As the dust settles on another successful Superseries, Gruffudd Owen looks at how the sport reinvented itself to thrive on a global scale
With Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex hosting another successful edition of the million-dollar World Superseries Finals earlier this month – the third year in a row that badminton’s elite season-ending event has taken place in the city – it is easy to forget the troubled beginnings of the sport’s richest prize.
Launched in 2007 with the aim of boosting the profile of badminton worldwide, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) was forced to cancel the inaugural tournament in Qatar due to a lack of sponsorship, throwing into doubt the longevity of an ambitious project that would supposedly revolutionise the sport.
"We think this is a good concept and we are disappointed that it wasn't held last year but we hope that we can make up for it this year," BWF director of operations Stuart Borrie said in 2008.
"We are working on a number of things and we hope it will work."
And work it did – just. Despite the logistical headache of squeezing a brand new major tournament into an already hectic season – during an Olympic year, no less – the 2008 Superseries Masters Finals (as it was then known) was held in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, with a total prize pool of US$500,000 on offer.
Opting to sit out of the debut competition, China – the dominant force in the sport – was ready to compete in 2009. While they failed to win in any of the five categories, the country began to dominate by the time the third iteration came to Taipei a year later. With the world’s strongest badminton nation now fully on board, the Finals had its lifeblood.
An important point in the tournament’s history though this was, it is 2014 that must be considered the seminal year in badminton’s renaissance. A partnership signed between the BWF and Dubai saw the latter named as Finals host for four years beginning in 2014, a long-term agreement that would give the event a home in a global sporting city.
The doubling of the total prize pool to US$1 million from 2014 onwards only bolstered the tournament’s burgeoning reputation. And as current BWF secretary general Thomas Lund revealed on the eve of the 2016 edition, Dubai’s role in growing the competition cannot be underestimated.
“The first years [of the Finals] were difficult in terms of creating a new product and a new way of thinking,” he said.
“But ever since, it’s just grown bigger and bigger. And we at the BWF can’t take the whole honour for this.
“It was only through the cooperation we have with our partners, not only in Dubai but also at the 12 Superseries tournaments that go on year after year, that we have been able to achieve this.
“We are extremely proud of seeing where we are today.”
This fruitful relationship recently helped the BWF open its first regional office in Dubai, while the UAE Table Tennis and Badminton Association was also officially admitted as the 187th member of the BWF.
But there are clear signs that the sport is in rude health further afield as well. Just a couple of weeks after the end of the Finals, another lucrative tournament will take place in India as the second Premier Badminton League kicks off in the new year.
With the world’s best shuttlers being auctioned off to one of six PBL franchises including the Delhi Acers and the Mumbai Rockets, there are shades of the multi-billion dollar NFL industry to this particular endeavour – a comparison that was doubtless an aspect of the BWF’s marketing strategy for the event.
The BWF’s expansion plans are not limited to countries that have longstanding badminton traditions such as India. It is the governing body’s job to promote the game in all areas of the world, not just in Asia where it already enjoys mass support.
What is heartening, however, is hearing the players rather than the administrators speak so enthusiastically about badminton’s revival in non-Asian nations.
“Europe is really starting to compete in most events,” explains Chris Adcock, an English mixed doubles player who frequently speaks of his desire to see the sport grow in his home country.
“You’ve got Carolina Marin who’s leading the line for Spain, then you’ve got the Danish players who are competitive in every event.
“At the Olympics four years ago, China won five gold medals in London, but they didn’t do as well as they would have wanted to in Rio.
“That shows that badminton across the world is improving, and that the distribution of medals is much more even. It’s exciting times playing in Europe, and I think we’re in the right direction for sure.”
The World Superseries Finals heads back to Dubai in 2017, where there will doubtless be a new wave of fans hoping to catch sight of badminton’s very best in action. With the tournament proving such a hit in the city – and encouraging signs to be found in other parts of the world – these are heady days for this exciting racquet sport.