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Badminton steps outside with new format

BWF secretary general Thomas Lund takes a smash at Air Badminton at the launch of the sport in China. Image Credit: BWF

  • The Badminton World Federation has launched a format variation called Air Badminton
  • Aims to move the sport outdoors, creating the opportunity for bigger arenas
  • Scheme also aligns with Chinese government’s new “Healthy China” initiative

Badminton has joined the ever-growing list of sports with a format variation aimed at capturing new players and viewers. The twist for badminton, which at the competitive level is always played indoors, is an outdoor game. The Badminton World Federation calls it Air Badminton and it has been powered by the development of the AirShuttle, a shuttlecock capable of outdoor play.

BWF secretary general Thomas Lund tells SportBusiness the format is aimed at “allowing badminton to get into new markets, while giving countries that don’t usually have a chance to win at the traditional variant to have new opportunities.”

The BWF, which has been tinkering with Air Badminton for over five years, understands it faces a tough task carving out a slice of attention from today’s consumers. But it believes an outdoor game taps into some fundamental needs. Lund says: “There’s no doubt the world is changing, and ultimately sport has to compete with other human priorities for time and attention. Today, what’s trending is esports and digital devices, but ultimately these don’t replace the need to go out and be active, for physical and mental health reasons.”

Previously confined to specialised courts, badminton can now be played on different surfaces like hard courts, grass, and even sandy beaches. The BWF hopes the move outdoors will generate exciting games and potentially larger crowds at events. Most indoor stadiums can seat 3,000 to 5,000 – moving the sport outdoors means potential for larger arenas.

The AirShuttle

The AirShuttle has been crucial in moving Air Badminton from concept to reality. The key feature is that it is much more resistant to wind than a standard shuttlecock. The BWF worked with the Institute for Sport Research at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore to develop it.

Lund says: “The biggest challenge in playing badminton outdoors has always been airflow. Ball sports like football or basketball are less affected by wind conditions, but badminton is particularly susceptible to it. While we can’t take away wind as an element, we can certainly mitigate it.”

The AirShuttle is designed to mimic the trajectory, acoustics and feel of the traditional indoor shuttle. It is minimally affected by side and axial wind, and by humidity variations. Over 30 prototypes were developed before a final design was tested in independent studies by the University of Alicante and the University of Malaya. The design allows the shuttlecock to be played with in winds of up to 12km/h.

Mass production of the AirShuttle will begin at the end of 2019, and it will be available to the public in the first quarter of 2020.

Starting in China

Lund said plans are in the works for a full launch of Air Badminton at the upcoming BWF World Tour Finals in Guangzhou, China, from December 11 to 15. While most of the attention at the event will be on the players competing for their share of the biggest badminton prize pool ever, $1.5m (€1.35m), the BWF also plans to announce the Guangzhou Air Badminton Legacy project. This will see the official opening of Air Badminton courts at the host Tianhe Sports Complex. There will be outdoor courts with different surfaces for fans to try playing the game.

HSBC, the BWF’s Global Development Partner, is supporting the launch and the bank has secured naming rights to the Guangzhou Legacy project.

Air Badminton looks to align nicely with the Chinese government’s new “Healthy China” initiative. Launched in July this year, the plan aims to improve Chinese citizens’ levels of health, fitness and sports participation. The BWF will work with the China Badminton Association to explore Air Badminton’s potential to help fulfil the Healthy China goals, Lund says: “There are certainly logistical challenges in city environments, but we will work with national and city authorities to help improve public health with Air Badminton.

“It’s easy to set up and you don’t need a bespoke area for it, unlike football and basketball. All you need is to demarcate the playing area on any surface. We are also working with manufacturers on creating large, inter-locking playing surfaces for a mobile setup of the game.”

Olympic aspirations

The BWF believes Air Badminton can enhance the sport’s popularity in developing markets where indoor facilities are less accessible. Lund says: “There’s loads of countries in Southeast Asia where the game is perfect, especially in areas where they have no indoor facilities. Already, plenty of badminton fans simply play in fields or in the street. We’ve seen this with BWF school programmes where our federations engage grassroots educational institutions to teach their children the game.

“Badminton is popular in Africa, South America, and even islands in Oceania, and those areas have great potential to take to the outdoor variant due to a lack of indoor facilities too.”

Lund hopes Air Badminton will open the door to a new sponsor base, with new opportunities appearing via the kit worn by players and other aspects: “Naturally, when the environment is different, the attire will change – at the very least we may start getting sunscreen advertisers!”

Ultimately, the BWF would like to see the format gaining Olympic status, as other sports have with their own variations, such as basketball’s 3×3 format. But Lund recognises there is some progress to be made first in terms of take-up: “As we grow Air Badminton, the pyramid of players, sponsors and competitions will surely grow, and this will create transfer effects with the indoor game, and vice-versa, which we’ve all seen happen with 3-on-3 basketball, street football, and beach volleyball…

“For now, we operate Air Badminton a little bit like a startup – we put this to our key partners, the national federations, to look at how they can implement it in their own local context. They’ll be able to tweak and adjust the game and how it’s implemented in their own way.

“Let’s see where that goes, and perhaps when competition systems reach regional level, we can dream of it being an Olympic discipline one day as well.”

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