Badminton’s Pandemic Failure

After releasing a packed calendar in May, only to be followed by over 20 cancellations we are left with only 1 event in Denmark for the rest of 2020.  The burning question is: Why has it been so difficult to restart badminton?

Initially the argument was that the more ‘domestic/regional’ nature of sports like EPL, Bundesliga, F1, NBA and UEFA lent itself to restarting first.  Moto GP and F1 – despite having previously raced worldwide – centralised themselves in Europe.  Tennis restarted followed by cycling, golf and cricket with the reasons then they were outdoor sports with lesser risk of aerosol containment and transmission of COVID-19.  But now indoor sports like squash and taekwondo have restarted.  It was then thought that with Asia being the badminton powerhouse  with many of its stars based there but the Asian hosts had closed their doors.  Tournaments in HK, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia were all cancelled whilst we watch the IPL continuing in Abu Dhabi, the PSA tour travelling from Manchester to Egypt to HK and table tennis in Macau and China.  So, across continents, from outdoor and indoor everyone was restarting and badminton was running out of excuses.

It has become apparent that other sports have been putting in extensive amounts of time effort and money to introduce stringent protocols.  Hundreds of pages have been written and could be used to inform the creation of safe environments to enable players to return to their livelihoods.  It was reported that when BWF released their safety protocols it only left more doubts, questions and fears.  Trust and confidence in the BWF were clearly lacking.

For the last several months there have been heart wrenching stories of players with income and sponsorship woes causing some to end their careers early.  If the BWF couldn’t restart the calendar could they not have helped out the players and the member associations? 

Since April there has been a string of world governing bodies who have been providing pandemic relief. From FIFA, World Athletics, World Rugby and ATP right down to shooting and archery; federations of differing wealth have given funds. For instance, the Professional Squash Association Foundation raised $75,000 for their lower to mid-level players. Wimbledon – one of the few events with insurance – paid out their insurance claim to all competitors who would have played.

Yet the BWF – with a reported $39m in reserve in their 2019 financial statement – gave out nothing.  They have reported the purpose of this reserve was to ‘keep sufficient funds to operate and support the sport for a few years should any unexpected global event take place that affected our business’. If Covid-19 is not an unexpected global event then what is?

If the BWF wanted to protect their reserves they could have introduced some cost cutting measures.  The BWF President receives an Honorarium and expenses, the Sec Gen  and senior staff receive tax free salaries meanwhile many players have had zero income from their sport.  Presidents and senior executives in ITTF, FEI and World Sailing all took salary cuts to divert funds to their athletes and members.

Sport is a business and commercialisation is required for it to thrive. To apparently prioritise money and income – for the BWF and its officers – at the expense of the players and the entire ecosystem of the game is selfish and short sighted.  Badminton is crumbling.  Junior and lower level events have halted which means the next generation of athletes is missing out on a crucial part of their development.  Sponsors may pull out, coaches will lose income, players and fans will leave the sport. 

If the BWF couldn’t meaningfully find a way to restart the calendar then why bother releasing one.  They have created a situation that puts the whole badminton community ‘on hold’.  By taking up and controlling all the calendar slots – only to cancel 10-14 days before – leaves people hanging and unable to create their own alternative events.

Everyone was happy that badminton was going to restart albeit that some were surprised at the decision to begin with the Thomas & Uber Cups.  Before long cracks appeared, concerns around safety and health protocols surfaced that the BWF seemed unable to provide assurances for.  Withdrawals were quickfire: Russia first, followed by a string of Asian countries and eventually top seeds Indonesia.  It then became ugly with disappointment generating some unpleasant accusations between European and Asian colleagues.  Disappointingly the BWF allowed this to happen. 

If 5 out of 20 countries slated for participation withdrew one has to ask how much consultation and collaborative discussion happened?  Consent and buy-in from the top nations before announcing the calendar should be a top priority.  It would appear the BWFs leadership style is non-consultative.  Compare this to the NBA’s Commissioner Adam Silver who personally called the top teams and players to explain the conditions for restart before pressing the green button.

It has been reported – later denied by the BWF – that it was a sponsor requirement that the top three seeds participate in the TUC hence delay until 2021 to try to keep the money on the books. Badminton Denmark was reported to have been putting in 24/7 effort for months leading up to the TUC (not to mention it had already been postponed twice).  Apart from this time and effort imagine the real financial losses they will have incurred having cancelled a major tournament with only 14 days’ notice – but perhaps as it was not BWF’s loss to bear it was just collateral damage.

When the TUC was postponed the BWF also cancelled the Denmark Masters.  The event was part of a two tournament ‘European bubble’; the events are not linked so why was it dropped?    Presumably the risk of Asian players not wanting to travel for the Masters and therefore compromising revenue streams was not worth the potential losses to the BWF.  So Badminton Denmark was left to carry the weight of the Denmark Open on its shoulders.

At the end of August BWF declared that the European Bubble would be followed by an Asian one in November but no destination was announced. Then they revealed that it would be hosted by Thailand in January apparently because logistically there was not enough time to prepare. It has been speculated that perhaps the BWF had secured sponsorship from the Thai government who then requested a cooling period owing to political uncertainty. They used “complexity” as a reason for needing more time. But badminton is surely not more “complex” than tennis, swimming and track & field, all who have hundreds of athletes from multiple countries. Unfortunately, this means that there will be no continuity or stability stemming from the Denmark Open, just a 2-month hiatus.

The pandemic is not the time to go into a 6-month slumber.  Many industries have innovated.  Cycling has launched a virtual cycling series, F1 took to e-sports and started competitions with their fans, the LPGA conducted e-Golf competitions for their pro golfers that offered actual prize money.

 What about non-financial support to badminton players?  Perhaps programmes to deal with mental health, modules to help athletes understand the business of sport and how they can commercialise themselves, or up-skilling courses to prepare for life after retirement.  How did the BWF reach out to their athletes?

The BWF may argue they are dealing with eroding sponsorship and media income which affects their ability to stage events.  This is not unique in the sporting world and it cannot be a reason to stand still.  A few countries, for example Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia have staged local competitions but it is not clear what actions the BWF have taken to support this, Surely, they could have engaged their global sponsors to redirect support towards well-crafted regional events and digital activations?  Other sports have varying degrees of revenue streams which proves helpful in times like this.  Esports and games.  Subscription-based apps.  Licensing and merchandising.  Foundation programmes with CSR sponsors.  Some even have venues.  Looking at the BWF’s financial statement will tell you that the entire revenue stream – sponsorship, TV, sanction fees is dependent on events.  Oh, and funding from the Olympics, also and event.  The BWF is a one-trick pony.

Does badminton have the right leadership to get through this predicament and beyond? It’s easy to lead in good times. The real test is in tough times. Where is BWF’s relevance and impact in badminton in this crisis?

Opinion by Leena Singarajah.

You can read the full version of this article by following this link

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