Enterprising isn't a word you usually use in the same sentence as Indian sports administrators. However, those in charge of running the badminton National championships can pat themselves on the back after this week. On the final day on Wednesday, massive crowds jostled for space to catch a glimpse of the action and were treated to a riveting spectacle.
The nationals were no longer a mere dot on the calendar that came and went, barely registering in the mindspace of the sport's followers. Instead, it was a compelling, collar-grabbing experience.
The field was impressive: an unprecedented seven Indian men are among the top-50 in the world rankings and most of them were in Nagpur. Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu entered the arena as firm favourites for their respective final matches but both were tamed, the latter after an epic second game that ended with a 27-25 score. Srikanth's conqueror, HS Prannoy, is now up to 11 in the world rankings, and Sindhu fell to Saina Nehwal, a former world number one who is now fighting her way back from injury.
The key to the event of course was ensuring the participation of these and other top Indian players. In recent years, most had given the nationals a miss, understandably, as they were making progress on the international circuit. By ensuring the prize money was raised to a corpus of nearly Rs. 1 crore, the Badminton Association of India (BAI) dangled a reasonably attractive carrot even for the top players. More importantly, though, they were essentially promised an international quality experience - no bad accommodation, poor quality food, haphazard schedules or shoddy practice facilities that are common on the domestic circuit.
What the administrators also got right was to seize on the moment. With the sport's profile growing on the success of a slew of players, they scented the opportunity to build on the momentum. The national championships became a confluence of sorts to make a unique sales pitch to fans that are increasingly getting used to watching a Sindhu, a Srikanth or a Saina pull off wins on the international circuit - Look here, they are all in the same place at the same time. Come and watch them give it a go and have a good time.
"We want to transform the national championship into a brand," BAI president Himanta Biswa Sarma said before the tournament began. "We already have a brand in the Pro Badminton League and we want our premier domestic tournament also to become a huge hit among the fans. We hope to transform the National Championship from this year."
The tournament seems to have been a "huge hit" among fans but it was also a showcase for the depth of talent that the sport is now attracting. Though the top two seeds made the finals in both the men's and women's singles categories, the chasing pack underlined the rapid strides they are making. For instance, 16-year-old Lakshya Sen held his own against Srikanth in the semifinal despite going down in straight games, while Ruthvika Shivani stretched Sindhu to three games in their semifinal.
- Susan Ninan (@ninansusan) 8 November 2017
Encouraged by the outcome of the event, Sarma, not surprisingly, is eager for an encore next year. In a bid to ensure the players show up again and this isn't a one-off, he has asked them to identify a window in the calendar when they can make themselves available for the nationals. The flexibility places the marquee players at the head of the food chain, another rare step in Indian sports administration, leaving them to structure the national tournament as per the convenience of their international schedule.
Quite clearly, the events over the last few days in Nagpur have shown badminton's ability to attract audiences in far greater numbers. A BAI official says they are hopeful that, if sustained, this momentum can allow them to go into the marketplace and attract some tangible value for the TV rights to national tournaments. The tournament in Nagpur was covered by national broadcaster Doordarshan as part of an arrangement with the local organising committee, with no revenue upside for the BAI.
To no one's surprise, the coverage was basic at best, with shrill commentary and none of the technological tools such as Hawk-eye that are commonly used at international events. The official admitted that despite the presence of stars of international repute, they cannot yet command a critical mass of TV audiences to leverage any commercial value for their rights.
In essence, Indian badminton has smartly piggybacked on the rising profile of its top players and leveraged their star value to energise a usually soporific event. In doing so, it has offered a template for other sports federations to make similar attempts. While a plethora of leagues have jostled to grab viewer attention in recent years, the last week in Nagpur was a snapshot of the latent potential that a good old national championship offers, if only those behind the scenes display the acumen to do so.