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Ultimate KhoKho joins the game of leagues in India

After sports leagues in Cricket, Badminton, Football, and Kabaddi, now comes the country’s first franchise-based league for KhoKho. Christened Ultimate KhoKho, the league is a joint initiative of the KhoKho Federation of India (KKFI) and industrialist Amit Burman, Vice Chairman, Dabur India. Following the success of Kho Kho at the Khelo India Youth Games 2019, Burman has decided to collaborate with the apex body of the sport – the KKFI – to support the development of this league. 

Speaking on the occasion, Minister of Youth Affairs & Sports, Col Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, said, “Indigenous sports are the manifestation of the local genius and ethos. I am very happy that a league is being launched for Kho Kho. Surely, this will go a long way in enhancing the popularity of this very Indian sport and will open new vistas for the players and the fans.” 

Sharing his vision for the league, Burman said, “Ultimate KhoKho will be a professionally structured league with eight participating franchise teams that will be owned by a mix of corporate houses and celebrities. Each team will have a combination of players, including Indian and international players from two age categories of under and above 18.” 

Rajeev Mehta, Chairman, KhoKho Federation of India & Secretary General, IOA, added here, “It is a moment of joy and pride for all of us to announce the launch of the Ultimate Kho Kho League. Our aim is to restore the glory this sport has seen in our countryand we look forward to receiving the support from sports lovers from across the country.” 

The KhoKho Federation of India is working extensively, with support from the Indian Olympic Association, towards making the sport popular with the country’s youth. 

“Ultimate KhoKho is an initiative to bring the sport to the forefront and make it the most sought-after league for a home-grown sport in India. The league will witness participation of key athletes from India and other Kho Kho playing nations,” said Sudhanshu Mittal, President, KKFI & Vice President, IOA. 

The first edition of Ultimate KhoKho will feature eight teams named after the country’s prominent regions. There will be an initial draft of players, where KhoKho athletes from across the world, including England, South Korea, Iran, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, will be made part of the eight franchises. The teams will also have the opportunity to include U-18 players in their squad, which will help develop a pool of young KhoKho players in the country. 

A KhoKho match consists of 4 innings of 9 minutes each and will be played on specially developed mats in state-of-the-art indoor stadiums. It will also have some minor tweaks in the format to make it more visually appealing for fans and television viewers. The 21-day event is set to have a double round-robin format which will see the eight teams heavily involved in competition through the season. 

Adgully spoke to Tenzing Niyogi, CEO, Ultimate KhoKho, to know more about the Ultimate KhoKho League, growth strategy, developing the event ground up, advertiser and broadcaster interest and more.  

What is the idea behind launching the KhoKho league?
There has been a paradigm shift in sports content consumption in India in the last 4-5 years and non-cricket discipline is on the rise. The recent success of KhoKho at the Khelo India Games in 2019 further put impetus, with the massive fan following that KhoKho enjoys in Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, to name a few. As engaging a sport that KhoKho is, and also the fact that it has reinvented itself into a modern day offering, it is ideally suited for television audiences with its dodging, sprinting and bursts of controlled speed makes this game extremely thrilling. 

That conversation got the ball rolling in setting up the Ultimate Kho Kho League with Amit Burman (Vice Chairman – Dabur Foods and Promoter UKKL) and the Kho Kho Federation of India (KKFI) and most importantly, also because all stakeholders believed that KhoKho deserves a league of its own. 

How do you plan to make it more appealing to the audience?
To catch by pursuit - to chase, rather than just run - is the capstone of KhoKho. We are working closely with KKFI and taking inputs from all the State Federations to develop an exciting format to drive audience engagement. Dodging, sprinting and bursts of controlled speed make this game quite thrilling. The new format will have its unique edge of attracting audience in all age groups across children, women and men. While we can’t comment on the format tweaks at this point in time, but I can assure you they will act as key differentiators to drive fan engagement. 

Which markets are you planning to focus on for the league?
Brands are seeing big markets in small towns. Television viewership in 2018 was driven from the South India and HSM markets, where KhoKho has a massive fan following as well. Also, as a homegrown sport, we plan to take KhoKho to metropolitan cities and millennials. The youth today lives a fast-paced life and wants to maximise every moment. Based on this insight, the game of KhoKho is redesigned, where every minute will be an event. 34 per cent of the youth in 2018 contributed towards sports viewership from Tier 1, 2 and 3 markets and Ultimate KhoKho, with its innovative format, will be poised to attract all age groups. 

How has the advertiser interest been? How do you plan to bring in advertisers to the league?
Advertisers are looking out for newer avenues to connect with consumers on the back of impact properties. Ultimate KhoKho will bring the home-grown sport into the spotlight by giving it an innovative premise, thus capturing the imagination of everyone across the length and breadth of the country. 

The improbable success of the Pro Kabaddi League is a testament that team-based mass sport with the right ingredients of fast-paced format can deliver immense commercial value to advertisers. The modern avatar of Ultimate KhoKho will engage consumers in metropolitan cities and millenials, reaching out to a large audience base across Tier 2-3 cities across every state. 

How do you think KhoKho will attract the broadcasters?
The closeness of cameras, in fact, makes it very engaging. If you had the same sport lasting two hours with half-time and going on for another two hours after that, then it would be dead. Here, it is played for 18 minutes in the first half of the game, followed by a three-minute break, and a six-minute time-out, then another 18 minutes for the second half. In 45 minutes, the whole game is over. 

Television stakeholders are focussing on customer acquisition and are open to experimenting with combined selling of impact properties across TV + OTT platforms. Today, in India 35-40 per cent TV viewership on sports is coming from the non-cricket properties. Both Star and Sony have strategically invested in key marque properties because they believe that is where the future lies. We believe KhoKho in its new avatar has the potential to bring forth commercial value to broadcasters and brands outside cricket in the next 3-4 years. As one of the most followed and played homegrown sport, KhoKho could engage newer markets and audience to become the driver for any broadcaster /OTT players. 

Have you seen some interest from celebrities or any other known faces for owning the teams?
We are in talks with potential team owners as queries have come in from multiple sectors. Business houses are keen to purchase franchisees as they see valuation potential from a long term perspective. Alternatively, celebrities from sports and entertainment sector are keen on franchise ownership to strategically enter non-penetrated markets, which could either leverage film distribution numbers, connect with new audiences which complements their investment portfolios. 

How long will it take for the league to break even?
Our business model will be established on the three pillars of – Broadcast, Franchise, Sponsorships. Ticketing and merchandise in India is not a significant revenue contributor as compared to the western world. Having said that, if the league is played in the right catchment areas, we expect audience willing to pay from Season 1 onwards. We are not setting a goal, but we know the power of the game. Can we anticipate how many people will watch it on day 1, or day 10 or day 21? No. But does the sport have the potential? Yes. 

How do you plan to make it a success?
We have a three-pronged approach for success:
Vision to grow the sport – With a view to not only making this traditional Indian sport an aspirational sport, but also paving the way for KhoKho athletes to future mainstreaming at the international level and possible inclusion in multi-disciplinary sporting events like the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games. Our endeavour with the KKFI is to work together to develop sports excellence and shape the future of competitive KhoKho to make this sport bigger and better. 

Value in format – Post our evaluation of market interest and potential, our idea was to present a high-speed format, which brings audiences together for match days. Economically, the property should speak sustainability for our potential partners across franchisee owners, broadcasters, OTT platforms and sponsors. Stakeholders are looking at unique propositions to connect with fans/ consumers and KhoKho has the potential to become that platform. 

What kind of viewership volume potential do you see?
Firstly, as a ground up sport, we believe KhoKho has the potential to garner good traction from Tier 2 and 3 markets. HSM and South India markets add to this projection. Alternatively, high scoring matches and close finishes, should engage millenials and Tier 1 audiences on prime time. 

When will the first season commence?
While we are in discussions with the broadcasters on their proposed sports schedule, our idea is to launch the league post Diwali, between November and December 2019.

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