Striking a Balance

Apart from a handful of Danish stars, virtually every leading badminton player hails from Asia. Dominic Bliss asks Badminton World Federation (BWF) president Poul-Erik Hoyer what he’s doing to correct the global imbalance.

When Poul-Erik Hoyer talks about badminton, you feel compelled to listen.

He’s not just some faceless administrator behind a desk. The 48-year-old Dane, who was elected BWF president in May 2013, has a competitive record that would make the bosses of most global sports federations green with envy. Back in the 1990s, when he was competing professionally, he won a singles gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, and secured six singles medals at the European Championships.

But the task he faces as president of the BWF is different, and in many ways, far more challenging. There is a serious imbalance in global badminton, and it’s not too alarmist to suggest that, in the future, badminton might become an irrelevance outside of the Far East. And if that happens, the sport risks being dropped from the Olympic programme altogether.

As with all sports, much hinges on international TV coverage. Right now, plenty of badminton is broadcast across Asia, but in most of the world’s other countries, you’d be lucky ever to see a shuttlecock struck live on a mainstream TV station.

“We want to strive to be worldwide,” Hoyer, who is the first non-Asian BWF president for 20 years, told SportBusiness International. “We know it’s not an easy task. It will require time and money. It’s not something that’s done overnight.”

What may help the federation boost its international TV presence is a four-year deal with IMG Media that kicked in this year. Under the deal, IMG is distributing the broadcast rights for the BWF World Championships, the international team championships (Thomas, Uber and Sudirman Cups), the 12-stop BWF World Superseries tour and the Grand Prix Gold tour.

But don’t expect wall-to-wall badminton on primetime across the world – right now, in many territories outside Asia, the best medium on which to view badminton is the BWF’s online channel, BadmintonWorld.tv. And with only 173,000 subscribers worldwide at present, according to Hoyer, viewership is still very small.

The recent explosion of badminton interest in Thailand, thanks to the televised triumph of local girl Ratchanok Inthanon in the singles at the 2013 BWF World Championships, shows the power of TV coverage, says Hoyer. He also points to the large Asian communities in the United States who, given the chance, would follow top players along their own ethnic lines. Indeed, there are plenty of Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans who would relish the prospect of watching top players from their ancestral lands such as Chen Long, Du Pengyu and Ko Sung Hyun in the men’s game and Li Xuerui, Wang Shixian and Sung Ji Hyun in the women’s.

Yet much more important than TV coverage is getting American kids of all ethnicities actually playing the sport, says Hoyer: “We just don’t attract players in the US. Badminton is understood as a beach sport there. People don’t yet regard it as a highly competitive sport.”

The BWF’s schools coaching programme, Shuttle Time, is now being used in close to 60 countries around the world, and Hoyer says he has employed eight new staff members at the BWF headquarters in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in “communications, events, marketing and also the development of young players”.

Staging more major tournaments outside of the Orient might also help bring badminton to new audiences. Hoyer points out how his own national capital, Copenhagen, will be hosting the 2014 BWF World Championships, and that a “European country” is bidding for the 2017 Sudirman Cup.

“It is not only about money and the best place. It also has to do with geography, the environment, the future of the sport,” he adds. “Our council members consider a lot of things before they make their votes.”

There was a sponsorship coup for the BWF last year when insurance giant MetLife signed a four-year deal as naming sponsor for the BWF World Superseries. Other current sponsors include Chinese car manufacturer Chery, energy drinks company Red Bull China and Chinese sports apparel manufacturer Li-Ning. No prizes for guessing which country they are primarily selling to – but Hoyer knows he needs bigger and more global sponsors if he’s ever to offer his players the kind of prize money they might expect in major sports such as football, golf or tennis.

“If I could just click my fingers and make it happen, I would have multinational companies of the magnitude of, say, Coca-Cola sponsoring badminton and showing the world that our sport is a priority,” he adds. “We have MetLife now and that is the first step in that direction. The situation we have now is that only a small number of players are paid enough to be fully professional without help from their governments.”

Hoyer and his team are also investigating ways of spicing up match formats. The instant review system used to adjudicate close line calls has been very popular with both spectators and players during testing, and will now become a permanent fixture in World Superseries events.

“[The instant review system] really engages spectators and that’s crucial for me,” Hoyer says, adding that the scoring system might get a makeover, too. “My idea is to have more peaks during a match. It takes a long time to reach the closing stage of each set. I feel sometimes the excitement is there and gone in an instant, and then you start the next set.”

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