Badminton’s 21st Century acceleration12 September, 2017
Few sports accelerated as quickly as badminton did after 2009. Financially, commercially and politically, in popularity and participation, as well as in public profile, it transformed itself in five reassuring years. It became stronger and wealthier, happier and healthier, and achieved this after a period of significant difficulties. However these were of a kind which most organisations and many people face at some – those conquerable only by setting differences aside and working together. The man leading this transformation, Kang Young-Joong, was the BWF President for two terms and a Korean businessman of vision and integrity who steered badminton back on to a path of greater harmony.
Working together is the key to a great deal in life. Badminton found a new togetherness with the calm and consensual presidency of Kang Young-Joong, which created the mood that brought a radically different BWF council, in 2009. It gained 16 new members, ended a period of political discord, and ushered in a wonderfully positive new era.
It was Dr Kang’s second council, it was called the council of unity, and its stability greatly increased the BWF’s effectiveness. It brought a removal of proxy voting, and provision of financial support for representatives of national associations to attend the members’ forum and the annual general meeting. Later came the provision of interpretation in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
This improved democratisation was accompanied by another major change in the decision-making process, the devolution of power to continental federations. This was a master-stroke because it simultaneously achieved several aims.
Firstly it reduced the chances of gridlocking disagreements which had bedevilled a centralised BWF. Secondly, it enhanced consensus by involving more viewpoints in defining the BWF’s programme. Thirdly, it made use of regional and local expertise. And fourthly, it left the BWF headquarters in Kuala Lumpur freer to see the bigger picture.
As the number of affiliated nations grew – approaching 180 in 2014 – it was harder for the BWF to know all that was happening. Continental federations could be better at analysing things which headquarters might not understand.
These relationships have enabled the Kuala Lumpur office to claim similar professional standards to those possessed by the federation’s headquarters when it moved from the United Kingdom in 2005; also that it attempts to do more, particularly with commercial programmes.
The watershed year of 2009 also brought the appointment of Thomas Lund as BWF Secretary General, who joined the incumbent Stuart Borrie, the Chief Operating Officer. Lund, a former world mixed doubles champion, had experience of badminton at the highest level and a good commercial head.
There followed a steady development of the BWF World Super Series circuit which within five years produced a healthy surplus. This was the core of the financial strength the federation now enjoys.
It was enhanced by a Super Series restructuring which added a new Premier level of five mandatory tournaments. Only the best 32 players were allowed to compete, making these tough to win and driving up standards of play.
These fast became more attractive for sponsors, especially when media rights were combined into one package. Sponsorships increased. Prize money doubled in five years.
The commercial products attached to each tournament differ from one country to another, and are not just about selling rights, but also creating awareness around a sponsor. This increases their value further.
The aim has been to create a system across different tournaments. Although Asia remained the powerhouse of badminton, with Europe somewhat behind and other continents a little further back, there has been a spread of successful countries across Asia.
Besides the traditionally strong China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Korea there have been significant results for India, Thailand, and Japan, and even Vietnam and Hong Kong. When smaller countries significantly improve it suggests that countries from other continents may do so too.
The commercial success of the Super Series created funds for developing new areas. It made more coaching courses possible, as well as project collaborations with Peace and Sport, and a schools programme, Shuttle Time, which was adopted by 70 countries. A lengthy campaign to get badminton into the 2020 Paralympic Games was successful.
Participation has flourished too. There were almost two million registered players in 2014 and an estimated overall total worldwide of 110 million.
This progress has indicated the sport’s connection with women’s emancipation. Women played a significant role from the beginning in badminton, the reasons for that being similar to those why it now is played almost equally by men and women.
Badminton is situated indoors, usually in tolerable temperatures, and in a controlled environment. Men and women can play on the same side of the court. A shuttlecock has special aesthetic attractions. And because it is not a contact sport, this too may create a broader appeal.
Evolving further however requires the BWF to be alert to society’s changes. An increasing challenge is to understand how youth culture interacts with sport, particularly where time spent with technological devices reduces the connections to sport.
With this comes increasing health problems, which the BWF seeks to create greater awareness of. In doing this it tries to work with governments as well as other federations.
The challenge is also promotional. There is a modern tendency to view sport only as a commercial commodity, which can have a narrowing effect. In some countries only a few sports get air time, which can pose a threat to many of them.
Badminton however may have a growth potential which some sports do not have. Different polls rate it between 9th and 15th in popularity, though it is capable of more than that.
The BWF’s emphasis is therefore upon creating even greater awareness of the game. Doing this requires a favourable culture to be developed around the game.
Fortunately Kang Young-Joong’s successor as BWF President, Poul-Erik Hoyer, also has exceptional qualities. He was the first European to win an Olympic gold medal and possesses a deep understanding of the qualities which make badminton special.
You can easily find it enjoyable, even if you are not good at it. You can find it intensely rewarding if you are talented. It combines simplicity and sociability, aesthetic subtlety and aerobic intensity, all included in a very high ratio of playing time to elapsed time.
These unique characteristics have been part of its centuries-long tradition; the same ones are now generating its fast-moving future.
-- By Richard Eaton