The Indian men’s professional Kabaddi league, the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) auction took place a couple of weeks ago and all 12 PKL teams are now ready with their lineups for the 10th season, which is set to commence on December 2.
The U Mumba franchise is one such unit that has elected to retain its core group before entering the tenth season. The season-two champions have not made many significant changes. More or less, the team that competed in the previous season appears to be identical after the auctions.
The Mumbai-based team was one of three franchises to spend a whopping INR 4.99 crore during the auction. Last season, the team ended ninth in the points table; nonetheless, this time around, the team made several key decisions before embarking on the celebratory season.
During the PKL auction, U Mumba acquired a total of nine players, including two defenders, two all-rounders, and five raiders. The team has retained Raiders Heidarali Ekrami and Jai Bhagwan, as well as experienced defenders Rinku and Surinder Singh.
At the auction, SportsMint Media had the privilege of speaking to Mr Suhail Chandhok who dons various hats as co-founder, sports presenter and commentator but in this conversation, he shared his thoughts as the CEO of U Mumba.
During the exclusive interview, Mr Chandhok shed light on a wide range of topics, including how a franchise from Mumbai provides the necessary clout and the evolvement of the Yuva Kabaddi Series into a talent-hunting competition.
1. How is the team’s experience in operating the franchise for the last 10 years on and off the field?
I’ve just come in as a CEO in season 10 but I’ve witnessed a lot of teams running the franchise from close quarters over the last nine seasons. I think you can see the separation between a really well-run team and others, and I don’t mean that from a performance perspective but from a management perspective. When you speak of the league’s stamp of authority in the Indian sporting system, it’s so strong.
I think a lot of that is down to the type of owners the league has managed to have over the last decade. The kind of work that all the stakeholders have put together is an unbelievable achievement. Apart from PKL, there’s only the IPL and ISL and I think that tells you the calibre of the league. It tells you the calibre of everyone involved, from Star and Mashal to the stakeholders. The sport itself speaks volumes of where we are today.
2. Does your team being from Mumbai give you leverage on the business front?
To some extent, yes, when you think of the PKL in terms of brand recall, U Mumba is right up there in the top three teams. It has a very strong market in terms of Maharashtra as well. One of the strong points of the market is that Kabaddi has deep roots in the state. Apart from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Haryana, also have a robust market.
Mumbai is a City of Dreams, a City of Aspirations, and my efforts will be to make sure that this team reflects the ‘City of Dreams’ persona.
We wanted to be youthful, exuberant and energized, and I think hopefully that has translated into the kind of choices we’ve made as well. Those 19–20-year-olds from Iran are very exciting talents. We also want to look towards the future, from a business perspective as well, so one eye is on the future and one eye on youth talent.
3. To what extent does a popular athlete help a team in acquiring sponsors?
It does help but it also depends on what you do off the court. Before we even set foot on the court, before we see any performances, if we see the work our social media team does, there’s a brand presence I’d like to believe that with Ronnie’s credibility in the world of business, entertainment, and now sports, and my expertise in the world of sports, we have a certain amount of credibility when it comes to what we can deliver to brands or partners off the court.
The process of trying to go younger and become an aspirational team is to be able to give our partners something back that is different. If any brand wants direct access to Tier 2 or 3 markets, and Tier 1 markets, in the case of Mumbai, this is the right place. It is a straightforward access to the age group of 16-38. Kabaddi is such a popular sport and being from the City of Mumbai helps a lot. There’s a certain razzmatazz about the ‘City of Dreams’, so we would like to hopefully leverage that as well.
4. What’s your opinion on PKL being without a title sponsor at the moment?
I can’t speak on behalf of the league, but I’m certain it will have a league sponsor soon enough. PKL is too strong a league to not have a central sponsor. I think we are seeing very encouraging signs. After the Asian Games 2022, the buzz around Kabaddi has increased again. Let’s not forget that there’s the World Cup happening at the moment and it is going to garner a lot of eyeballs initially, but by November, things will start to change towards what’s next, what’s next? And what’s next is nothing but Kabaddi.
I’m not worried about that aspect because, with a home-and-away format after COVID-19 for the first time in the last few years, this is going to be an unbelievable season. It’s going to be a carnival where we go to every city, and I can’t wait for it.
5. How does your experience from the Yuva Kabaddi Series come into play here?
When you look at NYP, I think there are 41 NYPs picked up before the league started. Out of the 41 NYPs, 29 came from our Yuva Kabaddi Series. To me, that makes me really proud because we started that league from scratch; we bootstrapped it, but to see the credibility that the league has built, the number of players picked up at the auction from the Yuva Kabaddi Series is unbelievable. We had Masanamuthu Lakshnanan going for more than INR 30 lakh, and Nitin Dhankar went for INR 32 lakh after a bidding war across three teams. There are so many players like that who’ve come from the Yuva Kabaddi Series, which tells me that we’re doing the right thing. We’re creating an impact and giving players a platform. On the flip side, we’re also making it easy for the PKL teams to scout. The biggest headache for any professional and PKL team has been that one can’t go from Kashmir to Kanyakumari searching for players. One would say, why isn’t there a junior platform where I can find all these players? And this is not an under-16 platform; it’s an under-23 platform, so players are ready to step into the PKL shoes.
Personally, I’m very proud and thrilled with all the work that our team has done at Yuva Kabaddi, because I think the fruits of our labour are showing the credibility of talent that’s coming into the PKL. I’m happy to burn the midnight oil if it means we can churn out more and more players, and hopefully, we can groom more talents and give them the opportunity that they deserve.