IBL can save cricket. Sort of...

Sachin KalbagBadminton and table tennis can be among the most engaging of spectator sports on television. The games are fast, the rivalries can be fierce, there is intense drama and some of the top players in both sports have skills equaled by few others. Yet, these two are among the least watched sports in India, a country where cricket, football, tennis, and motorsports take precedence for both advertising dollars as well as viewer mindspace.

New challenges: If marketed well, badminton can hold its own against the onslaught of viewership ratings in favour of, say, tennis or cricket

But badminton and table tennis need not be poor cousins of the multi-billion-dollar associations that control the above sports. If marketed well, badminton can hold its own against the onslaught of viewership ratings in favour of, say, tennis or cricket. Therefore, the Indian Badminton League is a welcome change. It hopes to bring in some of the best players in the world to compete against each other in team format. It has (relatively) good money for the top players, the participating teams, and indeed the eventual winners.

In a sense, badminton is being privatised.

This is good news. How else would you be able to see Lee Chong Wei, Juliane Schenk, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Tien Mien Nyugen, Tine Baun, and some of the other top players in the world, in the same tournament in India? If the IBL succeeds this year, it would do well to get some of the top Chinese, Korean and Indonesian talent to play in the next edition. This will not only help upgrade the level of play, but also encourage spectators to visit stadiums and watch it on television. Not to mention, the sheer exposure our players will get without spending on going to international tournaments. The first few days of the IBL did not have great matches, but some of the encounters were really top class.

It is quality that will differentiate it from the rest. And if it manages to do that, it will set up a good benchmark for other sports to follow. Table tennis, for example.

While cricket still dominates television, the sheer quantity of it is already making fans seek other sports such as football and F1 racing. This year’s television rating of the IPL final, for instance, was down 28 per cent from last year (it was 6.9 this year compared to 8.92 in 2012), according to Television Audience Measurement (TAM) figures. Indeed, there is fatigue, but also, the quality of telecast of other sports (and the quality of the game itself) has improved so much that cricket is no longer the lone ranger, despite one of the most exciting Ashes series ever.

India’s ‘A’ cricket team just concluded a victorious tour of South Africa defeating the hosts as well as Australia, but how many will remember the series? There will be more carpetbombing when India tours South Africa later this year. In the middle of this is the controversy surrounding India’s cricket board -- conflict of interest, fraud, in-fighting, just about everything that can go wrong with the richest sporting body in India has.

Frankly, the cricket-viewing audience is tired.

It could well be that cricket will lose its primacy. Or, at the very least, the gap between cricket and the rest of the sports will be bridged to a great extent.

If this indeed happens, it will force cricket administrators and broadcasters to focus on the game, rather than pure commerce; on its quality rather than quantity. This is precisely why, sports lovers in India should hail the advent of the Indian Badminton League and strive (and pray) for its success. A wider choice in good quality sports broadcasting will mean that cricket will be forced to bounce back, DRS or no DRS, with or without BCCI’s shenanigans.

While the IBL is excellently produced, it still has some way to go before it reaches the international standards set by some European and Asian broadcasters. But there is hope. Besides, unlike the T20 format in cricket which is often accused of destroying the game, the IBL suffers from no such shortcoming. Therefore, the standards of the game will only improve, not go down. If either Saina or Sindhu reach the pinnacle of the sport, the IBL would have played a role.

This alone is good news for Indian badminton.

Sachin Kalbag is executive editor, MiD DAY. He tweets at @SachinKalbag

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