Screwing your eyes into a mobile screen to watch An Se Young play badminton does no justice to that glorious sport. Sure, you will follow the scorelines and the general ebb and flow of momentum, or the frenzy of a one-sided thrashing that the Korean dishes out often. But for a pacy sport with nuanced wrists and silken striding, where even four cameras struggle to capture the aerodynamics and angles on the shuttle, make-do live streams with limited stationary lenses is a truly substandard way to appreciate Se-young’s spectacular footwork.
At a time when the sport is bursting with talent from multiple nations, and when Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, HS Prannoy, Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen are playing some serious thrillers, it is unfortunate that the television coverage of badminton in India is in complete shambles. Can mobile or even laptop screens truly be sufficient to appreciate the howitzer Satwik-Chirag smashes, measured at over 450 kmph, and their flat exchanges with the Indonesians? Can Sen’s reflex defence or Srikanth’s beguiling net play be captured by two cameras placed on either side of the court? Don’t Prannoy’s deep cross-smash and its down-the-line variation deserve a sharp big TV screen and multiple camera angles? Sadly, live streams, though they mercifully relay matches at least, simply can’t encapsulate the drama that pans out when Indian men’s badminton is finally on the verge of a take-off.
Thankfully, the peaks of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, till four years ago, had steady TV telecasts – even if just a fraction of the shuttle speeds and wrist subtleties get accurately captured by television cameras. But at least, Saina’s Indonesia titles and the hat-trick of finals, as well as Sindhu’s World Championship and glory years from 2017-2019 got beamed into Indian homes. The Rio Olympics final between Sindhu and Carolina Marin found a record 17.2 million audience, and that should’ve been the start of broadcasters pouncing on badminton TV rights, ensuring the busy circuit is adequately and diligently covered. But a sport that consistently throws up eye-catching performances with multiple contenders on most tournament weekends has spectacularly managed to botch its TV presence.
Viacom, through Sports 18 and Jio Cinema, held Badminton World Federation rights for most tournaments this year, but mysteriously vanished when the Australian Open and China Open early rounds fetched up, pleading they didn’t in fact hold the rights. The BWF, even more curiously, geo-blocked its official feed at the same time, and fans were left scrambling for streaming links which are poor substitutes for the badminton-on-TV experience.
Diehards will figure out a way, invest in VPNs, and find their fix, but that number is a few thousand perhaps, not a potential million. The only way this sport, which offers immensely entertaining match-ups even in early rounds, can turn massy is if shuttle gets its TV-game sorted. At the moment, it’s a big mess; which is a pity because Sen, Prannoy and Satwik-Chirag are playing some of the most gripping games in different corners of the world.
Badminton is quite a beloved sport in India, with a reasonably emotive history given the two All England titles, and subsequently the success of the two women’s singles greats. It might not be as mainstream a sport as it is in China, Indonesia and Malaysia, but its sheer entertainment value, week in week out, given the busy Tour, puts it at No.2 behind cricket. Track & field, wrestling, hockey and chess might have found greater success in terms of medals, but none of these sports have the sort of enviable calendar that shuttle possesses, or the breadth of Indian contenders playing humdingers every other fortnight.
To then be caught in a tussle between telecast and distribution-shy broadcasters and confusion from the world federation is plainly tragic. It is reliably known that Viacom have held the rights for a while, but it’s up to them how they distribute. Even if they have the rights, they may not broadcast. Rights are not sold tournament by tournament, but as per the level – Super 300, Super 500, Super 750, Super 1000, Majors and World Tour Finals, all have different ranges of pick-up. That’s why it’s curious why they were ready to show the Hong Kong Open, but not Australia where Prannoy was in great form, both Super 500s.
A sport that wishes to grow needs to grow up and sort out its fundamentals. Shuttle, quite simply, needs television to broadbase itself, a mere thousand settling for digital streams on personal devices won’t get the sport anywhere. Badminton is at a critical juncture in India, where only the truly interested will go in search of and find their digital streams. There is simply no way to lure the uninitiated with its patchy television presence, and a sport with great potential for community viewing will spectacularly fritter away the interest generated over the past dozen years, because no one cared enough.
That India hilariously missed out on watching every moment of the Neeraj Chopra World Championship gold medal from Budapest because the global feed was glued to the track was bad enough. India’s first track and field Worlds gold deserved better. But to know that some of the most enthralling matches in badminton will remain at the mercy of moody broadcasters and that too only if they are scheduled on TV courts, makes the situation caustically laughable.
A complete badminton viewing experience needs the court and the aerial shots, as well as the wrists, to be covered minutely by skilled camerapersons, and accompanied by commentary, even if it leads to impassioned ranting against the minor biases of the mostly European commentators. Gillian Clark’s ‘would you believe it?’ is a charming voiceover for the sport, but shuttle needs that wonderment to extend to many more matches that can be beamed into homes. Badminton deserves post and pre-match shows with experts dissecting the games and thread-baring the nuances, as well as supplementing it with depth in match statistics – none of which has progressed beyond point graphs that at best convey the leads and trends during the matches.
With simultaneous matches featuring Indians, one would think there might come a day when two channels air two fixtures. But as things stand, fans are left to follow those fixed camera streams on multiple devices and peer into laptops which can never equal the experience of watching a match with the family on a proper TV screen.
With Viacom now bagging cricket rights, there is the inevitability of a dozen channels all beaming cricket content in a nauseating overdose, even as badminton and other Olympic sports get pushed to the fringes, citing eyeball numbers. It’s a missed opportunity as Indians are playing some of the most entertaining matches in badminton at the moment. The sport has delivered consistent results, though it doesn’t boast of the heft and financial clout of cricket. But you have to be blind as a bat to not figure out that badminton is imminently watchable on television.