Lodestar UM CEO Nandini Dias on her love for Badminton, emergence of PBL and its brand value

MUMBAI: Badminton, today, is the world’s second most popular sport. And some 150 years after the game was invented in India, the humble shuttlecock sport has once again dazzled one and all in the country of its origin.

A survey by British research firm SMG Insight revealed that badminton ranks just behind cricket in terms of a sport that Indians choose to play regularly. Additionally, another survey revealed that the interest in Badminton among Indians has more than doubled since 2017, and has gone up by 40 per cent in 2019 over 2018.

Badminton’s rising popularity in India can also be gauged from the fact that the last edition of Premier Badminton League (PBL) was watched by over 133 million Indians. A mind-boggling number when you consider that the opening ceremony of Rio Olympics 2016 was watched by 342 million people globally. Already one of the world’s biggest Badminton league, PBL has also helped in establishing the sport as a coveted career choice in India. PV Sindhu got auctioned for Rs 77 lakhs and Sai Praneeth bagged 32 lakhs for PBL Season 5, starting January 2020.

As you would expect, big brands have also joined the bandwagon. Brands and sporting events have, in fact, always worked very well together and PBL is no exception. Apart from access to some 150 million audiences, PBL is a great opportunity to build reputations and long-term brand image by investing in a growing sport in India. No wonder then that from telecom operator (Vodafone) to energy drink (Red Bull) to cement manufacturer (Dalmia), big brands have associated with the franchise.

As count-down begins to PBL season 5, we bring you stories of media executives who have played, loved and followed the sport; what they love about the game and how can brands effectively leverage PBL’s growing popularity.

Name: Nandini Dias

Media agency: Lodestar UM

Designation: CEO

Favourite PBL team: Mumbai Rockets

What is behind Badminton’s growing popularity in India as a sport? 

I think it is a few things coming together at the same time. The rise of coaching, led by Gopichand, is a powerful force. The emergence of more than one world-class player at the same time. Till now it's only been a single player followed by a single player. And of course, the emergence of Premier Badminton League. All of these feeding off each other and happening together has resulted in the rise of the sport's popularity.

When did you start playing Badminton? 

I do not play regularly anymore due to a serious injury a few years ago but I've been a state player for Maharashtra before advertising and in fact, briefly joined the Railways as a sports quota employee before gravitating to advertising.

What do you love about Badminton as a sport?

I started playing Badminton as a kid. I guess one naturally tends to gravitate towards something that one starts doing well at quite early. And there was something about the poetry of hand eye coordination, the power and grace of a flying shuttle, the mix of strength and touch that drew me to it.

Three Indian and International Badminton players - you admire the most?

Prakash Padukone, obviously the hero of our times. He was the one who broke down the door as far as our mentality was concerned. I used to admire Rudy Hartono a lot and I will always have a soft corner for Saina Nehwal. In many ways, she is the Prakash Padukone of Indian women's badminton.

Your favourite PBL team? 

My favourite, even without trying naturally tends to be, Mumbai. It's something that comes naturally due to my past association with the game.

Between Prakash Padukone and P V Sindhu, how has the association between brands and Badminton players evolved? 

I don't think the two eras are in the same ballpark as far as brand association goes. Prakash's era in India could at best hope for an association with sport equipment brands that a player actually used and even that was rare. Today of course, the brands that the likes of PV are associated with go far beyond the purview of sport equipment into social and personal categories which is indicative of the foray of the sport's popularity into non-core audiences.

Do you anticipate more brands engaging with Badminton players as PBL viewership grows? 

Yes it will. Badminton is also a spectator-friendly sport and currently enjoys huge casual participation. Which is great news for any sport and with familiar faces growing out of the sport into prime time viewership through talk shows etc, it is only natural that more brands will want to be part of the bandwagon. What is also great is that there is a steady second layer of players coming in. Last few years we had 3-4 singles players but now we have five male players in the top 30 BWF list and even the rise of our doubles teams.

What is behind PV Sindhu’s unmatched brand value? 

PV has got a certain X-factor as a personality that makes her both inspirational and human at the same time. It's her personality that is now coming to the fore along with the delivery of her talent which was always there. She can switch from a winning-machine to someone who seems approachable, chat-able and hang out-able with when she's off court. And yet,she has delivered impressive results, which makes her an obvious choice for any brand.

What is driving PBL viewership growth, from 35 million in 2016 to 133 million in 2018? 

Badminton as a sport has a wider casual playing segment than most other sports. It can be indulged in by a wider range of age groups, genders and geographies. This, in turn makes badminton a more involved viewing experience. Secondly, the length of the matches are short and extremely high intensity points, the longer rallies and improved fitness of the players has literally drawn in sceptical watchers to become involved enthusiasts. Thirdly, I feel the team structure of PBL makes it a more competitive experience rather than an individual sport. Be it the Olympics or Davis Cup and of course hockey and cricket, we've always been more favourable to team sports than individual sports as a nation. In addition we like watching if there is an Indian competing. Last few years we have had several winners bringing in big medals. Lastly, the technical quality of the broadcast, the cameras, the packaging, the replays, the challenges; the graphics etc have pulled it up to a far more engaging level than we've ever seen before.

What role can PBL play in making Badminton a coveted career option in a Cricket-crazy country like India? 

The number of prize money tournaments inside India should go up drastically. Like cricket and football and now Kabaddi, a player should be able to earn a decent living even if she/he doesn't become a global superstar. That single act of giving the sport a consistent safety net moves it from a sport to a career. And PBL is the biggest chance to do that.

PV Sindhu and Tai Ying got auctioned for Rs 77 lakhs each for PBL season 5. Your thoughts? 

It is a testament to the sport's growing popularity in India and the fact that it can provide both glamour and an enviable career.

How can brands fully leverage their association with PBL? 

Other than naming rights and a few interesting innovations, I don't think we' ve yet explored the possibility of what all can be done with various aspects of the game in order to create properties that can be leveraged by brands.

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