The BWF’s new era: How the World Tour is taking badminton to new heights

The 2018 launch of the HSBC BWF World Tour, marked a new beginning for badminton sport both competitively and commercially. Badminton World Federation secretary general Thomas Lund lifts the lid on the recent revamp, and outlines how the governing body plans to strengthen badminton’s reputation as a cutting-edge sport.

The BWF’s new era: How the World Tour is taking badminton to new heights

In March 2017, years of planning finally came to fruition for the Badminton World Federation (BWF). For quite some time, the global governing body had been looking for a way to bring its flagship BWF Superseries and BWF Grand Prix events under one umbrella – an ambition that has now been realised in the form of the BWF World Tour.

To an extent, the rebrand was long overdue. The Superseries and Grand Prix had been running since 2007 and, while the BWF might have set the initial wheels of change in motion themselves, its secretary general Thomas Lund reveals that there were other major players pushing for change.

“The feedback we received from various different stakeholders – not least broadcasters – was focused on the possibility of creating a more coherent structure,” he says. “So we evaluated that and decided we wanted to create one cohesive tour structure where it’s a little more straightforward how things are connected and whereby we could also incorporate a bigger number of tournaments into a bigger tour umbrella.

“It’s really a combination of a rebranding exercise together with a commercial upgrade exercise. So there are a range of different things that have happened, but first and foremost is to make the product much more understandable, and I think this repositioning is one of the more important parts of it.”

That commercial upgrade has been almost entirely defined – so far, at least – by a major four-year partnership with global banking giant HSBC, which was unveiled as the first title sponsor of the BWF World Tour and the BWF World Tour Finals when the new format was officially launched in January this year. The multi-faceted arrangement also designates HSBC as a global development partner of the BWF, and Lund is keen to stress that it is a common desire to be recognised internationally that will make the collaboration mutually beneficial for both parties.

“There had been a shared interest to explore the possibilities of how we could help HSBC and how HSBC could become part of this new product,” he explains. “I think from our side, obviously, HSBC is a very well-known bank around the world, but is also very well known within the sponsorship sphere; it’s associated with well-established and prominent sports rights in different parts of the world.

“They also have a natural association with the Asian market but I think we both have a shared aspiration to be known as organisations with a global reach and to appeal to a global fanbase. Over time, there will be a range of different activities with a focus on developing a partnership where we make a real and sustainable impact in different parts of the world. It won’t be something that will launch across the whole world at one time, but something we will be launching step by step over years to come.”

Badminton World Federation secretary general Thomas Lund is hoping to drive the sport's global growth

Indeed, the tie-up appears to make sense on a number of levels, and HSBC’s prominent presence in Asia – where badminton’s popularity continues to grow like nowhere else in the world – will undoubtedly have appealed to the BWF. Most indicative of that, perhaps, is that news of the partnership coincided with the announcement that the Chinese city of Guangzhou will host the World Tour Finals for the 2018 to 2021 tournament cycle. The finals of the aforementioned Superseries have been staged in Dubai for the last four years but by taking its annual season-crowning event back to one of its traditional hotbeds, the BWF will simultaneously provide HSBC with the opportunity to activate around the competition in one of its strongest markets.    

“It’s obviously a combination of things,” says Lund. “Badminton has a very strong tie and very strong belonging in China because, even though there are a lot of nations getting closer to them, it would be fair to say that they are still the number one nation in the world. Then Guangzhou within China is probably the hub of badminton where I’m sure we’ll get very good attendances.

“We had a fantastic time in Dubai which was beneficial for both parties. Now we are going into a key area and it’s just a different way of staging it, so we look forward to that. It’s also obviously a strong region and a key market for HSBC, and it’s somewhere we think – with HSBC – we can make a difference.”

As Lund says, China – the winner of 41 of the 106 available badminton medals in Olympic history – has long exercised its dominance over the sport, but with time, the expanded World Tour should also enable the BWF to dip its toes into new target markets. For now, the inaugural edition of the series will make 18 stops across Asia, six visits to Europe, two to Oceania and one to the US. Clearly, there is room for added diversity on the calendar but badminton’s stronghold in Asia – coupled with the BWF’s partnership with HSBC – means that the evolution can afford to be a gradual one.         

“We obviously work day in and day out on strategies in various different markets around the world,” says Lund, who is himself a former badminton player for Denmark. “There are even Asian markets where we still have things to do and we could still grow considerably. There are things happening around the Arabic area after what we were doing in Dubai, and from the interest coming out of other countries around that area in the UAE.

“Europe is obviously still a strong area for us in the sense that badminton has a high participation profile and still has a high level of recognition in a range of countries. But I think it’s a much tougher sports market because there are so many sports that are strong in Europe, so we look very much at the US and other Pan-American countries, too.

“We’ve seen really good growth in Central America, but we also see things happening in the US, and we know that Canada has a strong tradition on the schooling side. Building the sport from a participation level into a big, strong commercial activity is not always necessarily connected, but we are working on both areas and step by step I think we are making progress, but it’s not done overnight.”

The reality is that the players are still playing more tournaments than what is the mandatory requirement. There’s an element that I think players, coaches and federations need to look at their priorities in terms of what they play and how they play it.    

While global development might not be instant, it would be fair to say that the new-look commercial structure is already making a difference for the players, with US$1.5 million available to the winner of the World Tour Finals and a significantly larger total up for grabs over the course of the season. That added prosperity, however, seems to have come at a price. In return for more prize money, the World Tour comprises more tournaments – a total of 27 across five levels – on its calendar, with more ranking points at stake and more demands for the top players to meet. On top of all that, there are also an additional 11 BWF Tour Super 100 events to contend with, which also contribute towards qualification for the World Tour Finals. 

Change, though, is rarely universally accepted, and just three months into its inaugural season, the World Tour has already been met with some disapproving voices. The new structure dictates that the top players – facing the threat of a hefty fine – must play up to 13 of the highest-level events on the calendar. This represents a significant increase from last year, when the top ten ranked players were required to compete in all five Superseries Premier events, four of the seven regular Superseries tournaments, and the Superseries Finals if they were to qualify.

In a nutshell, then, the major gripe is that the new format is creating an unsustainable workload for the sport’s biggest stars. Lund, on the other hand, while willing to listen to the athletes’ grievances, doesn’t think the demands of the new structure are too unreasonable. 

“Of course we are looking at the feedback we are getting from the players, and as an organisation we are very much listening to what is being said to us by our community,” he explains. “That being said, if you look at the calendar and the tour itself, yes, it is mandatory to play more tournaments than what has been the case before, but the reality is that the players are still playing more tournaments than what is the mandatory requirement.

“So there’s an element that I think players, coaches and federations need to look at their priorities in terms of what they play and how they play it. I don’t think there can be any doubts in anybody’s minds that the tour and our major events are their bread and butter. If there are other things that they are playing as well and need to prioritise then that may require some choices here and there. But, that being said, there are also some structural elements that we have had some feedback on, which is something we take note of and are looking into.”

The BWF launched its newly re-formatted World Tour earlier this year

From the BWF’s perspective, the calendar revamp will allow the governing body to experiment with its events to make them more appealing to potential broadcasters and sponsors, as well as find new ways to enrich the fan experience. Sports like basketball, cricket and golf have all introduced short-form competitions to positive effect, and the World Tour might just provide the BWF with an opportunity to do the same.

In their current state, matches are contested as best of three games, with a score of 21 required to win a game. In May, however, BWF members will vote on a proposed new scoring system which would see matches held over five games, but with only 11 points needed for victory. 

“The whole strategy is obviously to engage with the fan,” says Lund. “You can argue about how you do that and the best way of doing that, but getting more kids to events has been important for us and that has been a key consideration behind the scoring system changes.

“We don’t necessarily want to keep it too short – it’s not something that needs to be over in a minute or two – but it needs to be something that allows every point to create tension on the court with the players, because that will in turn excite the spectators following the match. So that has been a key consideration around the scoring system, but it will also lead to slightly shorter and hopefully more exciting matches.

“That’s important within what we would call the entertainment side of the game, and that’s part of what we need to adjust going forward to keep the younger generation more engaged around our sport.”

Under the banner of ‘Enhancing Badminton’s Future’, the BWF recently released a special edition newsletter to its members, outlining a six-step plan revolving around the fan experience to optimise the presentation of the sport at the highest level. Along with the scoring system changes, that document also put forward a proposal to reduce the amount of on-court coaching during games, while also offering to introduce a service-law change to implement a fixed height for serves.

The aim, then, is clearly to innovate, and in doing so to strike the ever-elusive balance between gearing badminton towards the fans of tomorrow while keeping the peace with its traditional followers.    

Women’s world number one Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei on her way to an upset defeat to Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon in a three-game final at the Malaysia Masters in Kuala Lumpur

“Clearly we are aware that we have an existing fanbase, and we probably also know from the analysis we have conducted that our fanbase is not the oldest in the world, but it’s also not the youngest,” says Lund. “It actually varies very much in different countries. In some of our key countries, the younger generation is more diversified in their interests, so it’s a bit more difficult to get those younger people to come in and focus only on your sport because they spread themselves over all sorts of things. And there’s a big offer out there, so we have a key focus on that younger generation.”

With the BWF seemingly intent on strengthening badminton’s global reputation as being cutting-edge, these are exciting times to be involved with the sport. The organisation is constantly keeping track of the the way its fans engage with badminton, which has naturally inspired a shift in focus to digital, and Lund points out that the governing body has significantly ramped up its whole content production, with more short-form content aimed at offering something different for both new and seasoned fans of all ages.

Badminton has hardly struggled over the years – its Olympic competition debut drew in 1.1 billion TV viewers – but there is a recognition among those at the top that it is no longer simply competing with other sports for the attention of future fans, but with other forms of entertainment as well.

“We’ve always worked from a philosophy of product first, and then go out and monetise it,” says Lund. “We’ve never imagined that people will buy something if they can’t see it being worth the money they are paying. We are working on a multi-level strategy that is really about upgrading the presentation of our sport, which includes innovation all the time, and of course internally we need to deal with scoring and rule changes, but around that is the way we can enhance the experience for the fan, whether the fan is behind the TV screen or live in the stadium.

“So there are a range of activities going on, which includes active development of our digital infrastructure, which in time will make it possible for us to create other types of digital products based on our data and fan engagement. So there are a range of activities at the moment which have been launched as part of an extra push on improving the fan experience overall.”    

We’ve always worked from a philosophy of product first, and then go out and monetise it. We’ve never imagined that people will buy something if they can’t see it being worth the money they are paying