PBL: How Indian badminton now pays more than ever before

An unwonted but refreshing occurrence played out in Indian sport this past weekend. Late Sunday evening, as India was cruising past Sri Lanka in their cricket series decider, badminton star P V Sindhu was in the middle of a wildly oscillating encounter with Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi in the final of the Dubai World Superseries. After a series of fierce exchanges that lasted almost 90 minutes, the energy-sapping match climaxed in a manner that has become hauntingly familiar for Indian fans. It ended with Sindhu down on her knees — and on the runners-up podium. It was yet another case of Sindhu’s dazzling talent and admirable fitness betraying her at a terribly inopportune moment.

The aftermath of another summit clash implosion was pleasantly forgiving: Sindhu was widely extolled for a heroic performance, with much of that laudation evident on social media. On the other hand, an effortless hundred from Shikhar Dhawan that propelled India to victory in the cricket engagement found little mention. If defeat in Dubai was crushing, Sindhu can perhaps take comfort from the fact that her exploits helped relegate cricket to second place — for once. Another consolation came in the way of a hefty pay cheque — the season-ending tournament in Dubai is the richest event in the international badminton calendar, with total prize money pegged at $1 million. Come next year, it will go up by $500,000.

For Sindhu, such monetary successes have been frequent ever since her medal-winning showing at the Rio Olympics last year. Her fellow Indian shuttlers aren’t doing too badly, either. Kidambi Srikanth, the top-ranked Indian male in the world, has been the highest earner this year, amassing over $230,000 in prize money. While the World No 3 coyly admitted that he had little idea about being on top of any money list, Saina Nehwal is clearly aware of the gains she’s been making: the World No 10 is apparently in the midst of purchasing the exquisite Jaguar F-Type, one of the British carmaker’s more popular coupés.

This financial might in Indian badminton is best encapsulated in the latest season of the Premier Badminton League (PBL), which takes off in Guwahati tonight. In the prelude to the third season, the league managed to get Indian Oil on board — apart from retaining Vodafone as the title sponsor. It also added two more teams, Ahmedabad Smash Masters and North Eastern Warriors.

“The viewership has only grown with every year. With two new teams and more matches, we hope to break all previous records,” says Atul Pande, managing director, SportzLive, the sports management firm that holds the licensing rights for the league.

“Badminton will only boom from here. As long as good players keep coming in and audience interest is retained, money will be good,” says sports brand expert Harsh Saluja. “At the end of the day, it’s such an entertaining sport.”

The rise of Indian badminton, first fuelled by Nehwal’s bronze at the London Olympics in 2012 and further vitalised by Sindhu’s silver in Rio last year, has been remarkable. This is perhaps the first time that India has had so many players capable of taking on — and often beating — the world’s best in any sport; the first time an individual sport has seen more than one genuinely world-class athlete in the same era. There is little wonder then that Prakash Padukone, former All England Champion and Indian badminton’s original trailblazer, describes this as a “golden period” for the sport in the country.

“Badminton is now getting the media attention it truly merits. And with the players performing so well and willing to participate in national tournaments as well, the sponsors are coming in. It’s great for the sport,” he says.

While being among the top 10 in any international sport comes with its shares of obvious financial rewards, owing to the relative novelty associated with success in badminton, the riches of Indian badminton stars have been augmented by recognition received from state governments and sports federations. Sindhu walked away with cash prizes worth more than Rs 10 crore after her Rio performance. Four years earlier, Nehwal had received cash awards, too, but not in the same astronomical range as Sindhu.

Funnily, Carolina Marin who beat Sindhu in the Rio final received only 94,000 euros (Rs 70 lakh) from the Spanish government, and was understandably “shocked” when she was informed about how Sindhu was felicitated after returning from the Olympics. That Spain came back home with 17 medals as against India’s paltry two probably contributed to the disparity in this case.

The PBL, however, has given Marin an opportunity to somewhat bridge that significant gap. In 2016, the former World No 1 was snapped up by Hyderabad Hunters for Rs 61.5 lakh. The franchise retained her earlier this year by shelling out another Rs 50 lakh. Marin is tipped to profit even more if she powers the Hunters to an impressive showing this season — a total prize money of almost Rs 6 crore is on offer this time around.

But Marin was upstaged by another promising Indian this time, too. Her bidding price was short of what H S Prannoy — the second-highest ranked Indian in the world at 10 — received from the Smash Masters. Prannoy left the auction Rs 62 lakh richer and with his burgeoning reputation as the country’s brightest young shuttler well intact. India’s other budding hope, Sai Praneeth, cost the Bengaluru Blasters Rs 40 lakh.

“Three years into the competition, it’s good to see Indian players get top billing. Even better is the depth that is on show. It is a matter of pride,” says Pullela Gopichand, India’s national coach who has been massively influential in catapulting Sindhu from a gangly, unrefined hopeful to world-slaying colossus.

When Gopichand won the All England Championships in 2001, the only Indian man to do so since Padukone’s 1980 triumph, the concept of a badminton league was fairly alien and deemed outlandish. The prize money was largely ungenerous, and support from the government and sponsors scant when compared with today.

“If you play well in today’s times, the rewards will come. Indian players have now started seeing badminton as a serious career option,” says Gopichand.

A few former players point to the contribution made by the Badminton Association of India (BAI), which, unlike most other sports bodies in the country, is now seen as a player-friendly organisation where the promotion of badminton takes precedence over all else. At the nationals in Nagpur in November, for instance, BAI increased the total prize money to Rs 1 crore — up by 10 times from last year. And, a sum of Rs 50,000 was promised to players from the pre-quarter final stage itself.

In some ways, the bait instantly worked. Missing from the tournament for the previous few years, both Sindhu and Nehwal signed up for the event. A box-office final saw the duo fight it out in two thrilling games, with Nehwal eventually thwarting her younger opponent. What more, they were furiously cheered on by a sold-out crowd at Mankapur’s Divisional Sports Complex — a rarity for a domestic badminton tournament. On the men’s side, Srikanth, Prannoy, Praneeth and Parupalli Kashyap all turned out, too. It is difficult to conclude with certainty if money was the only catalyst here, but the revival of the national championships was long overdue.

“It helps everyone when the top players take out time and play in the nationals. I wish this happens in the future as well,” says Padukone.

“BAI has realised that with players doing well in international tournaments, they can no longer be seen as not doing enough for the sport. At the end of the day, the players’ success also makes them look good,” says an official, who does not wish to be named.

An apt reflection of this success has come in the form of fervent advertiser interest. Sindhu is currently endorsing a host of brands, including Myntra, Moov and Bank of Baroda, and is speculated to charge Rs 1-1.25 crore a day. In Indian sport, only Virat Kohli is paid more.

Until a couple of years of ago, Nehwal’s credentials were a similar object of captivation for endorsers. At one time, the former World No 1 was lending her name to around 10 brands that included Herbalife, Nomarks, Emami and Iodex. Injuries and a subsequent slump in form have seen that interest dwindle substantially.

“That badminton is an individual sport helps; viewers appreciate players’ success more. As for Sindhu, she is still very young and fits the bill for all these brands perfectly,” says Saluja. In the Duff & Phelps report, “Rise of the Millennials: India’s Most Valuable Celebrity Brands”, which was released earlier this week, Sindhu occupied 15th spot with a brand valuation of $15 million. The possibility of a badminton player featuring in any such list seemed unthinkable only a decade ago.

Srikanth’s road to visibility has proven to be somewhat more difficult. The fact that he is regularly jostling with cricketers for the same space has often deterred advertisers from investing in him too much; Bank of Baroda remains his only major catch. Experts, however, are certain that his time will also come. 

Despite the riches — and the plaudits — some in the sport still feel that they do not draw enough for the strenuous efforts they put in and the sacrifices they make over the course of their careers. This is despite the Badminton World Federation (BWF) announcing that from 2018, four tournaments in the top two levels of competition will see $1 million or more on offer.

Nehwal, earlier this year, spoke about the need for an increase in prize money. “Players need to be financially taken care of, so that they play for the love of the sport. Right now, PBL is paying more than Super Series events. That needs to change,” she had said. She also made a comparison with tennis, which on further consideration seems like a sound argument.

The All England Championships, badminton’s marquee event, comes with cash prizes worth $600,000. That same figure for Wimbledon, the tennis calendar’s most prestigious gathering, was an astounding $42 million in 2017. Merely stating that this extraordinary imbalance needs some correction would be an understatement.

In tennis’s defence, it is a more global sport than badminton, and the latter, at its core, remains an Olympic sport. While featuring in the Olympics has become fashionable for the likes of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in recent times, a tennis career is seldom driven by the zeal to deliver an Olympic medal for the country. Gopichand, on the other hand, has spent the past few years in the steadfast pursuit of seeing his pupils at the top of the podium, glittering metal around their necks. This perhaps perfectly explains why Srikanth is clueless about the amount of money his bank account has.

Such ignorance is not to say that financial recognition is undeserved. But as so many others point out, pouring some of this money into the development of the game at youth levels, and handsomely paying coaches, would have far more long-term advantages.

But for now, Indian badminton is booming, both on and off the court. Wielding a racquet — not the tennis one — is more beneficial than ever.

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