New Delhi: The launch of a new professional Indian Badminton League aims to capitalize on a massive player and fan base in the country and to transform the sport from a popular pastime to a commercial powerhouse.
The new league will be based on teams rather than individual players and have franchises in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Lucknow and Hyderabad. There are plans for an auction between those teams to attract the world's top players.
"All of us have held a badminton racket at some point in time," said Ashish Chadha, chief executive of sports management firm Sporty Solutionz which has signed a 15-year-deal with the Badminton Association of India to organize the league. "The popularity of badminton has not translated into success in terms of tournaments, but we will change that."
Badminton and football are the most ubiquitous sports in India after cricket. But while it is generally the young who play football, people of all ages can be seen playing badminton in the outdoors, often in public parks with trees used as poles to support the net.
It's not just in parks that India's players are wielding their rackets. "There are some 150 badminton academies in New Delhi alone. In Hyderabad, there are some 5,000 players playing competitively. These figures give an idea of the potential for the sport," says Chadha, who represented India in junior competitions and held a national men's ranking of No.3 during the 1990s. "Added to that is the emergence of players like Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu and P. Kashyap who are all doing well internationally."
While the IBL has succeeded in attracting some sponsors, convincing companies to invest in badminton has been no easy task. "Commercially, we saw potential in badminton even though football is more popular among TV viewers and our shooters are doing better. Saina's success at last year's Olympics (bronze) and 2010 Commonwealth Games (gold) provided a spike, but everyone was initially skeptical about investing in badminton and the kind of money we were talking about," Chadha said.
"There are leagues in The Netherlands, England, Indonesia and other countries, but they are not pro clubs like India is going to see," he added. "Also, the kind of base price the top six players are to attract during the bidding - $50,000 - is not seen even as prize money in top international competitions." Women's world No.2 Nehwal sees great potential for the IBL and feels badminton can compete with cricket and European football if marketed well.
"The popularity of badminton is surging and it's important for any sport to attract the youth and masses," Nehwal said. "The launch of the IBL comes at the right time. If implemented in the right manner it will transform the profile of our sport." Men's No. 1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia agrees.
"Indian badminton players have been doing well in recent years and the IBL will help market the game better in the country," Lee said during the India Open in New Delhi last week. "Indian players will also get to play with some of the best players in the world." Chadha says the IBL has earmarked $5 million for marketing and will organize an elaborate national tournament for schools to generate grassroots support and a new generation of players.
"By holding the finals of that tournament along with the main IBL, and by bringing in entertainment from Bollywood as well, we hope to involve and engage a lot of people," Badha said. "We want to make it an NBA experience with performances at the intervals." The format for the new league follows the international Sudirman Cup with men's and women's singles and doubles plus a mixed doubles.
Many sports in India have tried to create successful professional leagues - football, field hockey, golf, motorsports and others - but usually find the immense popularity of cricket makes it difficult to generate sufficient fan and sponsor interest. However Chadha hinted at some cross promotion with the nation's dominant sport. "One of the top Indian cricketers has bought one of the franchises," Chadha said, adding he will reveal the identity of the player at a later date. "All I can say is that it will help us market IBL better."