Meet the woman changing the sports scene in India with her ‘Dabang’ franchise

Delhi-based Radha Kapoor Khanna is the owner of Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Club, which recently won the eighth season of the VIVO Pro Kabaddi League. She also owns the Dabang Mumbai Hockey Club and the Dabang Delhi Table Tennis Club.
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Women in sport management is an uncommon sight, with Hannah Waddingham’s character in the hit Apple TV show ‘Ted Lasso’ being a notable exception. Yet, the Indian glass ceiling in this sphere has been firmly broken by Delhi-based Radha Kapoor Khanna, the owner of Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Club. The team recently won the title in the eighth season of the VIVO Pro Kabaddi League in a gripping final match against Patna Pirates on February 25, 2022.

“I played Kabaddi during my school days and I love the sport! With my team Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Club, I wanted to groom, hone, and deliver the best kabaddi players to the nation. We are thrilled to win Season 8 of the Pro Kabaddi League and we are looking forward to more glory moments for our franchisees in the coming years. Hopefully, one day we will see the sport being played at the Olympics too,” beams Radha in a chat with YSWeekender.

Radha Kapoor Khanna with Dabang Delhi Kabaddi Club which won the eighth season of VIVO Pro Kabaddi League.

A penchant for sport

Radha pursued a degree at the Parsons School of Design, New York, with a specialisation in Communication Design and Management. She describes herself as a creative entrepreneur and design thinker, and has also founded the Indian School of Design and Innovation.

Having played a number of sports as a child, Radha was keen to promote them too. She says,

“Kabaddi is an indigenous sport played across the country, and I wanted to empower young talent. The Pro Kabaddi League was the right platform to do this. The concept of the league is very innovative, and we were confident that modernising this sport will attract the interest of viewers in India.”

In addition to Kabaddi, she has also invested in promoting other sports. She owns the Dabang Mumbai Hockey Club, and the Dabang Delhi Table Tennis Club where her team won the title in the second season of the Ultimate Table Tennis League.

Radha focussed on the development of ‘Rurban’ (rural and urban) sports initiatives – a term she has coined herself – in the catchment areas of the northern region of India. This is where Kabaddi is truly popular as a game. As part of her venture, she has executed various grassroots initiatives and nurtured young talent, attempting to take the sport to the next level.

“We always wanted to identify new heroes through our initiatives and nurture young talent. I’m committed to playing a pivotal role in India’s ‘Sportainment’ revolution with an organic convergence of sports and entertainment. I’m spearheading this intent with multiple grassroots programs for Kabaddi across India,” she smiles.

Kabaddi for the masses

Season 8 of the Pro Kabaddi League saw participation from 12 teams from different parts of the country. Each team plays against the other 11 teams twice in the league stage of the tournament. The top six teams enter the play-offs, where the first two ranked teams have the added advantage of moving directly to the semi-finals.

Radha Kapoor Khanna after the win

When asked about the strong name she has collectively given to her sports teams, Radha says, “We always wanted a team which reflects the qualities of strength, focus, agility, and other positive aspects needed to excel in sport. With that intention, we started ‘Dabang Delhi K.C.’, which was the perfect fit for our team. The ‘Dabang’ name stuck with all our franchisees as we felt it resonates with our supporters and fans.”

Radha describes the process of selecting players as an intense one, as everything rides on picking the right talent.

The aim has always been to build a squad which is a mix of young and experienced players. She also credits their grassroot programmes for helping with the identification of budding talent, which can then be nurtured with coaching and guidance.

While Radha personally oversees the selection process, she has a team of managers and coaching staff who are more up to speed on player performances across local tournaments happening in different parts of India.

She highlights the example of their star player Naveen Kumar, who is also known as ‘Naveen Express’.

Though he joined as a ‘New Young Player’ as part of a special programme of the league, he has emerged as a leader and been awarded the ‘Most Valuable Player’ title in seasons 7 and 8 of the VIVO Pro Kabaddi League.

The win

Speaking about the team’s momentous win this season, Radha says,

“I was thrilled with our team’s performances throughout the season, but the final was just amazing. We had missed winning by a small margin in the previous season, but I was confident that we had the strength to bring the title home and emerge as the champions of the Vivo Pro Kabaddi League – and I’m so ecstatic that we did!”

Kabaddi as a game has changed phenomenally in the last decade and Radha has followed the change closely. She shares that just 10 years ago, this sport was played on mud, but today it has stadiums across the country where it is played according to international standards on a mat. From being a fringe sport practiced in the rural parts of India, Kabaddi has made its way into the households of billions across the country.

This is most evident in the lives of the players. The highest salary of a player in season one was Rs 10-12 lakh while now they earn in crores. Radha credits the Pro Kabaddi League for this change, which allows kids interested in sport to showcase their skills and carve a career for themselves.

She adds, “The modernisation of the sport and innovation by league teams resonates with Gen-Z. I am happy to learn that schools are bringing back this heritage sport.”

Running a sports team has its own peculiar challenges. Radha needs to look into getting the right mix of players and establishing a balance between raiders and defenders. It takes years of experience to properly analyse statistics, and nurture young talent to put together a winning combination. Yet her efforts have clearly borne fruit with Dabang Delhi K.C. winning season 8 of the VIVO Pro Kabaddi League.

Next, this multi-hyphenate is working on curating a design market place called ‘Art Directed’. She signs off with, “Over the years, I have personally learnt many qualities from our team. The concept of never giving up and the ability to bounce back from setbacks. There have been some key matches where we have been trailing by a decent margin, but the boys have always believed in themselves and fought back on the mat. This is the reason we are the champions today.”

Edited by Megha Reddy

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