The bird has taken flight

The attempt to spread the PBL via the vernacular language route helped as TV viewership jumped from 42 million the previous year to a record 155 million eyeballs this year.

The Bengaluru Raptors, led by an unbeaten Kidambi Srikanth, overcame the Mumbai Rockets on home turf to take the honours in the fourth season of the PBL.   -  K. Murali Kumar

The twinkle of mobile flashlights, adrenaline-pumping music and thunderstick cheers welcomed finalists Bengaluru Raptors and Mumbai Rockets at a packed Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru. At the end of five intense matches, it was the home team, led by an unbeaten Kidambi Srikanth, that took the honours in the fourth season of the Premier Badminton League.

The PBL travelled to five cities this time, including Ahmedabad and Pune for the first time, and gave badminton fans 23 days of uninterrupted action. It was streamed live in regional languages like Kannada, Telugu and Hindi, and the feed reached the North-Eastern States for the first time. The attempt to spread the PBL via the vernacular language route helped as TV viewership jumped from a decent 42 million the previous year to a record 155 million eyeballs this year.

“We are doing well this year. We have got three times more coverage than last year. Our ratings are double. We have got very good ratings in the north; south has always been a strong market for badminton. In fact, this is the only league this year which is going up in terms of ratings and reach. I don’t know about cricket, but for both kabaddi and football, this has not been a good year. It’s been a good year for us,” said Atul Pande, managing director of Sportzlive, which organises the PBL under the aegis of the Badminton Association of India.

With the Badminton World Federation making it mandatory for players to participate in 12 World Tour events to qualify for the year-end finals, there has been criticism that the PBL cuts into the resting period necessary for the players. But the organisers see no such problem.

“Players like coming here. They only have to play around six matches and only every third or fourth day. And these are 15-point matches; the players don’t find it very strenuous actually. It keeps them ready and liquid for the next season,” said Pande.

“They have a guaranteed salary, unlike a tournament where they have to win to make money. Some of the top players make as much money in three weeks here as they make by winning three tournaments,” he added.

“The players who are part of the team and not play get to be with the these top players and that’s a big thing in itself, to be part of the team and get tips from the top players,” said national coach P. Gopi Chand (centre).   -  PTI


National coach P. Gopi Chand offered another dimension on the benefits of having the PBL in India. “I think it helps at different levels. Those who play benefit monetarily and in terms of experience. The players who are part of the team and not play get to be with the these top players and that’s a big thing in itself, to be part of the team and get tips from the top players,” he said.

“Even though players are from India, the local people never get to see them. Taking this sport to all these different cities means the people get to see the top-class players from India, world champions and Olympic champions. The number of people who get inspired by the sport, the number of players who want their kids to play and the general ecosystem for badminton benefits from an event like this,” Gopi Chand added.

The PBL expanded to include a new team — the Pune 7 Aces — to take the count to nine this year, and there are interested buyers for newer franchises, but the organisers are more keen to increase quality over quantity for the moment. Television audience and ownership interest may have increased, but both the BAI and Sportzlive admit the PBL isn’t yet a profit-making venture.

Pande explains: “There is a lot of appetite for team ownership now. But you need to think about player availability. At this point of time, having more teams would be a difficult thing to do, given the variables you work with. The more teams you have, the central revenue pile decreases.”

“I don’t think anybody makes money except for the team that wins (which walks away with prize money of ₹3 crore). We make sure that the new entrants know that they have to bleed for three-four years; it’s an investment business in a way. We focus on the value of the asset. The Bengaluru team was sold for ₹9 crore, Pune was sold for ₹4 crore. Franchises like Chennai or Ahmedabad have a market value of ₹4.5-5 crore now,” he said.

BAI president Himanta Biswa Sarma concurred with the view. “This year we have added Pune. Last year, North-East and Ahmedabad were added. There is space for two more teams, but the idea is to consolidate now. Only four or five teams make money. All the teams are not making money evenly and many of the owners are not getting their return. My concern is to give returns to the existing team owners. BAI will be more interested in consolidation than expansion at least for the next year. But when we renew the contract with Star, we can think of further expansion,” he said, adding: “Earlier, we used to go to all the venues. Some venues give good response, some don’t. Now, from our experience of conducting the PBL in eight venues (last season), we now know where we should go. So that is one of the learnings from this year.”

“BAI and Sportzlive are coming together very firmly and we are making a good partnership now. Those things were not there till last year. Because PBL has started attracting crowds consistently (43,500 footfalls this year), I think we need to start thinking from the point of view of quality. There are many countries from where we are not getting players to participate in PBL,” the BAI president said. But the BAI has a plan in place. “From Indonesia, players who are active in the circuit are not coming. Now we are planning to send players to their league from this year, so they can reciprocate,” he explains.

“BAI is now focused on getting players from the top bracket, because adding teams is probably not the answer, adding quality is the answer. We are trying to have more and more good players and are focussing on the top 25 of the world.”

With Japan and China also having fledgling leagues and sterner restrictions from their federations, top badminton players like Chen Long, Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi haven’t been able to participate in the PBL yet. But the BAI is optimistic of pulling the big names. “Every country has also started their own league. If your PBL’s commercial value is more, it will attract players. PBL has reached a stage where participating in the league has also become a status. So we are confident of getting them to play here soon,” said Sarma.

The broadcast and digital rights expire at the end of the next season, and the BAI and Sportzive are expected to release fresh bids with focus on the digital medium to capture the prime audience.