The sports scene in India is in the midst of a storm, fueled by a whirlwind of leagues. Cricket, football, hockey, kabaddi and wrestling have a league of their own, spinning a web of attraction to lure a hungry generation of fans seeking instant thrills.
On Sunday, Delhi Aces trumped Mumbai Rockets in an exciting finale, but the event clearly struggled for gravitas and Delhi’s victory lacked the sheen normally associated with a premier event. The Premier Badminton League is badminton’s effort to battle for its own space in a realty that is getting increasingly crowded.
The formula has been simple – find space on the calendar, lure a few quality players with lucrative financial offers, build city based franchises and offer a few exciting tweaks to make the presentation racy and exciting. Badminton has struggled to find that window of opportunity on the calendar considering its yearlong schedule across Asia and Europe.
In part that explains why the league went into hibernation soon after its inaugural edition in 2013, even though there were issues related to organisation and finances that played their role. In its second edition this year, the league experienced varying degrees of success.
While Lucknow and Hyderabad experienced reasonable spectator numbers, the league’s stopovers in Mumbai and Delhi drew less than expected crowds to the venue. On television, fans have picked on specific matches to watch – with players such as Lee Chong Wei, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Parupalli Kashyap and Jwala Gutta evoking some interest.
Make no mistake, there is plenty that is working for the sport. Badminton has been on a steady uptick, gaining in both popularity and esteem in recent years. Urban centres have seen a steady increase in the number of facilities feeding a growing hunger to play the game.
And the collection of Indian and international stars that have assembled to play the PBL did help fuel the appetite. The best of five ties formula offered some interesting results, with the Trump match allowing for a quick change in momentum.
The 15 point format of PBL was unique too - helping create pressure and anticipation. There is barely any time for recovery and the players need to fire straight off the bat, or struggle from behind, chasing in vain. The sudden death at 14-14 accentuates the plight of the players, especially for the one losing the game.
Three singles matches meant teams without depth were invariably getting punished with a Trump thrown on the doubles card becoming the only resort to remain in contention. But it wasn't an easy task – several trump matches were lost in the league, costing valuable points to the teams losing their bet.
The recipe made for interesting viewing as well as produced a well packaged product for television.
But the jarring music and garish colours that accompanied PBL serve to remind us of the transitory nature of this carnival -- something that applies to every franchise-based league that is currently in vogue in India.
Even as league sport booms, it is also a time for some considered thinking among sponsors, broadcasters and administrators. The most successful leagues in the world have a rich tradition of excellence built on a solid foundation of sport, governed by the most widely accepted framework of rules.
The NBA for basketball and Premier League for football are prime examples of a well-managed league with structures and governance that allow the sport to flourish for decades on end. On the other hand, television fueled carnivals such as the ones being witnessed in India these past few years have always been viewed as exhibition fodder, meant primarily to cash in on trends and make some spurious friends.
Given the federal structure of our country and varied regional tastes, India does offer a solid platform on which we could build a strong tradition of sport. But in order to be able to do so, we need to create a structured league that allows for the practice of sport, as it is meant to be. A multi-tiered architecture enabling the participation and growth of teams covering the length and breadth of our nation would add gravity and longevity to the competition.
As with several passionate followers of sport, one can only hope that India will transition into a phase of meaningful development, soon as this craving for instant gratification has been fulfilled by these cavernous carnivals.