The last major badminton event on the BWF World Tour was the All-England in March, which concluded to controversy at that time. After releasing a packed calendar in May, only to be followed by 20-over cancellation announcements that has seen a 30-40 event calendar reduced to only one event in Denmark for the rest of the year, the burning question is: why has it been so difficult for Badminton World Federation (BWF) to re-start badminton?
It all boils down to priorities.
Initially the argument was that the more “domestic/regional” nature of sports like EPL, Bundesliga, F1, NBA and UEFA lent itself to restarting first. MotoGP and F1 – despite previously having races all over the world – centralised themselves in Europe to keep everyone within the continent.
Then tennis re started with the ATP and WTA Tours and the Grand Slams – some claimed it was easier to take off with players mostly residing in Europe and the USA. Then came cycling, golf, cricket and track field, and the reasons then were because they were outdoor sports with lesser risk of aerosol containment and transmisison of Covid-19. Now indoor sports like squash, taekwondo and karate have started. Still no badminton.
Badminton’s next likely argument is that with Asia being a powerhouse for the sport, many of the players were in Asia, but seemingly Asian hosts had their doors closed. Tournaments in Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia were all canceled.
But the IPL is being held in Abu Dhabi, the UFC Island is in the Middle East, PSA’s tour goes from Manchester to Egypt to Hong Kong (yes, in Asia!) and the ITTF has announced a China bubble and a star-studded invitational in November in Macau.
So across continents, from outdoor to indoor, everyone seemed to re-start and badminton was running out of excuses. The latest reason given is that badminton was “complex”, needing to accommodate 300-400 players from 40-60 countries. The Thomas-Uber Cup Finals – cancelled just 14 days before its start date – only featured 20 countries and yet the BWF struggled to even get that up and running.
The BWF keeps insisting they put player’s health and safety first and foremost. Does this mean the other sports didn’t? If anything, it has been apparent that from the USTA to NBA bubble, from F1 to Tour de France, there has been extensive amount of time, effort – and yes, expense – put in for stringent protocols, rigorous testing and to create a safe environment to allow players to return to their livelihood.
Hundreds of pages have been written and could have been used as guidance. It was reported that when the BWF released their safety protocol, it only left more doubts, questions and fears in the players and countries. Trust and confidence in the BWF’s ability to provide safety assurance was clearly lacking.
Was the BWF at least thinking of the welfare of the players?
For the last several months, there have been heart-wrenching stories of players ending their career early due to lack of income, badminton sponsors pulling out of sponsorships, independent shuttlers resorting to substitute teaching positions and many other jobs to find income.
All development programmes – which the juniors and lower level players depend on – had also come to a grinding halt.
If the BWF couldn’t restart the calendar, could they not have helped out the players and the member federations? Unfortunately they didn’t.
Since April, there has been a long string of world governing bodies who have been providing pandemic relief to member federations and players directly.
From FIFA, World Athletics, World Rugby, FINA, FIG, FEI, FIE, FIVB, ITF and ATP right down to Shooting and Archery – federations of differing financial wealth have given funds. Funds ranging from millions to thousands.
The PSA (Professional Squash Association) Foundation raised US$75,000 for their lower to mid level players. Wimbledon – one of the few events with insurance – paid out their insurance claim to all players who would have played. The R&A gave financial support to golf courses in the UK and Scotland.
Yet the BWF – with a reported US$39 million in reserve in their 2019 financial statement – gave out nothing.
The BWF reported the purpose of such a large 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 one has to wonder what would be. When a few members wrote to the BWF asking if there would be financial support , they were told to seek funding from their local governments or sports councils for their re-start.
Even if the BWF didn’t want to dip into their reserves, they could have made cost-cutting measures on their own annual operating expenses to divert funds to the players and members.
Presidents and senior executives in ITTF, FEI and World Sailing all took salary cuts (some voluntary), staff was furloughed, operation costs reduced.
The BWF President receives an Honorarium and expenses (the combined value of that is equal to the 2019 prize earnings of the 2nd to 7th-ranked singles players in the world), the Secretary General and senior expat staff receive tax-free salaries; meanwhile, many players – especially the independent ones – have been and are receiving zero income.
Surely even the salaried players, much less coaches etc were all taking cuts.
Leading up to their Annual General Meeting (AGM) middle of this year, the BWF reportedly told members that the BWF was not in that stage of financial difficulty yet to require such cost cuts. Yes, maybe the salaried President and senior staff hadn’t reached that state of financial difficulty yet but in contrast, everywhere else in badminton was cracking.
If the BWF couldn’t meaningfully find a way to restart the calendar – then why bother releasing a calendar at all?
By doing so, they have put the entire badminton community in a state of limbo and “on hold”. People weren’t sure what they were planning for. Players who could, started training for events that just kept dropping like flies.
A few countries to their credit – Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Denmark, China – staged local competitions or re-started their leagues. The BWF could certainly have done more to support badminton at those local and regional levels.
Instead, they took up and controlled all the calendar slots – only to cancel some 10-14 days before – leaving people hanging and unable to create their own alternate options. Surely the BWF could have engaged their global sponsors to re-direct support towards well-crafted regional or localised events, and digital activations.
So if its not the player’s health, safety and welfare, then what is the priority? It boils down to money.
Yes, sport is a business and commercialisation is required for sports to thrive and grow. But to prioritise money and income – to the BWF and it’s officers – at the expense of the players and the entire ecosystem of badminton is selfish and short-sighted.
The BWF claimed they would go to “extreme lengths” to ensure a smooth restart. It would appear that the only extreme lengths they have taken is to preserve their own commercial income which in turn would keep their own salaries intact.
The Thomas Uber Cup was meant to be the major event to restart the calendar. Never mind there were questions raised on how the BWF could start with a Major, giving players no real practice to get into competition form. Many had not been in training for months.
Other sports – cycling, tennis, soccer – started with warm-up events. But nevertheless, everyone was just happy that badminton was going to restart.
Then came safety and health protocols concerns.
The withdrawals came like quick fire. It turned ugly – Europeans calling the Asians egoistic and selfish, claiming they left badminton to hang dry. The Asians tried to hint politely that it was safety that was their ultimate concern.
Not safety to the point that you had to wait for a vaccine , but safety assurances that the world governing body was seemingly not able to provide.
You would think that if the restart was so important, the BWF would have made it a top priority to ensure they had the consent and buy-in from all the top nations before announcing the calendar, or at the very least the Thomas Uber Cup.
But it would appear the BWF’s leadership style is non-consultative. In stark contrast, NBA’s Commissioner Adam Silver personally called the top teams and players to discuss and explain the conditions for re-start before pressing the green button.
The World Athletics President was in contact with all the top athletes around the world to check on their financial situation. The ITTF conducted a survey to their top 50 paddlers to get their opinion on how they would like to restart their sport.
If six out of the 20 countries slated for the Thomas-Uber Cup Finals participation withdrew, one has to ask how much consultation and collaborative discussion happened.
It was reported – more than once – that it was a sponsor requirement that the top 3 seeds participate in the Thomas-Uber Cup Finals. This would not be uncommon if a global sponsor was paying for a marquee event.
The BWF denied this. If true, even more so you’d have thought the BWF would have taken extra precautions and secured consent before releasing the calendar. So they “postponed”.
As Lee Chong Wei correctly said : postpone for the right reasons, ie for the players (and not just to avoid revenue fallout). Badminton Denmark was reported as putting in 24/7 effort for months leading up to the Thomas Uber Cup – apart from time and effort, imagine the financial losses they would have incurred to cancel a major event 14 days before.
When the Thomas Uber Cup was canceled, the BWF canceled a second event on the calendar that could have helped keep the Tour intact, the Denmark Masters. The event was part of a 2-event “European bubble”.
Somehow, when the Thomas Uber Cup was canceled / postponed, the BWF dropped the Denmark Masters too – although the two events are completely unlinked. Why did the BWF drop it?
A theory is the BWF would have had to foot the entire bill and decided the risk of Asian players not wanting to play, and therefore not being able to realise maximum revenue from their sponsors and TV deals, was not worth the losses.
There is no other explainable reason – all the BWF could say was “it was no longer viable”. So did the BWF themselves not have confidence that their safety bubble and protocols could convince the Asians to play?
Several players commented after that it was not worth travelling to Denmark for one event but would have done so if it was two events. So again Badminton Denmark was left holding the baby with the one Denmark Open.
The “European bubble” was meant to be followed by an “Asian bubble’ in November, No Asian destination was named. But if one were to believe the BWF had been working tirelessly these last few months to restart, then presumably they would have had conversations and options lined up. They then announced that the Asian bubble would be moved to January, to be held in Thailand. The
BWF defended there was no time to logistically prepare. One can’t say that if they have worked and planned so extensively – they claimed they’d spent six months on it – that a destination change would upend all that. The real reason is probably money again.
For the number of times the Thai Government was mentioned in their announcement, it is clear the BWF was able to secure financial support from the Thai government.
Kudos to the BWF. But the working theory is perhaps the Thai government – dealing with their own political uncertainty – may have asked the BWF for a cooling or grace period. After all, Thailand was safe enough COVID-wise and had announced they would stage a cycling event in November.
Did the BWF once again prefer to sacrifice the sport and its players rather than to dig into their own pockets to salvage some events and provide continuity and stability for the sport?
Perhaps it’s fine for the President and his senior officers to go without events for nine months because their salaries and livelihood were still intact.
And what about HSBC their title sponsor? Perhaps HSBC too – themselves under the microscope for the lowest slump in share price in decades, caught in a few political crossfires and under scrutiny with multiple other banks for reported suspicious transactions – were happy to take a deferment.
Yes, revenue is important for the sport. But to do it at the complete expense of the sport should be unacceptable. The ecosystem of badminton is crumbling. It’s not just the events. But the entire stoppage of development.
Most junior and lower level events have come to a halt which means the next generation of players can’t be developed. Badminton players who are independently managed run out of income and will eventually be forced into early retirement.
Badminton players managed by federations will get their salaries cut. As will coaches and everyone else.
Sponsors for badminton have and will pull out. The BWF will argue they are dealing with eroding sponsorship and media income which affects their ability to stage events. So? The USTA has openly reported they have given up to 50% discounts to their sponsors and have had to sacrifice ticketing income which is a lion’s share of their revenue. That didn’t stop them from staging the US Open.
If anything, there were no expenses spared in creating a “mini campus” safety bubble to keep everyone sustained for three weeks. Football leagues and events restarted, despite knowing there will be millions of dollars in losses.
The Wanda Diamond League restarted with athletes from all over the world, probably with higher expenses to lesser returns. At a smaller scale, sports like squash and karate – who earn much lesser in commercial revenue – have scaled down, but at least restarted.
The BWF can’t expect to want to still reap all the benefits – not now, not at a time when the sport needs to be put above all else first over revenue and P&L. That’s also what their reserves are there for – to keep the sport going, not to keep a few salaries going.
The BWF, up until their recent virtual press conference, kept insisting they were thinking of the players and hence why restarting events was so important.
Is events the only way for a world governing body to support its players?
It is evident the BWF has not created any kind of fund or system to provide aid and support to the players directly. What about non-financial support to the players?
Perhaps programmes to deal with mental health (especially during the pandemic), courses to help athletes understand the business of sport and understand how they can commercialise themselves (like WTA University, other up-skilling courses to help them prepare for life after retirement?
How did the BWF reach out to their athletes to provide mental, physiological and psychological support during the pandemic?
The BWF hasn’t developed anything digitally in terms of e-sports, fantasy sports or virtual sports – unlike basketball, F1, Soccer, Golf, Cycling, triathlon, tennis. During the pandemic, many sports with active digital or e-sports presence were able to create many innovative ways to keep the sport alive – either through participation for their athletes or simply in the minds of the fans.
Even if the BWF didn’t have anything, they could have created something. Tech and development companies were creating new apps and games at supersonic speed. But that would have required investment by the BWF.
Other sports have varying degrees of revenue streams, which proves helpful in times like this. E-sports and games. Subscription-based apps. Licensing & 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 an event. The BWF is a one-trick pony.
The pandemic is not the time to go into a 6-month slumber. Many industries have innovated. In sports, cycling launched virtual cycling series. Formula 1 teams 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. Outside the sport, shampoo companies started going into hand sanitizer production. In-flight catering arms of airlines started home delivery food services.
In Taiwan, a group of citizens created a “mask-alert” app to guide citizens to nearby shops that sold masks. The list goes on. The pandemic has yes, told us to stop and smell the roses, to find our inner selves and connect with family, to appreciate and respect the environment again, to re evaluate all the superficialism in life. But it never once told us to just stop functioning and to stop innovating.
It’s easy to lead in good times. The real test of leadership is in tough times. But the bigger question also is : where is the BWF’s true relevance and impact in the growth of badminton?
Whatever happens next – and we hope the Denmark Open is successful with no hiccups, and that the Asian leg does happen, and that the BWF puts serious consideration on how much they want to tax their players in 2021 (as opposed to squeezing everything in to cash in) – the real question is : does badminton have the right leadership at the BWF to see this sport through this crisis and beyond?
Opinion by Leena Singarajah.
Leena is an experienced and accomplished sports & entertainment media industry executive. She has held senior positions at ESPN, ESPN STAR Sports, IMG, Scripps Networks and A+E Networks. A consummate sports lover, she loves racquet sports the most having played badminton, tennis and squash, and has represented Malaysia at the Fed Cup.