Your Obligation as a Badminton Fan

On February 24, 2010, in Instructional, by Emmet Gibney

I think it is fair to say that I am a huge badminton fan.  You would be hard pressed to find someone who loves this game more than I do (maybe Peter).  I am also certain that a great number of you visiting this website, and reading our articles are equally as crazy about this game as I am.

It can be difficult at times being a badminton fan living in North America.  Few people give our sport the respect it deserves, and that frustrates us, am I right?  But what do we do about it?  We complain to our fellow badminton fans that we never get to see badminton on television.  We complain that we don’t have as much funding as other more popular sports.  We complain that our athletes do not put up the big results.  All we do is complain.

The problem is not just in North America of course.  Internationally we suffer from the same inferiority complex.  Players complain that the prize money and sponsorship deals don’t come close to those of tennis.  What does BWF do about this?  They sign with a sports promotions agency.  They change the scoring system.  They partner with pop stars to promote the game.  They change the scoring system back.  They change the scoring system again.  They change the tour structure.  They drop their agency and sign with another. It just keeps going on and on, but there has been zero progress.  In fact adjusted for inflation, I would bet that we have gone backwards on almost every financial metric you can think of (prize money, TV ad deals, etc etc).

China’s economic growth is good for badminton, no doubt about that.  However, if China continues to be such a dominant force abroad it’s not very entertaining.  We need several countries capable of challenging China’s dominance.  I’m not talking about 4 or 5, I’m talking about 20 or so.  Denmark won the European Team Championship again this year.  Absolute domination.  Denmark is a very small country, but they have a lot of badminton players, and the systems they have in place for the sport are fantastic for developing players.  They are far from being perfect, former Danish national coach Steen Pedersen told me that Denmark will fall behind the Asians soon if they don’t start putting more into the sport.  So what is the big underlying problem?

“Badminton is the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer in terms of participation.”

I don’t know how many different people, and sources I have heard this from, but I can assure you it is false.  I have mistakenly told people this in the past as well, so don’t feel bad.  Even if it was true, if you removed China from the calculation it would certainly take us out of the running.  Badminton is not suffering from lack of popularity in China.  I’m willing to bet that Lin Dan and the rest of the Chinese national team members are doing just fine for themselves.  Do not quote that stat, it is false, it is wrong, and even if it isn’t it’s just a ridiculous thing to say.  If badminton is so popular then why is there no money in the sport?

Below I have included a little graphic to more clearly demonstrate the sport of badminton’s greatest problem:

badminton_pyramidThe original version of this graphic was actually taken from a food pyramid graphic describing how in order to have a certain number of meat eating predators, you need to have significantly more grass eating prey, and then to support the grass eating prey you need to have A LOT OF GRASS.  Are you seeing where this is headed yet?

Looking at the top of the pyramid you will see Lin Dan.  He is the greatest player in the world today, and of all time.  In order to produce one Lin Dan you need the support of a couple dozen national team players.  These are players who in their own right could be world champions were it not for Lin Dan (ie Chen Jin lost in the final of the 2009 Worlds to Lin Dan, as did Bao Chunlai in 2006).  Then in order to support the top national team there are many many more players who would easily be top 20 players if the rest of the Chinese team wasn’t in their way.  Then if we skip all the way to the bottom, you see a whopping 50,000 provincial level players.  These are people who might even be top 20 players in a country like Canada or the USA, but in China they are nothing special.

Most of the badminton organizations that I am aware of spend the majority of their time and money focusing on that top part of the pyramid.  The same applies to both BWF and the national associations like Badminton Canada.  They spend their time focuses on what they can do at the top level to improve the game, and they wonder why they can’t get any traction, why things never get any better.  It’s like trying to design a better water hose to clean your car with, but you neglect to turn up the water pressure at the tap.

Dear Badminton Canada, stop spending all of your time and energy focusing exclusively on how to qualify athletes for the Olympics.  Stop spending all your energy debating on whether team selection criteria should be more internationally or domestically focused.  These are important things to spend SOME of your energy on.  You should instead spend MOST of your energy on promoting the game at the grassroots level.  This does not mean spend more energy on juniors that are going to World Championships, this does not mean creating a better junior circuit.  Again these are important, but they are not the most important thing to be doing right now.  The number one thing we should be spending our energy on is promoting the sport of badminton to people who do not yet realize how great it is.

I have been a part of countless badminton exhibitions over the years, as a player, and as a videographer recording them.  In every single exhibition I have been involved with people have been amazed at how great our sport is.  The ooohs and aaaahs were limitless, and these kids were ripe for the picking.  They were young and impressionable, and could easily have been converts.  Given a choice between hockey and badminton, some of these kids would have chosen badminton, I guarantee it.  I know kids who made that choice.  Martin Giuffre, the Canadian National Runner Up this year made that choice.  The problem there was nothing in place to try and convert these kids.  Take a look at this promo video from one exhibition tour I was a part of in North Carolina four years ago:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6dUL8SBIWo[/youtube]

As you can see, a lot of these kids were really excited about watching badminton.  No, they didn’t know who the players were.  They may have heard that Tony Gunawan and Howie Bach were World Champions, but I honestly don’t think that mattered much.  What mattered was the game was exciting to watch.  You don’t need world class players to promote the sport.  Even national or provincial level players will impress people who don’t know our sport well.

So why wasn’t this exhibition a huge success?  Why aren’t there more people playing badminton in the USA, or more specifically North Carolina?  A couple reasons:

  1. No follow up
  2. Nowhere to play

Number 2 isn’t really an issue as there is a decent number of people playing at different schools in the Raleigh area.  The real issue is that there was no follow up.  Nobody was identifying who the real keen kids were, and nobody was following up to try and convert them.  This is something that the sport of badminton as a whole has failed to do very well thus far.  The national and regional associations are not doing enough to build databases of badminton fanatics, and the corporations are not doing their part to foster the growth of the sport either.  Companies like Yonex seem more interested in maintaining market share than in growing the market as a whole.

As fans of this sport it is our obligation to promote the sport in whatever way we can.  It is our obligation to organize exhibitions, to be involved, to help introduce our sport to as many people as we can.  If we are not doing our part, we do not deserve to complain anymore.

I want badminton to be more popular than tennis.  Forget that, I want badminton to be more popular than soccer.  I’m doing what I can by starting this project with Peter.  We want to promote this sport the best we can.  I want to offer whatever help I can to bring this game to the level it needs to be at.  If you want to help too, tell your national or regional organization to read this article, and then they can email me at [email protected] and I will do whatever I can to help bring badminton to the next level in your area.

Badminton can be so much bigger than it currently is, we just need to believe it can be done.

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