BWF need to reduce financial imbalance in badminton with more player-friendly policies

There is no doubt that badminton’s journey towards becoming a professional sport has been hindered by the amateur mindset of the administrators.

When the much-delayed prospectus for the India Open 2021 – an Olympic qualifying event – was released, the immediate queries I got from a few foreign players included the question about who would be paying for lodging and boarding during the quarantine period.

According to the tournament prospectus, those coming from Europe have to undergo seven days of quarantine while those coming from other countries need four days of quarantine at the official hotel.

And the answer to an informal enquiry about the same with those handling the tournament preparations within the Badminton Association of India was – “their respective national federations.”

The policy looks completely fine in theory as national federations are responsible for entries and withdrawal of all players but completely overlooks the practical aspects.

While most top badminton playing nations completely fund their elite players, majority of European players have been playing on the circuit at their own cost, at times even in the world championship and other BWF events. Even a majority of Indian players in Level 2 and above tournaments have to bear their own expenses and that percentage touches 100 in the lower rung tournaments.

When BWF announced a revised calendar for 2021, they reduced the sanction fee for Grade 2 tournaments by 50 percent, decided to provide financial assistance to implement COVID protocols including testing and even allowed the organisers of Grade 2 and 3 tournaments to reduce the total prize money for this year.

While all this was important to restart the circuit, BWF also need to ensure some sort of standardisation on what cost had to be passed on to the players and what had to be borne by the hosts especially for events they were providing financial assistance.

In the pre-COVID era, most of these unsupported players would opt for Airbnbs or other cheaper accommodations to reduce their overall cost. They are, however, aware that they will have to stay in official hotels due to the strict norms.

None of these players are expecting the hosts to provide free accommodation and other facilities as Badminton Thailand did at the start of the year. But providing at least two official hotel options with different cost range, bearing the cost of mandatory RT-PCR tests aren’t unreasonable expectations.

But the bigger issue probably is the feeling that organisers and BWF don’t really care about these players and their financial burden.

Like in Orleans Masters, where Aakarshi Kashyap had to pull out after her mother tested positive. Both of them were kept under isolation at the official hotel. While the room rate per day was 99 Euros according to the prospectus, they could have easily booked the same room online at half the cost but were not allowed to.

At the India Open, BAI has decided to provide one meal free for the visiting contingent and made an alternate hotel available for Indian players at a much-subsidised rate after many complained about the high cost of the only official hotel. However, the players and support staff will have to pay for the mandatory RT-PCR tests, which will cost them $60 per test (approx. Rs 4200).

The quarantine rules are similar even at the Malaysia Open Super 750 tournament later in May, which is also an Olympic qualifier. Given the fact that not many events are left to earn Olympic qualifying points, many fringe players with an outside chance to book a Tokyo berth may still be willing to shell the additional cost.

But the issue is far beyond the additional cost these players are incurring. Even the journeymen in tennis and other professional sports are feeling the heat of additional expenses.

However, the major difference between tennis and badminton is that everyone is sailing in the same boat in former as all players have to pay for themselves. In contrast, that uneven balance towards the players getting complete support from their national federations is only getting more lopsided.

Instead of addressing the issues players are likely to face in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, the BWF is now trying to change the scoring system which was rejected three years ago.

Soon after the details of the proposed changes to the scoring system were made public, former world champion Viktor Axelsen put out a social media post on how the views of the athletes are rarely considered while making these decisions. He also pointed out how the prize money earned by players are not directly given to them but are routed through the national federations. (Though this is not the case in lower level events where money is directly given to the winners).

There is no doubt that badminton’s journey towards becoming a professional sport has been hindered by the amateur mindset of the administrators who are more interested in safeguarding the interest of the member federations and not the players who are the most important stakeholders of the game.

If the current BWF dispensation is serious about making the sport a global game then it should look at the COVID-induced crisis as an opportunity to put together more player-centric policies and promote a more professional approach. If not, then we would continue to discuss why badminton cannot compete with tennis despite being such a popular recreational game and equally exciting.

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