By Tim Groves
The British are thought to have invented the sport either on these shores or in India, with its name derived from the Duke of Beaufort’s Badminton House in Gloucestershire. But it isn’t quite the hit in modern Britain that it was back in the Victorian era in the late 1800s and the upcoming period could be pivotal for the sport here.
Mainly popular nowadays in Asia, whose players have won 81 of the 91 Olympic medals won in the sport and 28 of the 29 golds, there are almost 25 per cent fewer people playing on a weekly basis in England than there were a few years ago, according to the latest Sport England statistics.
Success on global stage
Chris and Gabby Adcock became the first Brits ever to win a World Superseries title last year, following in the footsteps of the likes of Simon Archer and Joanne Goode (bronze in 2000 Olympics) and Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson (silver at 2004 Olympics) in achieving success on the global stage.
In fact, Great Britain is the second most successful European nation in badminton at the Olympics after Denmark and the sixth most successful nation overall, while the Adcocks will be hoping to add their names to the list of Olympic medal winners in Rio this summer.
That would help the ailing participation rate at grass roots level, which show that once a week participation among those 16 and over in the UK has decreased by 16 per cent over the course of the past decade – from 516,700 in 2005 to 431,600 last year.
It reached a peak of 544,200 after the London Olympics in 2012, when Team GB didn’t win a medal, but has dropped by 22 per cent since then. Having been one of the sports to benefit from the immediate post-Olympic legacy the most, badminton has struggled to maintain its position in the past few years.
A UK Sport funding cut from £7.4 million to £5.9 million at elite level based on missed performance targets and one from over £20 million to £18 million by Sport England at grass roots level for 2013-17 won’t have helped, but can’t be blamed for the decline.
A dip may be inevitable due to the lack of a constant presence in our lives during the four-year spells between Olympic Games, but it isn’t the result of a lack of effort on the part of those in charge either, with Badminton England named Governing Body of the Year at the BT Sport Industry Awards last year.
Its No Strings Badminton programme was responsible for much of the boost after London 2012 and the informal SmashUp! initiative has led to almost a quarter of 11-15-year-olds playing the sport to some extent, according to a recent Department for Culture, Media and Sport report.
And perhaps crucially, the sport now has a more regular presence on our television screens, after the inaugural National Badminton League was launched in 2014 and a deal was signed with Sky Sports.
Both the league and the process of developing its coverage and attracting higher viewing figures will take time, but as many as 1.1 billion people watched the first Olympic badminton event ever televised in 1996, so the sport can draw big audiences.
There is an undoubted link between what we watch on television, how much we are exposed to a sport in the media and participation figures, so it’s an important step. And there’s a lot for viewers to admire in terms of skill and athleticism, not to mention speed, with the shuttlecock travelling as fast as a Formula One car at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.
AJ Bell signing up as the league’s title sponsor and insurance company Be Wiser becoming another recent addition to the sponsorship stable was a further important step. Nathan Robertson, one of Britain’s four Olympic badminton medal winners, says the move is vital to showcase the sport and also show aspiring players where they can get to.
High profile platform
“It’s critical to develop new players and for the young players it does sometimes feel a long way to get to the Olympics, Commonwealth Games or world championships to showcase their talent within the media, but now these guys will have a platform to express themselves every month,” he said.
With the Rio Olympics hoving into view, badminton is set for its quadrennial moment in the sun and administrators in Britain will be hoping for another participation uplift similar to the one experienced in 2012.
Whether it materialises or not remains to be seen and in truth depends more on the success or otherwise of Chris and Gabby Adcock than the efforts of the governing body. However, recent developments suggest the building blocks are in place to prevent it being a flash in the pan and provide a more lasting legacy if it does.
Expert’s view: Adrian Christy, Badminton England CEO
While Sport England’s statistics make the picture look fairly bleak, the man tasked with improving it, Badminton England CEO Adrian Christy, insists that isn’t the case.
He wants changes made to the Active People Survey, as it doesn’t show the whole picture and says 2015 was a good year for British badminton.
“Our target is always to keep growing the sport, with a principle aim of getting more people playing badminton and more success on court,” he says.
“In 2015 I think we more than achieved that, a year which has culminated in being one of, if not the best, year during my time. It’s a year we can look back on with great pride. The number of players being coached, as well as those competing, continues to rise year on year. We know that the sustainable part of our sport is in a good place.
“The international titles our players have won, be it on our English or British programme, has been a highlight throughout 2015. The icing on the cake, of course, was Chris and Gabby Adcock’s Superseries title in Dubai.
“And lastly, we have started to develop our new strategy for the next two Olympic cycle periods. We have had a huge consultation exercise with a great response, as I visited 21 different counties listening, learning and sharing thoughts.”