As the established ‘icons’ snuggled into their bar-stool-like chairs at the unveiling of the Indian Badminton League (IBL) trophy on Tuesday,PV Sindhu arrived,almost as if she was fashionably late.
In truth Sindhu,the country’s first bronze-medal winner at the World Championships in three decades,has hardly had time for a shut-eye since her feat in Guangzhou last week. Sindhu had traveled from Guangzhou to Hyderabad and onward to New Delhi in about 48 hours.
The teenaged medallist smiled shyly when the spotlight was trained solely on her for a while as she made herself comfortable on stage.
The timing of her bronze in the women’s singles couldn’t have been better for the sport in India,which is making its first tryst with big-money by ushering in the franchise-based league,the curtains of which lift today at the Siri Fort Complex in New Delhi.
With eight men in the top-50 and PV Sindhu set to rise from her current No.12 position when the latest rankings are released on Thursday,Indian badminton is no longer just about Saina Nehwal or Jwala Gutta or Ashwini Ponnappa.
However,while Indian players crowding the rankings table is a good sign,it does not guarantee the success of IBL,nor assure spectators at stadiums or viewers in front of television sets.
Similar leagues in other sports have been inspired by cricket’s rather successful pioneer,the Indian Premier League,but not all have proven to be sustainable.
The IBL has had its share of teething problems,including pull-outs and postponements. The full array of international stars won’t be on show as powerhouse China is not participating in the event.
The World Championship men’s singles gold-medal winner Lin Dan will not be here,while the match fitness of runner-up and World No.1 Lee Chong Wei is suspect after the Malaysian pulled out while trailing 20-17 in the third game of the Worlds final. Yet,there remains a sense of anticipation.
The biggest attraction in the opening leg to be held in New Delhi is the match-up between Saina and Sindhu when the Hyderabad Hotshots play Awadhe Warriors on the second day.
“I have been told that the tickets for first three days of the IBL have been sold out. There have been times at the India Open when there have been empty seats. So the possibility of playing in front of a full house from the first day onwards is a great sign,” Saina said on Monday.
Saina said the key to sustaining the league is inter-linked to the success of the Indian players. “The reason why the IBL is here is because the Indian players have been doing well and the sport is gaining popularity. The key going forward is for Indian players to shine on the world stage which in turn will ensure that badminton and the IBL remains popular,” she said.
Jwala Gutta,the bronze-medal winner in women’s doubles at the 2011 World Championships,said that the presence of foreign players in the league that will be played across six cities can help increase interest in the IBL. “In India,badminton is all about the local players like Saina and others,but this league will let fans have an opportunity to know the top foreign players as well,” Gutta said.
One such foreigner is Denmark’s Mathias Boe,a silver-medalist at the London Olympics in men’s doubles. The 33-year-old has grown up playing in the robust Danish league one of the oldest and opines the success of the sport will be determined by collective effort of the players,the sponsors and the team owners and the spectators.
“If the first season is successful then half the job done. I have been playing in the Danish league since the age of 13. Clubs play up to 16 matches in a season. The popularity of badminton back home has helped sustain the league,in which the money is much less than that offered in the IBL,over the years. From what I see,the sport has potential in India,” Boe said.
The owners are keeping their fingers crossed. Rajeev Kamineni of the PVP group that owns Hyderabad Hotshots said,”The IBL has to be sustained year in and year out only then will it grow into a successful league. I have been told that the tickets for the first few days are sold out. That is a great start,” he said.