Commentary – Badminton: Sport or entertainment?

Badzine contributor Mark Phelan looks into why badminton should focus more on being entertainment to draw more people into stadiums, especially in some parts of Europe and outside the usual […]

Badzine contributor Mark Phelan looks into why badminton should focus more on being entertainment to draw more people into stadiums, especially in some parts of Europe and outside the usual Asian powerhouses.

For years now the boffins of the badminton world have been trying to come up with the recipe to get more bums on seats at tournaments. I can only assume that countless meetings with a vast amount of head scratching has taken place in every federation across the globe in an attempt to figure out the reasons why half empty stadiums are more the rule than the exception.

Don’t get me wrong.  Of course, there are the big events that attract big crowds and tournaments such as the All England will boast sell out weekend crowds weeks in advance as part of their PR assault on the global badminton community.

As a European and someone who visits every grade of tournament from Future Series right up to Superseries, the reasons behind the overall poor attendance figures have become clear to me and in my opinion it really is not rocket science.

Let’s take a look around, and as a badminton-infused nuthead this is hard for me to say, but we just do not offer the discerning public anything like the entertainment they can get from other sports.

We seem to have the insular opinion about the purity of our sport and the public should feel the same. However I ask the question, who in their right mind would expect anyone to go to a finals day and sit for up to 7 hours watching five finals with little or no over and above value added entertainment or facilities for the duration of their afternoon?

Entertainment is the key and it is my opinion that we need to distance ourselves from outdated opinion of badminton as a sport and start thinking of it more in terms of entertainment.

We cannot expect people to come to cold, badly lit halls with little or no atmosphere. We cannot and should not expect them to sit for 5, 6 and 7 hours without the facilities to walk around and eat and have facilities to purchase badminton-related merchandise between matches.

The public deserve more, the public need to be entertained, and the public deserve entertainment.  I know I am not the only one who believes that the game of badminton is anti-climactic in nature. The game itself needs to build to a crescendo and right now the system of scoring we have does not allow this. It would not take much to alter the experience and some finely-tuned tweaks such as 5 games to 9 or 11 and you must have serve to win a game would make the game altogether more exciting and entertaining. Right now we have a game that can end with a player serving into the net and no matter how much we try and convince ourselves that this is our sport and this is just the way it is we will not increase the bum-to-seat ratios until we start thinking otherwise.

Of course, there are the exceptions and in this instance I will refer to two tournament that do offer the crowd added value and an altogether more exciting experience.

The French Open, in the wonderful Stade Pierre De Coubertin, has an atmosphere akin to that of a carnival. Firstly, the French people love their badminton and come in droves every autumn to Paris. They come for world class badminton and they come because they get some entertainment.

The stadium MC with his little Casio keyboard full of sounds that involve the crowd and entertain has a big bearing on the tournament’s success. Also, there is a suitable volume of concourse activity that gives the paying public the chance to get involved in something other than the matches on court.

Without doubt, from a pure entertainment perspective, the best tournament in Europe that I have been to, to date, has to be the German Open in Mulheim.

Boris Reichel, the organiser of the German Open, has taken entertainment to a new level. Mr Reichel goes to the ends of the earth to make sure that as soon as the paying public enter the doors of his arena they are entertained until the time they leave.

A combination of fantastic stadium MCs who are professional and make it their business to involve the crowd and a masterful use of music and lights makes the German Open the jewel in the entertainment crown, and of course the badminton ain’t half bad either.

The Germans even have guys on site filming, editing and producing highlight videos from the previous day’s play which all go to heighten the sense of anticipation and value to the paying public.

The Germans offer entertainment but they offer it in a way that is pro-family. There is not the stuck-up pretentiousness of other big events that I have attended where your accreditation is like a status symbol more than a work tool. The Germans have the balance right and even seeing the involvement of the school kids with on court mopping and delivering shuttles leaves a very warm feeling inside that stays with you long after the tournament is over. The public see and feel this and they go away talking about it.

As a badminton person, which I assume you are if you are reading this, make sure that you put the German Open on your bucket list of tournaments you must attend and I can personally guarantee you will not be disappointed.

As a result of offering added entertainment, these tournaments have bums on seats day in day out. On the Friday of quarter-finals in Germany, for example, the line of people outside measured over 300 metres, four hours before play, which again is testament to Mr Reichel’s organisational prowess.

Ohhhh I hear you saying that these are big tournaments with big budgets and you are correct in saying this. But I will give other small examples of small things that make a difference to the public. I saw for example at the Czech Open last year a novel idea where, between matches, the organisers had the public get involved in a short game of hit the shuttle into the box from 5 metres for a prize. It worked a treat and it involved and entertained the public. Things like this cost little or nothing but go a long way to maximise the value to the public.

On a positive note, I do know that the majority of tournament organisers around Europe recognise they need to adapt and change. I hear them talking about it and this to me is half the battle as it is obviously seen as something that needs to be addressed.

If people in a position of power start to work on the basis of offering and organising tournaments with entertainment at the core of their manifesto then I do personally believe that, in time, attendance figures will improve and this in turn will improve the popularity of our sport which will also increase revenue for the organising federations.

So it’s a simple case of risk and reward and it is clear to me right now that the tournaments that take calculated risks appear to be reaping the rewards and associated benefits as they move towards thinking of badminton as entertainment rather than just a sport.

Mark Phelan. (follow Mark on twitter @markphelanGPM)

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