Badminton ponders image makeover again

Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon may sport a short skirt, but a proposal to have all women's shuttlers wear skirts was axed in 2012.
Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon may sport a short skirt, but a proposal to have all women's shuttlers wear skirts was axed in 2012.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Badminton's one-time bid to make its women players wear skirts may have been ill-advised, but the sport is again seeking a "sexy" new image to bring in fans and revenue.

Even in China, where badminton has mass participation and world-beating stars, its visibility dims in the glare of more glamorous rivals like basketball, football and tennis.

Now everything is on the table as badminton looks to gain a profile that will bring in sponsors and turn its players into millionaires.

New scoring, new advertising and even new shuttlecocks and court colours are being considered as badminton looks to shed its staid image and stand out in the digital age.

Owen Leed, who heads the Badminton World Federation's (BWF) new commercial division created last year, said the sport needs cachet if it is to compete.

"That's one of the challenges we have - how do we make the sport more glamorous in terms of the sport itself being sexier, without that being a naughty word?" he said at last week's Sports Matters industry conference in Singapore.

"That could cross everything from how we run our events in future to how we present on television to how we profile our stars."

Leed preferred not to discuss the infamous move to gain popularity by making women players wear skirts, which was finally shelved in 2012 following howls of protest.

However, he said the players' appearance is "all part of the picture" and will also be in focus as the sport attempts to modernise.

"As a sport we're still quite conservative and if we want to grow the sport for the players to have an ability to earn more money... we have to think about how the sport is presented and indeed how the players present themselves," he said.

Leed said China has 250 million people playing badminton. It also has a stable of athletes which has dominated for years, winning all five titles at the 2012 London Olympics.

But even with stars like multiple world and Olympic champion Lin Dan, Chinese fans are still more likely to tune into the National Basketball Association or the English Premier League on television.

"Without question it's a top sport in terms of participation and activity at the professional level, it just doesn't get the commercial recognition," Leed added. "Tennis is doing amazing things globally, not just in China, and we're struggling to break through this almost-invisible barrier that's holding us back."

One of the major issues is technical - people increasingly watch sports on the move, but a fast-moving shuttlecock is almost impossible to see on a smartphone screen.

Different-coloured shuttlecocks and courts, and clever use of slow-motion footage, could all be part of the answer, Leed said.

"We're looking at everything from virtual graphics to all sorts of things that we might do to present the sport. Like scoring systems, (to) make the games shorter, sharper, potentially," he said. "Competitively, we have a scoring system that works but also needs to evolve."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Badminton ponders image makeover again'. Print Edition | Subscribe