NEW DELHI: Star India, the country's leading sports broadcaster, knew it was taking a risk when it switched part of its budget away from cricket to cover kabbadi, the contact sport, but it now says the game has achieved unexpectedly high ratings and engagement figures.

For many years the broadcaster has spent most of its budget – over 90% – on cricket but this year has diverted around 30% to other sports, primarily football, with the summer World Cup in mind, and kabbadi.

The recently concluded five-week-long Pro Kabbadi League (PKL) had already generated a warm response from sponsors and has sparked a similar reaction among viewers.

"Except for cricket, there is no game that has been able to get the kind of viewers and engagement levels as kabaddi," according to Sanjay Gupta, chief operating officer, Star TV India. "It was really a surprise," he told the Business Standard, adding that it "could be the game we were looking for".

To put his remarks in context, the India Premier League achieves an average television viewership rating (TVR) of 4 plus. The 2014 FIFA World Cup achieved a TVR of around 0.7, but PKL was more than twice that at 1.6.

And even when kabbadi went head-to-head with international cricket during the recent India-England series, it was the PKL that gained more TVRs.

Gupta reported engagement levels of up to 10 or 11 minutes per half hour of programming, which, again, was the highest it had found after cricket, which regularly registers 15 to 16 minutes.

And while it was assumed that kabbadi would have more appeal to viewers in rural areas and smaller towns, in the event the larger share of the audience was in the major cities where it was especially popular among 18 to 30-year-olds.

Part of Star's strategy is to attract new non-cricket viewers who can increase the share of total TV viewership taken by sports, which currently stands at just 4% (and cricket alone is 3.5%). "If PKL grows, it can add 1% to the share," Gupta thought.

He has ambitious plans to make that happen, with a 26-week tournament next year and a Kabaddi World Cup as the game is played in 36 nations.

Data sourced from Business Standard; additional content by Warc staff