If the late actor Paul Newman had watched the recent US Open tournament, he would most likely have been very unhappy. He might even have turned in his grave.
Paul Newman was an enthusiastic badminton player. The actor starred in blockbuster classics such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Hustler”. Most movie buffs know that Paul Newman was an auto-racing enthusiast, but few know that he was a passionate badminton player.
In his youth, Paul Newman was an intercollegiate badminton player. He then stopped playing regularly until he picked up badminton again when he was in his late 50s and continued to play into his late 70s.
As this article alludes to, he was very competitive on the badminton court. In interviews, he would educate Americans about the benefits of badminton highlighting that it is one of the fastest and most physically demanding sports. As is the case with most badminton enthusiasts, he wanted the sport to develop.
US Open 2023 didn’t make badminton look good – quite the contrary
One of Paul Newman’s famous movie quotes (from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) was:
“Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.“
North America represents a huge opportunity for badminton. Yet, BWF chose to place the recent US Open in Iowa, not in New York or Los Angeles. The week before, the infinite wisdom of BWF had Canada Open take place in Calgary, not in Toronto or Vancouver.
While I’m sure that Council Bluff, Iowa, is a nice enough place, it is definitely not a badminton hotspot in the US. The US Open Tournament 2023 was played in Mid-America Center – a massive hall, which can seat around 7.000 spectators.
But it might as well have been played at one of the local high-school gyms. The audience size at US Open was so alarmingly small that one might have thought that the streaming was from a small local tournament in Irkutsk or Pilsen.
We cannot possibly know what makes BWF execute activities the way they do. But I can say – categorically – I for one don’t understand what the vision is if there is one. Hence, my conclusion is that BWF is viewing the world of badminton through bifocals.
In the USA numbers don’t lie and size matters
BWF has wasted so many opportunities to resuscitate and scale badminton in the US. The Iowa US Open was a missed opportunity.
To convince Americans about the “merit” of badminton, they need to see either big numbers (crowds, money, charity impact) or celebrity endorsements. Had the recent US Open been a spectator success, more Americans would get to know about the tournament and likely become curious about badminton.
70-90 years ago, badminton was popular amongst celebrities in California. (see this article). A couple of decades ago, Paul Newman was a firm badminton advocate. Rumour has it that Leonardo Dicaprio is fond of badminton. In other words, there have been, and probably still are, opportunities to get Americans curious about badminton through celebrity endorsements.
Numbers matter because we need critical mass to be able to attract a sizeable audience.
Nowadays, badminton is popular mainly amongst Asians in the US and Canada. In New York, there are nearly 1,9 million Asian American residents. In Los Angeles 1,8 million. In San Francisco over 1 million.
In Iowa and Kentucky combined, there are less than 150.000 Asian American residents.
Need I say more?
How to crack the nut of popularizing badminton in America?
At Badmintonspeak we have a few valid suggestions. But we’ll save those for another time and place. To end this piece, let me share a personal observation:
I am old enough to have experienced soccer (football) in the USA in the 1980s when soccer in the USA was struggling to find its feet. As a foreign student, I played soccer in tropical South Florida and I coached a team of 5-7-year-olds.
Since then, people’s behavior and attitudes may have changed, but the enthusiasm and support I experienced from players, parents, volunteers, and sponsors alike were outstanding. Far better than anything I had experienced in Europe.
Sure, the Floridian soccer parents were very competitive. And except for the Latino parents, most parents didn’t really understand the nuances of the game. But they still cheered louder and longer than anything I’d ever experienced before or since. The concession stand was always open for business, even if only to serve hotdogs, drinks, and snacks to some 40-50 folks.
The talented players were extremely serious about improving their game. Try-outs for Regional or State select teams made try-outs in my native country pale in comparison. Players with less talent and ambition quickly came to terms with just doing their best and having fun playing.
If badminton clubs and organizers in the USA can crack the grass-roots code, great things lie ahead for our wonderful sport.
Assuming that Americans and their behavior haven’t changed all that much, it seems clear to me what needs to be done. The term “soccer moms” might give you a clue.