Controversy follows the money trail

Sai Praneeth of India plays a return against Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia.

INDIA - Steady winds have been blowing across the Indian sporting landscape. Some of these winds are beneficial; some have caused tumult, but what is beyond argument is the change in the landscape, on the surface at least. What lies beneath the surface is another question.

The Indian Badminton League (IBL) is more or less a copy of the Indian Premier League (IPL), with city-based franchises paying local and international players plenty of money to turn out for a couple of weeks a year.

On the question of change, this much is certain: The IPL has - in the inaugural year at least - made some players rich beyond their expectations.

Until recently, non-cricket athletes in India took to sport hoping to make ends meet; badminton players felt rewarded if they landed a job in the petroleum sector, which hires the best of them. Turning out for the country was the biggest dream for most of them.

In recent years, the scope of the dream got a little wider as the Indian government began to splurge on its sporting programmes to live up to its own myth as an economic powerhouse; badminton was an immediate beneficiary. Saina Nehwal's international successes gave her Indian compatriots hope. Still, most players, despite their frequent international trips, would have expected to live in relative obscurity and middle-class contentment.

The IBL auction on July 22 brought unexpected financial rewards to several players. Apart from Saina, who was bought for US$120,000 (S$152,400) (S, players of lesser profile too found themselves richer by thousands of dollars. The Indian doubles player Pradya Gadre, who has only just started playing internationally, netted US$46,000; another promising youngster, Sai Praneeth, was bought for US$40,000 - unimaginable sums in Indian badminton just three or four years ago.

"It's huge motivation for a player like me," said Praneeth. "I was expecting around US$20,000, but this was surprising."

National champion P. Kashyap, who was bought for US$76,000, said that for him the timing of the league couldn't have been better. "There have been other good players before me, but there was no league then," Kashyap told tabla!. "The best they could hope was for a government job. The IBL is coming at a time when I'm in the prime of my career; I'm in the top 15. I feel I chose the right sport. It feels good to be a badminton player now."

But while players' incomes have suddenly shot up, we need to examine the other aspects of the IBL. Is the model sustainable, for instance?

Each franchise is required to shell out around Rs1.5 crores a year. The companies will hope their star players, and the two-week-long league telecast the nature of the franchise owners. Except the Dabur group, which is a respected name in healthcare, no other traditional big name - such as the Tatas, the Birlas, or even new-generation companies such as Infosys - has bought a team.

Dabur has a track record of investing in sports teams and purchased the Pune franchise. The controversial Sahara Group, which has diverse interests including real estate and insurance, but lately beset by legal problems, bought the Lucknow franchise.

Two of the other franchise owners are also into real estate - BOP Group (buyers of the Bangalore team) and Krrish Group (Delhi).

The Hyderabad franchise was bought by PVP Ventures, a media and entertainment company, while the Mumbai team was picked up by Telugu actor Nagarjuna, cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar and businessman/cricket administrator V. Chamundeshwarnath.

Before the auction, six icons were chosen - Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia), Saina Nehwal, Kashyap, P.V. Sindhu, Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta (all Indian). The icons were to have a base price of US$50,000 and each team was required to have one icon.

However things veered off the script, with Ponnappa being bought for US$25,000 and Jwala Gutta for US$31,000 (the Gutta-Ponnappa pair are World Championships bronze medallists in women's doubles). The organisers explained that their base prices had been slashed as none of the team owners had wanted to spend US$50,000 on the two, as the women's doubles event had been axed from the competition.

The players were furious as they had promoted the IBL all along. "I'm very disappointed. Ashwini and I signed the contract as icon players and we should have been given a better deal. We were not even informed about the reduction of base price. It is disrespectful and I am deeply hurt and upset," Gutta said.

Most teams went for star singles players, leaving them little money to buy accomplished doubles players.

Among those left out was Mathias Boe from Denmark, the world No. 3 and Olympic silver medallist, who swore on Twitter never to play in India.

"I'm really pissed, as I have supported the event all the way through, and almost left the national team to participate," Boe wrote.

To add to the organisers' troubles, the accomplished men's doubles duo of Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas also accused the organisers of short-changing them, as they had apparently signed contracts after being assured of US$15,000 each, but were sold for far less. The organisers tried their best to defend themselves, but the damage had been done.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the players who attracted high bids were understandably thrilled. While the unhappy players haven't pulled out of the IBL, it's likely that the heartburn will remain.

The auction left a lot of unanswered questions, and that isn't a healthy sign for a league that claims to have premier status in the badminton world.

The real test for the IBL will begin now. The league starts on Aug 14. Organisers will be on tenterhooks because the IBL follows the World Championships; an injury to a star, for instance, could affect the league.

And what after August? How will the IBL retain its relevance until the second edition? The answers will probably trickle out over the next few months.

 

Dev S. Sukumar is a badminton writer based in Bangalore and the biographer of Indian badminton legend Prakash Padukone.

tabla@sph.com.sg


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