P. Gopichand (right) with P.V. Sindhu at his badminton academy in Hyderabad Photo: Reuben Singh/www.indiatodayimages.com
A drizzle added to the morning chill on a Saturday in late November in Hyderabad. The usually bustling Gachibowli road, the city's technology and financial hub that houses companies like Microsoft as well as the Indian School of Business, had little traffic. But a stone's throw away, the four-acre Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy was buzzing with activity. Scores of cars were parked there as people awaited their turn at the badminton courts, thrown open to all on weekends. Past the car parking and the neatly manicured lawns is a Yonex store, the Japanese sports gear maker's only outlet in India. C.H. Sridevi, the store manager, was busy at the billing counter as a customer picked up a racquet while another looked for shoes. Sridevi says the store gets 50 customers every day on average and up to 100 on weekends. Footfall has nearly doubled over the past year, she adds.
Growing queues of people waiting to play at the academy's courts and rising sales at the Yonex store highlight the resurgence of badminton in India. In a nation where cricket is a religion, badminton is attracting more sport enthusiasts, equipment suppliers and business savvy sponsors thanks to players like Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, Jwala Gutta and Parupalli Kashyap regularly winning international tournaments.
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-Reasons why badminton is in the spotlight
-The big success stories of Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, Jwala Gutta and Parupalli Kashyap
-Government backing for top players, including picking up the tab for their travel and training
-Greater awareness of the sport has led to rising sales of racquets, shuttles and other accessories
-The success of the Indian Badminton League, which was watched by 40 million people
-Rising number of sponsors and product endorsement opportunities for players
The man credited with badminton's resurgence in the country is Pullela Gopichand. The ace player-turned-coach founded his Hyderabad academy in 2008, seven years after he became only the second Indian to win the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships.
"The number of people wanting to play the sport has increased dramatically," says the 40-year-old. "On a typical day, at least 10 people call me up seeking admission, as against one or two about three years ago. There has been a huge rise in the number of entries received for any tournament."
Badminton first gained popularity in the country in the 1970s and 1980s, says Vimal Kumar, co-founder and chief coach at the Bangalore-based Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy. This was the time when players like Padukone and Syed Modi came into the limelight. In 1980, Padukone became the first Indian to win the All England Championships. The duo also won medals in other international events such as the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.
But the interest could not be sustained. The sport was not a priority for the government and by the early 1990s players had begun to feel stagnated. This led Padukone to set up his eponymous academy in 1994 along with Vimal Kumar and Vivek Kumar. Padukone also rebelled against the establishment that ran the sport in India by forming a parallel body, but that didn't get far.
Gopichand says his badminton academy barely manages to make ends meet. But he has no regrets. He is not running after profits. He wants to make the academy a centre of excellence
Gopichand has had better luck. But setting up the academy wasn't easy. While the state government allotted the land, Gopichand needed Rs 10 crore to start the academy. Half the amount came from Nimmagada Prasad, founder of pharmaceutical company Matrix Laboratories, which is now part of US drug maker Mylan Laboratories. For the other half, Gopichand had to mortgage even his own house. What prompted him to do that was an incident in 2009 when he met a senior executive of a company, seeking funding. "I spent six hours at his office. He told me badminton did not have the eyeballs and offered a few thousand rupees for the naming right at a tournament," says Gopichand.
Today, the academy has eight courts, 14 coaches and 120 full-time students. Gopichand says he is in talks with some companies to raise funds for expansion. The academy has been a tremendous success producing several top players including Nehwal, Sindhu and Kashyap. Their success has transformed the public perception of the sport and attracted sponsorships. One of the sport's new backers is Rajiv Chilakalapudi, the founder of Greengold Animation and creator of popular cartoon character Chhota Bheem. Chilakalapudi, who two years ago sponsored a tournament at the Gopichand Academy for children under 12 years, believes badminton is the only sport other than cricket that has the potential to attract huge audiences in India.
Nehwal, who became the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in badminton at the 2012 London Games, says the number of her sponsors has surged in the past three years. Gopichand feels another factor responsible for the rise of badminton in the country is support from the central government, which bears the training and travelling costs of top players. Greater financial support and more sponsors mean that players know they can also make money if they play well. "Players today clearly see this sport as a viable career option," he says.
To cash in on the rising popularity, the Badminton Association of India - the sport's governing body - organised the Indian Badminton League (IBL) tournament in August. The IBL has six franchisees owned by corporate houses. The inaugural edition roped in 20 brands including title sponsor Vodafone, says Ashish Chadha, CEO of Sporty Solutionz, IBL's commercial partner. Though the company suffered a loss - it reportedly spent about Rs 85 crore and earned Rs 55 crore - from the event, Chadha, who does not wish to discuss any numbers, is not worried. "We have done better than expected," he says. "All our global broadcast deals are being renewed and we are signing up new sponsors. We are confident of breaking even in the next season." Badminton's growing attraction is reflected also in the rising sales of racquets, shuttles and accessories. Karan Dhar, Brand Manager at Sunrise Sports, the sole distributor of Yonex products in India, says demand for racquets is growing at least 20 per cent annually. What is more interesting is that the share of premium racquets in total sales has climbed to 22 per cent in volume terms from 15 per cent three years ago, he says. In value terms, the share of racquets that cost Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 has jumped to 26 per cent from 19 per cent. And not just kids, people in the age group of 25 to 45 are also taking up badminton actively, he says.
In spite of the rising interest in badminton, Gopichand says his academy barely manages to make ends meet. But he has no regrets. He is not running after profits. He wants to make the academy a centre of excellence. "If you focus on excellence you spend on so many shuttles, so many coaches, and so much of court time on one person that it just becomes impossible to make it profitable," he says. "If profit is the goal then one could opt for only a beginners' programme. Then you could take more people hour after hour and run several batches....there is a lot more money in the beginners' programme."
Nehwal says that while money flow has improved, it is still nowhere close to cricket and not every player attracts sponsors. What's her advice to budding players? "You play a sport because of the love and passion that you have for the game," she says. "Obviously, you will earn if you perform well... [But] you won't get anything immediately. You will have to be patient."
E. Kumar Sharma