Is going the IPL way the answer to Indian badminton’s woes?

Harsheel Dani is Maharashtra’s reigning under-16 champion in singles and doubles. He won the under-16 doubles crown at the All India ranking tournament in Haridwar in February this year and is currently ranked third in U-16 singles and doubles in India.

Normally, achievements such as this would mark you out as a future talent – one that needs to be nurtured and given all the encouragement possible. But even though he is doing so well, his parents are still worried.

The winner’s purse for the state championships is under Rs 10000, while the cost of playing everyday for an average national level player is around Rs 1000. Beawiharta Beawiharta/Reuters

The boy earns a total prize money of around Rs 15000 if he wins a double crown in his age group in all the three state ranking tournaments but ends up spending more for his stay and training during that period.

The conditions at the state level are even worse with the winner’s purse for the state championships still under Rs 10000, while the cost of playing everyday for an average national level player is around Rs 1000.

So really it comes as no surprise if Dani's parents are worried. More than anything else, it makes me wonder how players are still managing to emerge from the Indian circuit.

A few months ago when I was trying to convince a child’s parents to let him continue playing badminton as the kid had the potential to excel, the only question bounced to me was – Can you guarantee that he will be able to make a living out of playing the sport?

The parent’s argument was that unlike a career based on academics where even an average student can manage to earn a regular income, only the top eight or ten shuttlers in the country get good jobs. Others struggle for survival on the domestic circuit.

But this May, Dani will earn Rs 24,000 just to participate in the Maharashtra Badminton League (MBL) – a corporate league tournament to be played over three weekends.

Seems revolutionary, but it really isn’t. The concept is a direct copy of BCCI’s Indian Premier League (IPL) in terms of the ownership pattern and the player’s auction. But that is where the similarity ends.

While the IPL attracts eyeballs, breaks viewership records – the MBL will never reach those levels. The tournament is restricted to only Maharashtra-born or domiciled players and not a single one can boast of having the ability to play the crowd-puller’s role.

Even the six brand ambassadors from the Marathi film and theatre industry are unlikely to bring crowds to the two venues where the tournament will be held. I mean, who really watches Marathi cinema these days?

Badminton court

The growth of badminton in the state and across the country has been stunted mainly due to the association’s inability to attract corporate support. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

But mind you, that was never the objective of the tournament in the first place. The seeds of the event were sown in the game of one-upmanship between the two factions of the state association and the Haveli Taluka Badminton Association cashed in on the opportunity to showcase that they were thinking out of the box to create newer opportunities for the players.

The players, on their end, shouldn’t mind at all. Something good has come out of the association politics and rather than complain, the players should rejoice. It puts more money in their pockets and well, moolah matters.

The growth of badminton in the state and for that matter across the country has been stunted mainly due to the association’s inability to attract corporate support. You have the odd Saina Nehwal who manages to still rise above it all but what about the rest?

The national badminton association is dependant only on government support, which means only the top players get opportunities to excel as they are the only ones who get the opportunity to train and play abroad.

And this is where the MBL hopes to step in and make the difference. It is still very early to know just how long the tournament will last. But one thing it will do is open avenues for corporate-player relationships that will go beyond the competition and hopefully give players the impetus to succeed.

And the process has already started. A few players are already in talks with their employers and the team sponsors for a long-term association and even a 10 per cent success rate in the first year should be considered a good beginning.

The other advantage of this initiative would be the change in approach of the players and the administrators. Both have been guilty of not being very professional when it came to contracts, keeping commercial commitments and the added interaction with the corporates should bring in a change in their attitude as well.

If the MBL can attract even a fraction of the success that the IPL has enjoyed, Indian badminton will be well served. It’s highly unlikely that it will ever happen but at least you can’t fault them for trying.