A League of Their Own
ULTIMATE KHO KHO HAS BOOSTED THE FORTUNES OF THE NEGLECTED SPORT AND 143 PLAYERS IN THE NEW LEAGUE
Until mid-July, Vishal earned a living delivering Amazon orders on his Scooty in Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh. Then, one day, the 23-yearold got a call—he was to be a part of Ultimate Kho Kho. Having played the sport since 2010, Vishal knew getting his hopes up would be a mistake. “Every year, we would get a call,” he says. “Friends would question me. Some would taunt, ‘When will it start?’”
Tenzing Niyogi, who has been marketing sports events for 22 years, had been trying to build a kho kho league since 2018, but the Covid-19 pandemic kept delaying his passion project. Persistence apart, Niyogi got industrialist Amit Burman on his side as promoter and Sony agreed to come on board as TV and digital broadcaster in 2021 for five years. It was finally in August that Ultimate Kho Kho kicked off. For three weeks now, the Balewadi sports complex in Pune has been abuzz. Divided into six teams, 143 players from 26 states have ensured an electric energy with their running, chasing and diving. Vishal, a defender for Odisha Juggernauts, says, “Kho kho ki demand badh gayi hai [There’s more demand for kho kho now].
Youngsters will be motivated to play the game.” Depending on their experience, players also stand the chance of earning anything between Rs 60,000 and Rs 5 lakh. With many athletes coming from impoverished backgrounds, this incentive can prove crucial. “The players are the biggest commodities of any sports league. Everything starts and ends with them,” says CEO and Commissioner Niyogi. “Ultimate Kho Kho aims to be the pinnacle for all kho kho players.”
Niyogi fell in love with kho kho after witnessing a professional match in Maharashtra. “I was quite amazed by the sheer intensity on the field, and excited by the speed of play,” he says. Seeing the potential that kho kho had to be a “spectacle on air”, Niyogi began drawing up his plans. “It is by far the fastest sport India will
see on ground,” he tells us. “A kho kho match is like the last lap of Formula1.” Also working in Niyogi’s favour were two facts—kho kho is easy to follow and it also just as easily elicits nostalgia. Several Indians have either watched or played the sport in school.
That was how Arun S.A., 23, a defender with Telugu Yoddhas, started out. Not only did Arun make the most of the kho kho infrastructure at the Government Vocational Higher Secondary School in Kerala’s Pirappancode, he also walked in his mother’s and sister’s footsteps, both of whom were national-level players. “My mother has been my biggest support,” he says. “She even urges me to practise during the vacations, even if that means I can’t come home.” Recently, Arun made his mother doubly proud when his performances on the court landed him a job with Kerala’s postal department. If Niyogi is to be believed, neither Ultimate Kho Kho nor the athletic talent on display is a flash in the pan. He says the league has legs to last another 20 years: “For any sport to sustain itself and develop, a professional league plays a very important role. That is applicable the world over.” He says he is also looking to start a women’s edition, having already had two companies reach out to purchase teams. Unlike cricket, where the women’s league hasn’t gained traction due to dearth of players as per the BCCI, Niyogi says women’s kho kho will be at par with the men’s. The confidence in this claim cannot be discounted. Ultimate Kho Kho is only proving the strength of Niyogi’s convictions. ■