Moneyball: Badminton scaling new heights

Just recently this column delved on the need for stakeholders in sports other than cricket to stop the quest to be the number two in the country, and instead concentrate on building on their sport unique strengths and monetise it effectively. Not to be harried each time cricket makes millions.

With a sports culture steadily making its mark in the consciousness of Indians, it is just a matter of time before other sports also finds takers and money. Provided they have the right mix of ingredients to attract the moolah.

The growth of badminton is a case in point. The quiet but consistent rise of the country badminton players in international rankings, and their establishing supremacy in both the men’s and women categories is the sports story of the year.

In 2015, when Saina Nehwal rose to the World No.1 rank we knew good things were happening in badminton and hoped that the trend would continue. That she had risen to the No.2 rank in 2009 and it took her six more years to become the first female Indian player, and only the second Indian after the legend, Prakash Padukone, to have achieved this pinnacle made it sweeter. But even the most ardent followers of the sport and even those directly connected with badminton would not have imagined the transformation that has happened during the last two years after Saina’s rise to the top.

The pace was set with current World No.2 PV Sindhu’s captivating run to the Olympics finals in Rio 2016. The final against the Spaniard, Carolina Marin, was a match for which interest levels and viewership rivalled that of most cricketing events. Sindhu did not bring back the gold, but captured the nation’s heart. Since then, Sindhu was a transformed player and superstar. Her management team also ensured that she built an enviable portfolio of brand endorsements to keep her stardom alive while she continued her winning ways.

Missing in action was Saina, but as they say, you can’t keep a good player down for long. Her win against Sindhu in the finals of the Nationals should provide her with the impetus to work back into the top 10 in the world. Currently at No.11, it shouldn’t be a great task, though the sudden rise of Sindhu in rankings and prominence definitely caught her off-guard for some time.

While Saina’s reign at the top had somehow assured us about the power and potential of our female players, never did we think our male players would match up. Apart from a Padukone, and then Pullela Gopichand (the architect of India’s current upsurge), no male player has captured our imagination as being a world-beater. It has taken less than a year for that to change.

To say that Kidambi Srikanth has had a fantastic 2017 is an understatement. Since August, Srikanth has lost just one of the 13 matches he has played. And during this period, he has become the first Indian player to have ever won four Super Series titles in a year. And only the fourth player to have done it. Joining the company of illustrious names like Lee Chong Wei from Malaysia, and the Chinese duo, Lin Dan and Chen Long.

Which means that right now the No.2 male and female players in the world are Indians, and, interestingly, both the No.11 players are also Indians – Saina and HS Prannoy. It hasn’st come easily.

As Srikanth recently pointed out, they have been training very hard for the last three-four years and the results are showing now. He was also confident that they will only do better if they continue working hard.

The rise couldn’t have come at a better time. The just-concluded Senior National Badminton Championship witnessed finals between the top-ranked players: Saina vs Sindhu; Srikanth vs Prannoy. And, ironically, the World No.11s prevailed over their higher-ranked compatriots. Auguring well for the sport as these rivalries keep competitions alive and bring fans to the courts. The stadium was jam-packed for the finals, and rightly so.

They will also be equally full when the next big thing in the sport starts on December 23 – the third season of the Premier Badminton League (PBL). With all the best Indian players and some more from the international scene joining ranks, this edition of the league will ride on the success of Indian badminton. The franchises have already grown in number to eight, with new teams from Ahmedabad and Guwahati. The prize money has grown to Rs 6 crore for the winners and Rs 3 crore for the runner-up.

The matches between teams comprising the top stars should see viewership and attendance on the upswing. If the kabaddi league could garner numbers and grow in strength with each edition, this is the best time for a franchise-based tournament like the PBL to also cement itself as the premier league within the sport globally. It won’t be any more dependent on foreign stars to attract attention. One would have wished that more than four cities host the matches, thus deepening the relationship with the fans for each team who would have cheered their local heroes.

It is no secret that homegrown stars are the key ingredient for the growth of a sport and badminton has the right mix and numbers now to catapult itself to the mind space of brands which should be open to raising their allotment for the sport as the value they derive will be much more. Sindhu might not be in the bracket of a Virat Kohli, but her endorsement fees are way ahead of many a national cricketer.

(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage. In this column, he will analyse the key issues relevant to the business of sports)

CP Thomas