THOMAS LUND, Chief Operations Officer of the Badminton World Federation and former Danish international, in an exclusive chat with DEV S SUKUMAR on the sidelines of the Malaysia Open Super Series
Could you outline your vision of the new Super Series circuit? Where do you see it going?
Well, this (Malaysia Open) is the first tournament, and we are seeing some positive signs. There is the commitment from the hosts and organizers to do something extra. There are some things happening that you see, and some things behind the scenes, in how we manage the tournament, and how we get to spread in terms of TV exposure. All the hosts are stepping up a few notches in how they present the tournaments, how they use different things for spectators — big screens, and the branding around the tournament. So there are many positive signs that it is going in the right direction.
After you took over as COO, what were the processes you initiated? What were your goals?
One of the things we did was to initiate a big research project where we went through the quality of what we were doing, and benchmark that against other sports, into what we could do better. That report gave us a lot of ideas on what we could do, how we could rearrange the structure, and thereby arrived at this new concept with Super Series and Premier Series, and our commercial structure and TV distribution, which are different now, and the whole way of discussing with organizers what we needed to do. It’s not only about increasing prize money, but it’s also about all your other things behind the scenes. It has to be a quality setup, should be a lasting setup. Thereby we can attract more interest from sponsors, and generate more money. We try to generate a positive, growing spiral over the next year.
What are the challenges in finding sponsors in badminton? How do you convince them to put money into badminton?
One of the key things we’re trying to do is to have a credible, consistent setup to all the 12 tournaments that we’re hosting. We of course as BWF are trying to guide all the hosts to have a good, strong, consistent planning setup around their tournaments, have a professional way of presenting the tournament and showcasing the sport. But it’s also about getting good TV distribution around the world which is crucial for sponsors and partners. We have a new agreement with Total Sports Asia – they’re working hard to get the distribution spread to all parts the world, which should generate sponsor interest.
Talking of TV coverage – has it expanded?
We’re still in the process, but we can see that the coverage will be more than in previous years. We’ve seen it expanding over the last year.
Are there requests from new areas for badminton footage?
It’s not only about requests, it’s also about aggressively going in and trying to distribute the signal. That’s something we’re working on now. It’s very early, but we’re ahead of last year and I’m sure we’ll end up with good results at the end of the year.
Despite the spread of badminton, the game is still dominated by the traditional powers. Are you worried that there are no new challengers?
I think we do see new countries other than the traditional ones slowly creeping in. If you see the doubles, you have Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia… countries that have some quality players. Of course we’d like to have a wide spread of players of many nationalities. We’re aware that some countries have very strong traditions, and those countries will always have more players for years to come. But other countries are not doing too badly, which is something we appreciate.
Eastern Europe has good potential. Those countries have developed a lot, and hopefully will have more good players coming through. The Pan-American region is developing well at the moment.
It’s good that Denmark and other countries in Europe can still give a good match to Asian players. The positive about Asia is that you actually see more and more Asian nations coming up. You see Vietnam, Thailand… the game is spreading in Asia.
BWF had development centers in Sofia and Saarbrucken. What’s the status of those centers?
We have slightly revised our training structure. We’re not running our own centers; we’re endorsing other centers. We’ve endorsed two in Denmark, and are endorsing two in Asia. That will hopefully give choices to players to go to different places through the year for sparring and training.
What are your thoughts on India? How do you see the India story?
India is no doubt one of the areas that’s developing — maybe the most positive development story at the moment. We can see a lot of it is built on Saina’s success obviously, but also other players coming up. I can see a strong badminton culture building in India, and interest both from media side, and the grassroots side. It’s not only about writing about Saina, and showing her matches, but also a lot of players and a lot of things happening at the grassroot level, which can have a longer-lasting result.
Are you planning any specific project for India?
Well, we don’t have a specific project for India. Most projects are done by member associations. We offer member associations some projects where they can ask us for help. India is running many projects, they’re developing their own officials and coaches, many things are already happening any way. Our focus is on countries at a slightly lower level. If India come to us, we’d look to help them.
The granting of the Super Series was a big step for India…
That should help the region to come even stronger and have a continuous tournament being hosted at the highest level. I followed the Commonwealth Games closely. I could see 24×7 coverage in Malaysia. I’m biased, but I think badminton was one of the best sports in the CWG. The venue and set-up were good; I didn’t hear any issues of how the tournament was run. It was a big success story for India and badminton.
You were a player who is now into administration. How has the transition been?
Busy (laughs). It’s been busy, but it’s been fun. There’s still a lot to do. We’ve gone through a research project, gone through a phase where we defined what we wanted to do — setting up a strategy — and now we’ve gone into the implementation stage.
What would you like to see in five years? Is tennis a benchmark?
We don’t want to be compared to tennis, but we’d like to take the good part from what we could call the successful global commercial sports such as tennis, football, golf, and get closer to the widespread interest they have globally. I think we have great interest in some countries, where we beat football, tennis and golf, but we want to do that in more countries, to beat them! I hope we can slowly expand the base we have over the next few years, and become a more recognizable global sport. There are countries where badminton is played and known, but it has to pick up on the commercial and TV level. I think we have the product now. We have a decent presentation, we have good players and good names, we now have to get it out there and tell people about it.
Are you seeing signs that badminton has stepped up a level?
Definitely the organizers and people working behind the scenes are enthusiastic about what’s happening. Some of the things we’re trying will slowly pick up – in terms of branding of the Series, and making the tournaments part of a series that’s bigger (than individual events). We’re not just playing the Proton Malaysia Open; we’re actually playing twelve legs of something’s that part of a bigger scheme, and where people will follow the players through the year, on the road to the finals. We have a good story to tell.