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Science of fitness and a vision brimming with belief - the playbook of Telugu Yoddhas' success in Ultimate Kho Kho 2022Β 

Arun Gunki of Telugu Yoddhas celebrates a point during Qualifier 2 of Ultimate Kho Kho 2022
Arun Gunki of Telugu Yoddhas celebrates a point during Qualifier 2 of Ultimate Kho Kho 2022

One of India's biggest multinational conglomerates to boast of a large presence in the world of sport, the GMR group's vision to promote the sport of kho kho through investing in the Telugu Yoddhas franchise as part of the ongoing Ultimate Kho Kho 2022 League could well see them pen their name down in the history books.

Driven by Yoddhas' captain Pratik Waikar, the Telugu Yoddhas will feature in the summit clash of the inaugural Ultimate Kho Kho season when they face off against the Odisha Juggernauts on September 4th in Pune.

After the Corona pandemic quashed any hopes of the Ultimate Kho Kho season launching in a couple of years, a win for the Telugu Yoddhas after notching up a hat-trick of wins in the inaugural edition will be nothing short of a dream investment for the GMR group.

The GMR family's investment in kho kho is their second massive venture in a bigger picture goal of promoting indigenous sport, 5 years after their first entry into Indian sport through the UP Yoddha franchise in the Pro Kabaddi League. Third, on paper, if one is to consider their presence in the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) back in 2015, an interest that was later withdrawn before the second PWL season.

GMR are also co-owners of the Delhi Capitals in the Indian Premier League (IPL), apart from also acquiring the Dubai Capitals as part of the UAE ILT20. Yet, despite acres of experience gained from running successful sports franchises, foraying into a rather unknown sport such as kho kho was always going to be a risk.

There were always going to be lingering questions around the Ultimate Kho Kho League - what if kho kho was to fall flat on its face? What if the audience do not perceive kho kho on a large scale to make it a flourishing franchise business model?

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Sujoy Ganguly - Business and Marketing Head, GMR Sports - elaborated on the risks involved in investing in the unknown, driving forces behind a successful franchise model and the scouting process that shapes the way a team lines up for the season.

Q. The GMR group's successful ventures in cricket and kabaddi are well documented, but how much of a risk was involved in pumping funds into a sport such as Kho-Kho that is relatively unknown in the Indian sports market?

Everyone knows GMR's a very large family and one of the most successful B2B companies, and at heart, the family has always been driven by sport. Many of the family members have played a lot of sports and are also very passionate about it.

Before we invested in the IPL, there weren't any opportunities to be a part of the ecosystem, it was either very limited or extremely expensive. When the opportunity to own a franchise in the IPL came, none of the companies had any experience of a league format in India. As Indians, cricket is a religion for us, and honestly, nobody knew what we were signing up for, but it sounded right.

After the first 3 years, we realized it was a means of entertainment, it gets the ecosystem involved, but in large part, it provides a lot of employment. GMR is a home-grown company, and even when we were approached by Mashal Sports for an opportunity in the Pro Kabaddi League, we loved it.

No one could envisage a sport played on mud would look so glamorous on the mat and under lights - it changed our outlook towards sport. We fell in love with the concept of PKL and invested in a team in Uttar Pradesh. Back then, we never thought it would be the 2nd largest league in the country by viewership.

The first Pro Kabaddi auction had a total purse price of β‚Ή65 lakhs and now we are close to hitting the β‚Ή5 Crore mark. As a family, we have invested in making the best kabaddi academy in the world. Our hostel facility initially housed 45 talents, and now that number has risen to 100. Most players from villages can't pay some sort of fee, so we don't take money for education, stay and coaching.

Also, in a sport like cricket, data is available in abundance. Even in the case of Pro Kabaddi, if you now go and check for information on Pardeep Narwal, you get a lot, but at the start, there was nothing. Our idea was to invest in a platform where not only does the player get a stage to perform, but he gets all the facilities and basic needs to move forward.

Similar is the case with kho kho. In 2019, I met Tenzing (Niyogi, Ultimate Kho Kho league commissioner), and when he explained the whole idea, we were very excited. Myself and a few members of the GMR family have played kho kho, but unfortunately, Covid struck.

Q. GMR's has a strong presence in the North of India with the Delhi Capitals and UP Yoddha. What was the idea behind investing in a South India-based team?

Well, the GMR family hails from South India, not only the family but they have large buisinesses there too. We were very keen that we'd take up any opportunity to get a franchise in an indigenous sport. Andhra and Telangana are very active in kho kho, apart from Maharashtra - which is the heart of sport. So everything seamlessly fell in place for us, and the league was very considerate to say that part of the region is ours. Through this franchise, hopefully we will create a similar sort of facility that we have for kabaddi. While players have great facilities, we will try and give the kho kho players a platform.

Basically, when we got the opportunity to buy a franchise in the Telugu belt, up until then we hadn't had a chance to invest in anything in the South so the GMR family was all for it. We got to understand about the sport, we wanted to back it. The motive was not profit and loss, we weren't sure how it would flourish, but we knew it looked good on TV.

For the past 10-15 years, we haven't seen many people talk about kho kho, we've never seen how federations manage kho kho, so the main idea was to be a part of the ecosystem and help the sport grow. We've been fortunate to enter the league for this season, and we've learnt a lot from the players and the skill sets, plus the potential that the sport will bring to the nation.

Like how kabaddi is so successful through Pro Kabaddi, with support for kho kho propelled by proper exhibition of talent, Ultimate Kho Kho will give opportunities for players to professionally earn and live a credible and sporting life. When you do so well, other countries also get attracted, that's how you automatically build an atmosphere where you nurture the best of players - that's how cricket has flourished for so many years.

Q. Would you say some of the experience from running teams in the IPL and Pro Kabaddi League surfaced in making the decision to invest in the Telugu Yoddhas team as part of Ultimate Kho Kho?

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When we got into cricket, it was unknown territory for all franchises, we didn't know what the IPL would bring to the table monetarily. When we got into PKL, the investment was higher than what we put in for kho kho. At GMR, we completely believe in building an ecosystem. When the private sector comes in, there's an understanding that the government can't do everything on their own.

For us, the most important part is to build a career and give a sense of security to the players. For example, the UP Yoddha head coach works with us throughout the year. We always go with the gut feel and I firmly believe Ultimate Kho Kho has the potential and the legs to grow, but importantly, we have learnt the science of keeping players fit over the years through our experiences with Delhi Capitals and UP Yoddha.

Now the focus is on how we can use these learnings and share it with the new set of players and support staff who deal with a new franchise. Take for example in kabaddi, what they ate back then vs what they eat now - there is a gulf of difference because a player needs to be supremely fit to put on a fight at any level of competition. Many players in our Ultimate Kho Kho team have beneffited from our large understanding of that science. When players are happy, they play better and know how to balance their lives and all their worries are taken care of by us. Once the product or brand is developed, all the success will follow.

Q. For a sport such as kho kho that isn't played as much across the country, what are some of the measures that go into scouting of players? Were there any major challenges of zeroing in on players ahead of the draft?

In sports such as cricket and kabaddi, you can scout and get into the detailing of players. For kho kho, that's not the case and I must say in that aspect, the league did a wonderful job in marking players as per A, B, C and D levels. For example, our captain Pratik was part of the A category and his various achievements were listed down. The federation and league worked closely to give the Ultimate Kho Kho competition a proper shape.

When you make a start in any league, you are dependent on the coach. We have coaches in all parts of the country who feed us with information since videos and analysis aren't as easily available, and the draft process narrowed it down for us.

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Most coaches in the league are very experienced, those who have been in the coaching sphere for close to 20-30 years. All players play from the heart and are capable of putting in game-changing performances, but you do due diligence with whatever you have.

At Telugu Yoddhas, we have a video analyst particularly in South India, since they are very vibrant in organizing kho kho. We have him attend select tournaments and capture more data. Our coaches also go to different tournaments, a template is created and coaches give us information as per that order. We then put a frame to it for a better understanding of the players, this is something we have done very well in kabaddi. We are very confident that over time, kabaddi and kho kho will have a lot more data which will be very accessible in due course of time.

Q. Where do you see Ultimate Kho Kho heading towards in the near future, given the rollicking start it has had with appreciation from all parts of the country?

In general, sports as a whole has become something where you have to entertain fans in a way that they understand to enhance engagement. Sports without competition will not succeed. All the franchises in Ultimate Kho Kho are very good, they are all working with the league in sharing experiences from different facets of the world of sport. We ourselves have a lot of experience, we've learnt a lot over the years, and it's a good thing that the Ultimate Kho Kho League is very open to learning. It's such a fast sport, you wouldn't believe the speed at which they play, it's incredible. We're very proud that all of us, including all of you journalists contribute to indigenous sports, and I am hoping this will continue to grow with the years.

Telugu Yoddhas will take on Odisha Juggernauts in the all-important Ultimate Kho Kho final today, with the match beginning at 8.00 PM on the SONY network.

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Edited by Prasen Moudgal
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