Take 100 random athletes from across North America and ask them what sport they play. You’ll hear a lot about the big four: hockey, basketball, baseball and football. You’ll probably hear a bit about cross-country, swimming or track. But I doubt you’ll hear badminton mentioned.
Most North Americans considers badminton a “backyard” sport, something they played in gym class back in junior high. But, in fact, statistics show that badminton is the second most popular sport in the entire world, complete with national rivalries that evoke enthusiasm that could challenge European soccer or college football. Badminton’s amazing athletic grace, complete with its breathtaking dives, superhuman reflexes and massive jump-smashes clocked at over 320 km/h make it the fastest sport in the world, and, arguably, the most difficult.
Not convinced? Look at the facts.
As far as racquet sports go, tennis is by far the most popular in North America. However, when compared to badminton, tennis doesn’t seem to earn its popularity in athletic terms. A comparison between two famous matches, one badminton and one tennis, produced some interesting statistical differences:
Time: Tennis, 3 hours and 18 minutes. Badminton, 1 hour and 16 minutes.
Ball/shuttle in play: Tennis, 18 minutes. Badminton, 37 minutes.
Rallies: Tennis 299. Badminton, 146.
Shots: Tennis, 1,004. Badminton, 1,972.
Shots per rally: Tennis, 3.4. Badminton, 13.5.
Distance covered: Tennis, 2 miles. Badminton, 4 miles.
Hardest tennis serve ever recorded: 155 mph
Hardest badminton smash ever recorded: 206 mph
The badminton players competed for half the time, yet they ran twice as far and hit nearly twice as many shots. It’s clear this sport does not deserve the “wussy” stereotype it possesses in North America. And, badminton already receives recognition as a world-class sport in other parts of the world.
Badminton commands a massive following in Asia, and at its debut in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona it attracted 1.1 billion viewers worldwide. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, badminton was the first event to sell out. However, in the U.S., badminton is seen as a recreational activity rather than a world-class sport. The fact that the U.S. Badminton Association (USAB) has only 2,700 members, and that only 503 high school badminton programs exist in a country filled with millions of young athletes, is shocking to say the least. Considering our love of fast-paced action and shocking athletic ability, why have avid sports fans and athletes in North America not yet seen badminton as a world-class sport? Unfortunately, the problem is not an uncommon one, nor is it easily solved.
American sports are controlled by a very powerful influence: corporate money. In the case of badminton, the problem is ensuring sponsors. Badminton does not have a strong history in North America, and sponsors are unwilling to pay to advertise at events that may not draw a large crowd. Badminton also does not have a set time length, which makes it difficult to televise. Without TV exposure, sports aren’t seen by the public, and don’t have a chance to win over fans and athletes to their cause.
Another problem is the lack of financial incentive. There is a lot of worldwide travel involved in badminton, and there is very little government support, as well as no guaranteed money, unlike contracts in basketball or football. A baseball player who signs a contract in the MLB is guaranteed about $500,000 a year, even if he does not play a game with the team. For a badminton player to make that much money, they would have to be one of the top 15 players in the world.
The other problem is competing with the Asian badminton powers such as China, Korea and Malaysia. American Olympic badminton player Bob Malaythong came from Laos to the U.S. when he was 8 years old, and knows how different badminton is in Asia.
“The talent pool in Asia is amazingly large,” Malaythong said in an interview. “They go after badminton all or nothing there, and for every one player on a team, there are 1,000 players who didn’t make it. Badminton is more than just a sport in Asia, it is a chance for a better life.”
Keith Anton, local coach in Victoria and ex-national team coach and player says that an unfortunate combination of low exposure and financial incentive coupled with serious competition from another market makes badminton a tough sell in this part of the world.
“I could make more money playing satellite tennis, which is not even professional level, than I could playing professional badminton. And I was better at badminton,” Anton said.
However, there is hope for die-hard badminton fans. Despite the lack of corporate support, perhaps with more exposure it will become easier to secure sponsors for badminton events. Anton offered his expertise in predicting the potential growth of badminton in North America.
“At the moment, it’s one of the fastest growing sports. There are a lot more qualified coaches available to athletes and, with the recent rule changes, badminton is going to be much easier to televise,” he said. “Within a decade we could see badminton as a major sport in North America.”