staff alongside them. I think the ecosystem will grow over time. Hopefully we’ll be in a situation where, 10 years down the line, a parent can tell a kid, “Even if you’re not good at math or science, you can still play and have a career.”

What’s next?

I think we need to keep building on these sports, but we can’t spread ourselves too thin either. We need to go deeper and deeper into these sports and make sure that there is a sustainable foundation that they’re standing on. It’s still the very, very early days.