Note: This was a one-on-one interaction conducted with India’s chief national coach Pullela Gopichand in Hyderabad as part of the Premier Badminton League build-up. The article is a reproduction of what he told Scroll reporter Vinayakk Mohanarangan, lightly edited for flow.
My playing days in badminton stretch from the 90s when I started to 2001, when I won the All England — more than a decade. In the initial years we would get from the government, for international tournaments, one ticket AND one boarding lodge, and one ticket OR one boarding lodge. So, literally, we could attend either two or three tournaments abroad with that, apart from Thomas / Uber Cup or World Championships — which started around that time. In an year where there is Asian Championships or something, and you are part of every team, you would get more opportunities. So going overseas itself was a big thing.
For us, the exercise was that, we would travel first to Delhi by train, apply for visa, stay in Delhi to get the visa, and then go to that tournament. The initial years were even tougher because we didn’t have the shuttles (needed to play these tournaments); we used to play with Indian shuttles and we used to get the Yonex shuttle or whatever, only when we went abroad.
How things have changed
From that, to now, where he have 20-plus players across categories in the top 100 in the world, most playing 15-odd tournaments is a phenomenal rise in the sport. Today, you have seniors and juniors playing tournaments, on their own. That concept didn’t exist in my time. Either you had to be part of the Indian team, or you were not part of the touring squads.
To compare then and now, would be (like comparing) chalk and cheese.
In my developmental stages, 1997 to 2000, were three years when I played Bundesliga in Germany. Obviously, that helped in my career. And we look at it today, thanks to the Premier Badminton League, we have foreign players coming to play in India. I think that is a huge advantage, and a big difference from what it was. Prakash [Padukone] sir played the Danish league, I played the German league, a few others played in England — so we had people going to those countries and find a base, and get a chance to play.
Cut to today, we have a scenario where we have top players from the world coming to play what is perhaps the best league in the world, that is pretty amazing.
Prize money in PBL
I remember when the league was started, we had this big debate on why we were supporting this concept. I remember that day when I was sitting with a few BAI officials and I said we should do the league, because every kid who comes here in a bike, will have a car, and everybody who’s booking a flat would book a three-bedroom flat instead of a two-bedroom flat. That’s what the difference that PBL has brought in.
It is one thing to have international tournaments and prize money, but the very fact that this amount of money is available from one tournament, gives players that option of badminton becoming a livelihood, in terms of enhancing their own image and the sport’s. The prize money aspect has been a definite positive.
The top players are the ones who earn big money, of course. But PBL has widened the bracket, and that’s great to see.
Not just about the top players
Even a prize money of Rs 5-10 lakhs, say, for a junior player, or an upcoming player like Satwiksairaj, who made more than Rs 50 lakhs in this edition [Rs 52 lakh, bought by Ahmedabad Smash Masters] — this is big money. It would take a long while for players to earn that kind of money on the international circuit.
To put things in perspective, for example, in a domestic Indian tournament, which is played over five days and you play a lot of matches, what you earn is about Rs 40,000 - 50,000.
Also the fact, that there is constant interaction between domestic and foreign players or top Indian players is a positive from the PBL. When you see Saina, Sindhu, Srikanth to be a part of your team and then to have them as your mentors and team members is a definite gain.
And these players also get to stay in better accommodation, star hotels, playing in packed stadiums where you are the center of attraction — I think all these things help in building the confidence of a young player.
Team championships, in general, bring in a little more spirit to your game, adds a little more experience to your game. There is sharing which is important in a sport like badminton, which becomes too individualistic at times. It can be a lonely sport. The atmosphere they see in PBL — the sooner they get used to the mental aspect of it, the better it is for a player.
Coaches get a platform
From the coaches point of view, to have this interaction with foreign players, in a league where there are nine teams now with their own support staff, that has definitely been important. Each team will have two or three coaches, say, so there are 18-plus coaches in the country that are getting to be a part of set-up which has world-class players. It’s great exposure, not just from the players perspective but also from a coach’s and the support staff’s perspective.
The number of coaches available in the country, in general, is an issue that needs definite attention. We need to find ways in which the players who don’t make it to the top most level are also taken care of later on. PBL is a great platform but we need to deepen the net where people have more opportunities for livelihood from the sport.
As a sport we had been restricted to a couple of cities when it came to people being able to watch top players in action. Delhi has a Superseries, Lucknow has Syed Modi International, Hyderabad has been a hub for the sport.
But today, the league is taking the sport to an Ahmedabad, a Pune, a Guwahati where world-class athletes participate and kids can come and watch them in action. All one of them need is a little inspiration. For Sindhu to play in Chennai last year, or Saina to play in Ahmedabad — imagine the number of people who came to watch and one of the parents getting inspired, or one of the kids, to take up the sport.
The intangible effect of the league is something pretty special.