It’s not exactly the great new gold rush in sport in this country, but the Indian Badminton League may turn out to be a smash hit if audiences in our cricket-crazy nation patronise it with anything like the kind of enthusiasm displayed by the franchises at the inaugural auction of players in New Delhi on Monday. The IBL has the potential to serve as a game changer and take a sport that is hugely popular in many countries to a wider audience in India. While the memorable achievements of players such as Nandu Natekar, Dinesh Khanna, Prakash Padukone, Syed Modi, Vimal Kumar and P. Gopi Chand helped keep the game in public focus in the past, it is the emergence of the charismatic Saina Nehwal as a potential world-beater that offers the cash-rich new league a chance to capture the imagination of young sportspersons in the country. Saina fetched $120,000 at the auction, an amount that Mumbai Indians or Chennai Super Kings may throw away without a second thought on a cricketer who may never get past the dugout in the Indian Premier League. But that cynical point of view would do no good to a new event that might well become a popular permanent fixture in the Indian sports calendar while attracting fresh young talent to badminton. With Saina and P.V. Sindhu already among the world elite, and P. Kashyap showing immense potential, competitive badminton has never had it so good in India. In the event, you can hardly fault the timing of the league organisers.
The Chinese, who swept all gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics, have stayed away from the IBL. But the available depth in the field is still good enough to provide some thrilling and competitive matches for the lovers of the game for just over two weeks. Billed as the world’s richest badminton league, with $1 million as the prize fund, the event was aimed at benefiting the home players. Going by the players’ auction, the first objective has been achieved. The fact that the franchisees spent $861,000 on 36 Indian players reflects the quantum of monetary gain for home-bred talent. Should the IBL gain in stature by attracting the Chinese in its future editions, the bids will surely be much higher. This time, the presence of the men’s world No.1, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, has burnished the organisers’ credibility. But most franchises had reasons to be pleased with the way the auction went. Some may have faltered with their shopping strategies but then they will learn to do better over time. Finally, the success of the league will depend not only on the organisational skills of the Badminton Association of India and its commercial partners, but also on audience turnout at venues and television ratings. But for a start, things do look positive.