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Our Obligation as a Badminton Fan

I think it is fair to say that I am a huge badminton fan. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who loves this game more than I do (maybe Peter). I am also certain that a great number of you visiting this website, and reading our articles are equally as crazy about this game as I am.

It can be difficult at times being a badminton fan living in North America. Few people give our sport the respect it deserves, and that frustrates us, am I right? But what do we do about it?

badminton fans

We complain to our fellow badminton fans that we never get to see badminton on television. We complain that we don’t have as much funding as other more popular sports. We complain that our athletes do not put up the big results. All we do is complain.

It Happens Internationally

The problem is not just in North America of course. Internationally we suffer from the same inferiority complex. Players complain that the prize money and sponsorship deals don’t come close to those of tennis.

What does BWF do about this? They sign with a sports promotions agency. They change the scoring system. They partner with pop stars to promote the game. They change the scoring system back. They change the scoring system again. They change the tour structure. They drop their agency and sign with another. It just keeps going on and on, but there has been zero progress.

In fact, adjusted for inflation, I would bet that we have gone backward on almost every financial metric you can think of (prize money, TV ad deals, etc, etc).

China’s economic growth is good for badminton, no doubt about that. However, if China continues to be such a dominant force abroad it’s not very entertaining. We need several countries capable of challenging China’s dominance.

I’m not talking about 4 or 5, I’m talking about 20 or so. Denmark did have some great players who can compete with China. Denmark is a very small country, but they have a lot of badminton players, and the systems they have in place for the sport are fantastic for developing players.

They are far from being perfect, former Danish national coach Steen Pedersen told me that Denmark will fall behind the Asians soon if they don’t start putting more into the sport. So what is the big underlying problem?

“Badminton is the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer in terms of participation.”

I don’t know how many different people, and sources I have heard this from, but I can assure you it is false. I have mistakenly told people this in the past as well, so don’t feel bad.

Even if it was true, if you removed China from the calculation it would certainly take us out of the running. Badminton is not suffering from a lack of popularity in China.

I’m willing to bet that the rest of the Chinese national team members are doing just fine for themselves. Do not quote that stat, it is false, it is wrong, and even if it isn’t it’s just a ridiculous thing to say. If badminton is so popular then why is there no money in the sport?

Below I have included a little explanation to more clearly demonstrate the sport of badminton’s greatest problem:

The original version of this graphic was actually taken from a food pyramid graphic describing how in order to have a certain number of meat-eating predators, you need to have significantly more grass-eating prey, and then to support the grass-eating prey you need to have A LOT OF GRASS. Are you seeing where this is headed yet?

Looking at the top of the pyramid you will see Lin Dan. He is the greatest player in the world today, and of all time. In order to produce one Lin Dan you need the support of a couple of dozen national team players. These are players who in their own right could be world champions were it not for Lin Dan (ie Chen Jin lost in the final of the 2009 Worlds to Lin Dan, as did Bao Chunlai in 2006).

Then in order to support the top national team, there are many many more players who would easily be top 20 players if the rest of the Chinese team wasn’t in their way. Then if we skip all the way to the bottom, you see a whopping 50,000 provincial-level players. These are people who might even be the top 20 players in a country like Canada or the USA, but in China, they are nothing special.

Most of the badminton organizations that I am aware of spending the majority of their time and money focusing on that top part of the pyramid. The same applies to both BWF and the national associations like Badminton Canada.

They spend their time focuses on what they can do at the top level to improve the game, and they wonder why they can’t get any traction, why things never get any better. It’s like trying to design a better water hose to clean your car with, but you neglect to turn up the water pressure at the tap.

Dear Badminton Canada, stop spending all of your time and energy focusing exclusively on how to qualify athletes for the Olympics. Stop spending all your energy debating on whether team selection criteria should be more internationally or domestically focused. These are important things to spend SOME of your energy on.

You should instead spend MOST of your energy on promoting the game at the grassroots level. This does not mean spending more energy on juniors that are going to World Championships, this does not mean creating a better junior circuit.

Again these are important, but they are not the most important thing to be doing right now. The number one thing we should be spending our energy on is promoting the sport of badminton to people who do not yet realize how great it is.

I have been a part of countless badminton exhibitions over the years, as a player, and as a videographer recording them. In every single exhibition, I have been involved with people have been amazed at how great our sport is. The ooohs and aaaahs were limitless, and these kids were ripe for the picking.

They were young and impressionable, and could easily have been converted. Given a choice between hockey and badminton, some of these kids would have chosen badminton, I guarantee it. I know kids who made that choice.

Martin Giuffre, the Canadian National Runner Up this year made that choice. The problem there was nothing in place to try and convert these kids. Take a look at this promo video from one exhibition tour I was a part of in North Carolina four years ago:

As you can see, a lot of these kids were really excited about watching badminton. No, they didn’t know who the players were. They may have heard that Tony Gunawan and Howie Bach were World Champions, but I honestly don’t think that mattered much.

What mattered was the game was exciting to watch. You don’t need world-class players to promote the sport. Even national or provincial level players will impress people who don’t know our sport well.

So why wasn’t this exhibition a huge success? Why aren’t there more people playing badminton in the USA, or more specifically North Carolina? A couple of reasons:

  • No follow up
  • Nowhere to play

Number 2 isn’t really an issue as there is a decent number of people playing at different schools in the Raleigh area. The real issue is that there was no follow up. Nobody was identifying who the real keen kids were, and nobody was following up to try and convert them.

This is something that the sport of badminton as a whole has failed to do very well thus far. The national and regional associations are not doing enough to build databases of badminton fanatics, and the corporations are not doing their part to foster the growth of the sport either. Companies like Yonex seem more interested in maintaining market share than in growing the market as a whole.

As fans of this sport, it is our obligation to promote the sport in whatever way we can. It is our obligation to organize exhibitions, to be involved, to help introduce our sport to as many people as we can. If we are not doing our part, we do not deserve to complain anymore.

I want badminton to be more popular than tennis. Forget that, I want badminton to be more popular than soccer. Badminton can be so much bigger than it currently is, we just need to believe it can be done.

Each Country Is Having Different Budget

I think it’s fair to say that each countries badminton associations have to struggle with limited budgets. Significant funding often comes from government grants which are often performance-based – if you don’t have X players within the top 100 in the world or don’t deliver Y medals the grant gets cut by Z amount.

It’s a crazy system, but it means that efforts have to be focused on achieving results NOW and not tomorrow. But as badminton fans, we know this could be catastrophic for the sport. If there isn’t a large, healthy and competitive pool of up and coming players, then THERE WILL BE NO MEDALS in years to come.

If badminton was a business, we would be sacking our federations for not planning for the long term. But I think here is part of the problem: our federations are manned by enthusiasts and ex-players. If we are really serious about taking badminton forward, we need to get the balance right in the badminton ‘Board Room’.

Yes, we need enthusiasts, coaches and ex-players involved, but we also need well-connected business people to help drive the sport forward and sell it to the media. Without media attention, prize money will never equal that of tennis.
Exhibitions are great for raising awareness and enthusiasm, but without the follow up all the good work dies.

If badminton is going to become a real force in the 21st century, we are going to have to come to terms with it being a business venture and treat it that way. Look at the hype surrounding the Superbowl – if we hired professionals to promote badminton in this way, the money would come.

As for the grassroots level, I think it will be down to the badminton fans and volunteers to put the work behind the scenes. The organizations simply don’t have enough money coming in to divert funds from medal hopefuls to building for the future, because they know they will have their funds cut further if they don’t provide ‘instant’ results.

On the subject of volunteers, I think we need to be careful to attract the right people: those who can really make an impact, rather than those who volunteer because they like the kudos!

Human Nature

I know it is human nature to go after the quick fix of money for results. But this doesn’t really generate lasting growth in badminton.

We all know that comes from building a sound and sustainable base. But the skeptic in me says this will not come from organizations in which politics is more important than badminton: your post was titled ‘Your obligation as a badminton fan’- I think true progress will come from mobilizing the fans to say we have had enough.

This is our sport: it belongs to us, not any ‘organization’. The true fans have a burning desire to tell the world what great game badminton is. But until we take back responsibility for the game, our sport’s fate will lie with political animals.

Who Mobilizes The Fans?

The challenge that badminton has is that we are not very organized. Our organizations are weak, and we need to demand better. Everyone is great at coming up with excuses for why this can’t be done, as opposed to opening up their minds to the possibility that our sport can be something so much greater.

Success honestly is a science. Focus on the bottom of that pyramid and results WILL improve at the top. This is universal across the board with very few exceptions. Those exceptions being the few countries where badminton is already huge.

In fact, the greatest barrier to success for our sport is politic. Once people stop playing politics and start focusing on taking action, things will improve. Until then, we’re doing what we can on our own.

Badminton is Not Very Popular in North America

A lot of people play it at a very recreational level surprisingly enough, but it’s not very visible. Most of the people who play are completely unaware of the competitive level players, even locally.

I doubt very many people are playing in North Carolina. They have a good little community of badminton fanatics, but it’s far from big.

As for the number of badminton courts, that’s a difficult one to answer. Dedicated courts vs multi-purpose make a big difference in the measurement. Dedicated there are 13 in 3 different facilities (in my city), but in Vancouver, there are probably 7 or so facilities with 50 or so courts.

However, if you include multi-purpose gyms, then there are hundreds of potential schools and other facilities that could house badminton programs if you can get people interested. This is universal across North America.

Proper System Implementation of Organization

Organizations tend to be staffed by people who want to help out, but don’t necessarily have the skills or the drive to make things happen. That is why they are weak.

Unfortunately, they also try to control – they don’t like outsiders shaking things up. Mobilizing the fan base is the hardest thing in the world to do, but the results can be phenomenal.

The organizations are supposed to mobilize the fans, but they never seem to be very good at it. So maybe it is down to the fans to start mobilizing other fans.

Success is a science. Success can come by accident, but it is a slim chance. But by planning and getting the right people involved early on, your chances of success improve dramatically. And by strengthening the grassroots, the success is sustainable – look at Denmark for proof of that!

Therefore, we need to do things scientifically by review what has been tried in the past, examine how effective it was, plan our new strategy, involve the right people to carry it out, review the results and feed that back into the plan.

It’s what good businesses have been doing for years, but then we are back to what we said about our organizations not necessarily being good businesses!

You have learned from the previous exhibition series you put on – the next series I KNOW will have much more effect on the grassroots. But I think we need to make things happen globally. SOMEHOW we have got to get good people galvanized and trying to make a difference.

Problem Between High Performance and Grassroots

Sure, it always becomes a problem between high performance and grassroots. They are at each end of the model and if usually depends if you go top-down, or bottom-up. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty bad situation when people don’t agree which model is best for the given situation.

Either way should work; they’re essentially the same model but you would need total unison and commitment from everyone. I’m sure this happens in many sports in many countries.

Let’s take a look at Badminton BC. They tried to do a major change to their high-performance program in order to improve the quality of badminton players coming from the province. They had ideas and brain-stormed on new ways to follow them.

It basically came down to following Canada’s LTAD (Long-Term Athlete Development). After long arguments of the infamous high-performance vs. grassroots debate, they realized they were indeed making a HIGH-PERFORMANCE plan and followed through.

In the end, they ended up discriminating against the current top players in the province and their whole tournament system fell apart because of their new changes, and even led to the cancellation of a couple of regular tournaments. Now they’re just struggling to recover for the year. True story.

It seems difficult for Canada to be at a high-performance level that is competitive with the rest of the world. However, if we should just give up and focus on the grassroots, Sport Canada will immediately yank all funding to the sport.

How will we get funding again if we have no high-performance program? Do you think a player will magically come from the grassroots and accidentally win a Super Series? With no high-performance plan in place, there will be no funding for potential athletes. We have already lost 50% of our funding from Sport Canada since last year.

Badminton in North America is totally different. The prize money earned by people in different countries will also be totally different. The same amount of prize money will be worth more for someone in, let’s say Indonesia vs. someone in the United States.

Looking at the average wages of people around the world, the prize money may look pretty low for some countries, but for others, it may seem significantly higher. Some countries have associations that get a cut of that prize money as well, but it is because they fund their athletes to get there (i.e. Korea Badminton Association).

For the association to receive a cut is normal and expected. For let’s say, Badminton Canada to demand a cut of prize money should a Canadian athlete make enough money, then the athlete may ask what the prize money reduction is for since there was no money given by the National Association in the first place. Then we get a law-suit and ruin everything for everyone.

In every system, there seems to be a lot of internal conflicts. Perhaps it is best to unite the goals of each little individual part, before trying to jump to the unity of all International badminton.

There are lots of ideas out there, but perhaps the obligation as a badminton fan is to take action in their immediate area and level of play.

So whether your obligation is to continue playing badminton, playing your local tournaments, putting your kids into the sport, attending your sport organizations AGM, training and competing nationally or internationally, coaching, umpiring, or whatnot, I think the badminton fan should just do what they can in what they do best to help the sport grow… slowly, but surely.

No Need to Flounder Our Top Players

I do not think that we need to let our current top players flounder. I’ll use a business analogy to explain my perspective because I am looking at it from a business person’s perspective frankly.

Using the same model as I mentioned earlier, let’s substitute the lowest level players for prospects (prospective customers). The next level up is people who buy small-ticket items from you. In any business, you should be spending at least 30% of your time, energy, and money on recruiting new prospects and customers.

As we move up the pyramid the customer is more and more loyal and spends more and more money on your business every year. This model is very apparent in the music business. Someone pays a few bucks for a CD or downloads some music online.

Another person, who’s a much bigger fan not only buys the CD, but also gets a poster, a T-shirt, and a concert video. Another person, who’s a bigger fan still, not only buys all of the above but also travels to Coachella to see them in concert.

I’m not saying let’s focus on grassroots development from an athlete development perspective (although that should be taken into account), I’m saying focus on grassroots development from a customer prospecting perspective.

The more little kids who know who our top players are, and the more weekend warriors we have who love badminton, the more money the sport has to funnel to the top players. Sure we want our grassroots to have good quality instruction, athlete development, etc, but in the beginning, they should be viewed as customers.

Another concept we need to understand is the lifetime value of each of these prospective customers/players. Over the course of my lifetime, the amount of money I have spent on rackets, clothes, shoes, shuttle, travel, etc is sickening.

Surely I have spent over $100,000 on badminton in my lifetime. Badminton is a mini-economy, and if we start looking at it this way, we will start to see the sport grow. But if we continue to have this charity/handout mentality where we are dependent on government funding every year, we are going to be stuck forever.

Badminton Exhibitions

As for identifying people at these exhibitions, that’s actually not the challenging part. Most of you see that most of the badminton popular websites have a newsletter.

People sign up because they want to get some free badminton tips and I know that on average a certain number of these people will end up buying some instructional video. If they just want the free tips that is also totally fine.

Now, how does this apply to an offline exhibition? You need to follow up with the people who are interested, so you need to collect their contact information, and ideally email addresses.

You run contests giving away prizes provided by sponsors (ie Yonex, Li-Ning, Black Knight, Carlton, etc) in return for people to give you their information.

The people who are really keen, are the ones who will sign up. Then you follow up with them. Send them information about how to get involved in badminton in their area. Tell them about great results from players in their area, and educate them about how great our sport is.

If you run this kind of model all over North America, the world, building a database of all the raging badminton fans you come in contact with, each one of those names, those email addresses are worth something because those people will end up buying something from you.

If it’s Badminton Canada, they’ll end up buying “official team Canada merchandise” or entering tournaments, or buying a membership, or videos from the national championships, or whatever.

Yes, some of these people, some of these kids will end up playing, and some of them will end up being good players, BUT the MOST important thing is that they are customers of the sport that will end up supporting the organizations as a whole.

As I know that is also a similar LTAD scheme in England, and it’s great to see that they actually have a plan now!
But because the sport doesn’t have a high profile, the juniors that get on these schemes are the children of badminton players. Allowing for natural wastage, unless everyone playing badminton has 4 kids that they introduce to badminton, the gene pool will be diminishing!

Of course, no one is saying that we should remove funding to send the elite players to tournaments and fund their training, but we HAVE to get more people playing the game. And those who play recreationally are just as important to the sustainability of this sport as the elite players.

Without them booking courts to play, we will lose the facilities. One of the clubs I play at is just about to lose half an hour of playing time because the center can make more money from running circuit training than badminton.

To get more money for elite players, we need to raise the profile of the sport; to raise the profile of the sport, we need to get more people watching and playing (and spending money!) so that we get more media coverage and it is more lucrative for the sponsors. It is a chicken and egg situation.

I don’t think real progress will be made by focusing on either the top end of the pyramid or the bottom. We have to have a concerted effort to do what the hell we can to promote the game at every level. Apart from the big badminton nations, there will never be enough money available to national organizations to reach everyone.

Whilst we can only do what we can in our own area of influence, we must accept that raising awareness in Badminton BC is not necessarily going to generate more prize money and media coverage in say, Switzerland. But if awareness of badminton is raised around the world.

The Internet gives badminton fans a chance to talk and share experiences globally. It makes resources available to people in countries where there is very little information available.

I think there IS a place for dreamers; for the people who believe they can make a difference. If each of us can persuade a few people to take up the game, the game will grow from the grassroots level, and then there will be more money available for the elite players through increased media coverage/sponsorship/funding.

Badminton System Implementation in Countries Where The Sport is Popular

For countries that are popular with badminton sport like Malaysia, the government and private organizations have actually invested a lot of money every year to develop more world-class players.

Note that more of this money is actually only invested in players 18 and above who represent the country to play internationally and backup players as well.

So how about the kids or any of the people who want proper training? Basically there are 2 ways, either they get training from their primary or secondary schools who hire coaches to train in the bulk of students who are found potentially good at playing badminton or their parents who like to play badminton hire private coaches for them. (Experienced coaches are easily found in Malaysia)

Obviously, if you can get private coaches especially ex-national players or even the backup players to train you one to one, your standard can improve much faster.

I have seen with my own eyes a few kids in Malaysia at age around 7 able to play very good backhand return to the back of the court and show very steady performance with proper training. Hence, to become a world-class player, this kind of training should start very early in age.

The competition among the quality players is extremely high in this country. This can be good to improve the quality overall but it can be bad as well. I’ve seen many good players gave up playing badminton for the country to pursue their studies.

One of the important reasons is because you wouldn’t earn well as a badminton player UNLESS you can make it to the world top 10 or 20. The waging system if I am not wrong differs quite a lot between seeded players and unseeded players in Malaysia (Lee Chong Wei might get paid RM20,000-40,000/week as long as he can maintain World number 1 but the backup players might be paid around RM2,000-3,000/month which is still ok to survive in this country.

However, I seriously doubt they get paid a lot lower than what I’ve stated. Please correct me if any of the Malaysian badminton fans know the real waging system if I were wrong). Hence, many backup players choose not to spend their time on a future that has high uncertainty. I believe this is also one of the major problems in any other sports in all countries around the world.

I think it is definitely for the countries to have good coaches in the under 12, 18, and 21 in the country. I understand that this might not be something you can do because a job like this should be done by the government.

But my point is that you can actually easily get good coaches from countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. If the government and organization do not fund much on badminton sports, getting coaches from these countries can actually reduce the financial burden because their pay is usually not high.

If you can find good local coaches in US/Canada who’re willing to receive the same wage, that’s the best then.

In Comparison With Soccer

As mentioned before, the grassroots base of badminton players is not large enough in North America. It is hard to attract young converts to badminton in a culture that already has dominant sports.

Yet soccer has somehow built-up grassroots in North America. It hasn’t gotten it’s due in the media, nor paid off in the international arena … yet. But you sense that it will in time.

What is soccer’s secret?

  1. There are many people transplanted from soccer-loving countries who are willing to volunteer their time with the kids; to organize associations and training as they learned to in their own countries.
  2. There are identifiable, attractive international stars to admire and emulate.

Badminton in Canada does not yet have a critical mass of adults who know how to organize locally for training and growth. Each jurisdiction needs a couple of people like this AND a group of willing volunteers to carry out the plans.

And on the high end of Emmet’s pyramid, it wouldn’t hurt to have a couple of charismatic players who would be eye-candy to attract the media and become poster pin-ups for the young and impressionable (a David Beckham and an Anna Kournikova would do nicely).

LTAD in England

England now has an LTAD scheme which means funding is available to discover and coach good young players, but this is a reasonably recent innovation in England.

The country now has an initiative called BISI (Badminton In Schools Initiative) to try and promote the sport amongst young players who may never have considered badminton before.

But due to funding, it is only the best that move on into the regional/national system and attract the best coaches. Often at this age, it is not necessarily the ones that bloom first who go on to become the best players as they mature.

Again, because badminton is not high profile, not all youngsters get noticed and picked up by the clubs that provide coaching for youngsters.

Since badminton is not a high profile in England, and they have limited funds to promote it; it is often left to enthusiasts to promote badminton amongst their friends.

To catch media interest and thus the potential players, it is really important to have ‘Interesting’ icons in the sport. Either the Beckham’s or the Kournikova’s, or even the ‘Bad-Boys’ like McEnroe in tennis: they all make the sport more attractive to the media and sponsors.

In the absence of a Canadian/North American hero, it is just as valid to have a Lin Dan or Lee Chong Wei! The trick is how you manipulate the media and get them interested in covering the sport.

There isn’t the funding for much more than this unless it becomes a national sport like in Malaysia. I think that it is important that those appointed to organize in each jurisdiction should be chosen for their ability to perform the job they are entrusted with doing.

It sounds obvious, but what often happens is that those who ‘seek’ the job most are the ones who get it, rather than those who can do the best job, but might take a bit longer to identify.

The best people are already successful in what they are doing, so don’t necessarily seek other employment. That doesn’t mean that if they are an enthusiast they might not be persuaded/interested in working in a sport they love, just that they need to be courted and rewarded adequately for their involvement.

Badminton in India

How many know that badminton had its first beginnings in India? I am sorry to say that today there are lesser courts in all of India than in the Bay Area of California. The game has declined in popularity as cricket gets all the attention and all the money.

You won’t believe this? You might ask where do the Saina Nehwal come from. Well, that’s because of a few dedicated persons like Gopichand in Hyderabad and Prakash in Bangalore who are fully dedicated.

Sadly their efforts haven’t spread the game enough and the pyramid remains small and that’s because their efforts continue to be isolated with little support. When Saina hit her ranking of No. 5 it did not even make ticker news on TV in India but a local cricket match grabs all the headlines.

Grass root development will come when those who lead it get backing and support all around when you have baddy courts in schools, and there is leagues and championships school upwards, and parents want their kids to play the game, and there are national icons encouraging the kids to do that. Then will come all the trappings associated with basketball in the US, soccer in Europe, or cricket in India.

Badminton in Philippines

True enough that badminton sport is indeed underrated in many countries. Politics and media are culprits for the lack of others to try this sport.

In the Philippines, media coverage does always give attention to the most popular and core sports which are basketball and boxing.

In fact, only a few people knew the Asuncion twins (the Philippines badminton national players) and Pocal Alcala in the badminton arena.

Well, what can we expect, media promotion will only take charge if there’s a profit out of huge advertisements and sponsorships.

On the other hand, the corrupt politicians will only mind sports in bringing to public awareness if and only if this will bring more people (of course out of popularity) thus certainly promote his name to many.

Badminton is a very good sport and I think we should unite to do something to promote this sport internationally. By the way, I just like to bring this up also that one of the main problems, why do grassroots level tend not to play this sport, is because of the expensive equipment like rackets and shuttlecocks aside from the unavailability of courts within their area.

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