“We saw it coming long back,” says Prasad Mangipudi, executive director of Sportzlive, which organises the Premier Badminton League (PBL) under the aegis of the Badminton Association of India (BAI), when asked about the big names which gave the ongoing edition of the franchise-based sporting league a miss.
The fifth season of PBL lost out on marquee players in Carolina Marin, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth and Viktor Axelsen even before the season began, most of them citing the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, as the primary reason for pulling out.
Shuttlers, who want to be seeded in the quadrennial mega-event, would additionally want themselves in their peak form ahead of the Games and Mangipudi too, is of the same opinion. However, a five-year contractual obligation with the Star Sports Network meant the league had to go on in 2020. Moreover, Mangipudi says that a one-year break would have hurt the continuity and in turn PBL, in the long run. “I think once you take a break, the rhythm breaks. The league has to go on. I know, yes, every four years during the Olympics, some players will be unavailable. I understand.
“Also, the thing is, now we want to make the league itself the hero because even with the other players, I think I'm dishing out a great league. I just spoke to Aparna Popat and she concurs the games are much better than in the past.
Many people tend to use the league as a platform to get recognised, says Mangipudi, and that adds to the many reasons for not going for a break. He said, “They're all playing out of their skin to make a name. For example, look at Satwiksairaj (Rankireddy), who went from being worth three lakhs, three years ago to 62 lakhs, this year. Also, every player gets five games to play. It's not like a tournament where if you lose, you're gone. And they play fearlessly because they have nothing to lose.”
The league, which garnered a record 155 million viewers last year, going up from 42 million in season three, is likely to have a reduced viewership this year, owing to the absentees. However, Mangipudi believes there are other factors contributing to it, as well. “Last year, we got ourselves a free-to-air channel, so that boosted the viewership. This year, there are a lot of regulation changes of cable networks and TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India). There is a lot of churn happening. The one thing I am sure about this year is that we will get genuine badminton lovers to watch the games. The figures from BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) are yet to arrive though.”
The season kicked off with the first leg in Chennai. Although the opening match between home side Chennai Superstarz and P.V. Sindhu-led Hyderabad Hunters saw a noisy crowd at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, things took a drastic turn on the second day, amid reports of a rift between ticketing partner Paytm and the organisers. Not only empty seats greeted the new side North Eastern Warriors and defender Bengaluru Raptors, but even the media box also saw a number of unoccupied chairs.
Mangipudi, however, blames the situation on the festive season. “We have nothing to do. The whole city was empty. It was Pongal. I was walking around a park the other day and you wouldn’t believe the road was completely deserted. So people were out and maybe just got back to the city that day itself.”
When asked why the festivities didn’t affect the crowd on the first day, Mangipudi says, “First of all, it was the opening day. And then PV Sindhu and the home side playing is a huge factor. And in fact, the crowd on day two was a decent 2,200. 2,200 in a badminton league match, on a working day, is very good. It’s all the better because we had no marquee names on offer.”
Mangipudi, who is also the co-founder of the company, said, getting PBL up on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) calendar would help hype up the whole affair. “Right now, they're not fully aware of the importance of this league and India is not on their radar. It is more of a China, South-east Asia thing for them. However, they are slowly waking up to it. Maybe, in two years time, we should be able to get it (the affiliation).
“In fact, we are trying to invite the Badminton Asia president for the finals, this year. He came two years back also. We are also planning on inviting the BWF secretary. So slowly we are trying to educate them. If badminton grows in India, the global federation becomes more powerful too, because it is such a large country and has a sport-loving and the largest youth population. There's a direct correlation between youth and sport - this is good, clean entertainment for them.”
On being asked if more teams would help the league grow further and draw more fans, Mangipudi concurs but at the same time, he adds, “I'm like a five-year-old baby in a history of multiple European leagues, which are 80-year-old or maybe 20-year-old. So yes, I would love to grow. But I think, this ecosystem has to grow too. First of all my biggest concern is the window. BWF has a very, very crowded schedule. They play throughout the year except for maybe two-three weeks. So for more teams, I need a much longer window. We're a large country and I want to take PBL to various corners."
The last edition saw the feed getting streamed in regional languages for the first time and it additionally debuted in the north-eastern states, as well. Now the league has a team from there called the North-Eastern Warriors. “That’s how the game grows but it has to be step-by-step. First, I would like to get further established myself and then push for a longer window. That also means I need to get more players... Indian players rather, because I cannot only have foreign players. So I need a new group coming in. Now, as more people graduate to the next level, I'll have more Indian players because every team must have five-six Indian players anyway.”
On the exit of teams like Ahmedabad Smash Masters and Delhi Dashers, he said, “Delhi and Ahmedabad didn't fulfil the contract obligations. In the case of Delhi, they got a new CEO and his ideas didn't fit into my overall opinion. Ahmedabad had their license cancelled, because of certain financial obligations.”
Mangipudi was of the opinion that he did not just want teams for the sake of it. While he wanted genuine sport-loving owners who can help the league prosper, there were other roadblocks along the way, as well. There are many national federations, which do not want to send their players to participate in a foreign league. Adding to it all was the fact that this year was an Olympic year too. Moreover, some federations also cannot afford to send players for about 20 days at a stretch.
“Yes, some federations keep doing it from time to time. Japan doesn't allow. Thailand didn’t because they have their own Open going on right now in Bangkok, so they don’t want players to miss their own national tournament to come here. There was a problem with the Danish and Korean teams. So we are hoping that after five years time, this league becomes so strong and big, that the whole world will want to be here. But nonetheless, I think this is already the biggest badminton league!”
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