Badminton is all set to usher in the New Year with a big bang. The temperature inside the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad will soar on Sunday evening in anticipation of the marquee battle between PV Sindhu and Carolina Marin. The contest between Hyderabad Hunters and Chennai Smashers is the perfect start to season two of the Premier Badminton League.
The tournament is already the biggest in terms of prize money – $1,000,000 on the table for 60 players drawn from India, Denmark, England, Poland, Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Badminton is one of the fastest-growing sports in India and the league will certainly serve to heighten interest ahead of the Syed Modi International Badminton Championship, scheduled for the last week of January in Lucknow.
Over the past few years, badminton has seen a steep growth across urban India. While Prakash Padukone reignited the flame three decades ago, heroic efforts by players such as Syed Modi and Vimal Kumar helped to keep it burning.
But it was Pullela Gopichand who set the forest on fire – first, with his victory in the All England Championship and, later, with an academy that has become a national hub for badminton. The emergence of Saina Nehwal opened the floodgates for middle-class India to embrace the sport.
The Gopichand Academy turned into a beehive of talent and an assembly line of success, as Parupalli Kashyap, Kidambi Srikanth and Sindhu added to the momentum for badminton in India. The bronze medal in the London Olympics helped Nehwal turn into a household name and Sindhu bettered the effort by winning a silver in Rio.
The rise of badminton coincided with the emergence of franchise sport in India, riding on cricket’s T20 wave midway through the last decade. As football, hockey and kabaddi seized the initiative with leagues of their own, badminton has followed suit with the launch of the Indian Badminton League in 2013.
The competition was rechristened PBL last year. Even though the reception was lukewarm in the previous seasons, it appears that the stage is set for a successful run this January. The 11-point format and 6.30 pm start should make the event far more accessible to fans.
Badminton has a broad familial affiliation and children were an important part of its audience. The 8 pm schedule inconvenienced parents, who stayed home with their kids, unwilling to risk a midnight right back with their children. An earlier start this season should help attract better crowds in 2017.
The best-of-three 11-point format should provide for racy action and shorter matches – likely to be in the range of 30-45 minutes per match. The shorter format also levels the field, leading to a slew of upsets that are set to light up the competition.
On the flip side, the PBL remains an insignificant event. There are no real implications on the players besides the lure of a million-dollar pot of money. A six-team event over a fortnight is barely a league, so the sport will need to get its sharpest minds together to chart a course for the future.
Any solution will need to be a serious professional avenue for players spread out over a meaningful period of time. The calendar might have to be tweaked to accommodate a serious league with breadth and depth in terms of talent and geographical coverage.
India offers badminton an opportunity to benefit from the current state of inflection. The impact of Indian audiences on cricket has led to a paradigm shift in the balance of power in that game. The country’s sport-hungry masses could easily deliver something very similar for badminton too.
As it is, the player base at the top has become far more democratic over the past few years. Europe has rediscovered its flair for the sport even as India, Malaysia and Thailand have all worked their parts to breach the Chinese dominance.
The spread of the sport to a wider base could be what badminton needs. The Olympics in Rio also helped raise the profile of the game in South America. It is expected that a few programs in Brazil and Argentina could yield positive outcomes over the next decade.
A strong league and a few storied rivalries could propel badminton into a new era with a global appeal. One of those rivalries could be the contest between Sindhu and Marin. Both are young and ambitious with a few good years ahead of them, so it will be interesting to watch it take shape.
The Olympic loss has been avenged by Sindhu in a small measure by taking down the Spaniard in Dubai. Marin was also affected by an injury last season that she picked up at the Denmark Open. Fans will be eager to see if she is fully fit again for the PBL.
The presence of China Open winner Jan O Jorgensen and Dubai World Super Series champion Viktor Axelsen could provide much needed gravitas to the event. Sung Ji Hyun is ranked world No. 5, just ahead of Sindhu, and she will be another force to reckon with next fortnight.
The stage is set for some pulsating action and a few thrilling battles. Victory may belong to the team that is able to combine their resources well, but it is the sport of badminton that is set for a bright and starry selfie.