When celebs pick up badminton rackets

cbl-kochi-onmanorama Team members of Kerala Royals pose for photographs during the CBL practice session | Sreekumar E.V.

The concept of "sportainment"―the integration of sports and entertainment―is one that has attracted a lot of takers in the last few years. The latest to join the bandwagon is the Celebrity Badminton League (CBL) that kicks off on Saturday at the Regional Sports Centre in Kochi.

As the name suggests, the league is a platform for celebrities from the film industry to face off against each other on the badminton court. The tournament was launched at a glittering function in Chennai, on September 18, and will feature actors from the four film industries of south India. Actors Arya, Jayaram, Diganth Manchale and Sudheer Babu will captain the four teams―Chennai Rockers, Kerala Royals, Karnataka Alps and Tollywood Thunders.

The teams will field 12 players each―eight men and four women―and will consist of three categories: Men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. The final rounds will be held in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, on November 12.

The organisers are looking to capitalise on the marketability of sportainment, as well as create a platform for celebrities to play badminton that would result in the promotion of the sport in the country. Being the third-most played sport in India, after cricket and football, a sport like badminton has scope for further growth in the country, L. Hemachandran, CEO and founder of the CBL told THE WEEK. 

As much as it may seem like just a good business model for the stakeholders, he feels that the tournament is a win-win situation for everyone involved, emphasising on the feasibility of a growing sportainment culture.

“It is well known that India has massive potential in sports, beyond cricket. This league will provide a platform for fans to enjoy watching their favourite movie stars don the role of shuttlers, and in the process introduce the sport to a new audience,” he said.

Riding on P.V. Sindhu's exploits at the Rio Olympics, he is convinced that the league will attract more people to the sport. The tournament is also the first of its kind for women celebrities to play an active part in.

“Everything will be conducted in a very professional manner. We will follow the rules laid down by the badminton association and will have professional referees and linesmen. The participants are taking this very seriously.”

Besides the main event, a parallel league will be conducted for underprivileged children, in association with the Indian Badminton Association. Deserving candidates below the age of ten will be selected by scouts and be sponsored for full-time coaching at major badminton academies. The entire process is to be orchestrated by the CBL.

“Sport provides hope and a livelihood for many poor children. Our country is slowly awakening to the fact that it not just academics that can help you earn a living, but arts and sports as well. This is why we have initiated the grassroots programme to foster the growth of the much-needed sporting culture among people in rural areas. We have a responsibility to produce more P.V. Sindhus and Saina Nehwals,” he says.

Hemachandran has big plans for the franchise. Currently budgeted at Rs15 crore, he plans to rope in Bollywood stars next year, broadening the league to a 100-crore public enterprise, before eventually turning it into an international tournament.

To avoid controversies, the organisers are particular about the players recruited by teams. Badminton professionals at any level are strictly prohibited, while actors need to have acted in at least one movie and command a sizeable fan following. “We ensure that the person is famous and not someone who has been made to act in a minor role just to be made eligible to play,” he asserts.

Foreseeing that a tournament like this could lose its sheen and face a drop in viewership over time, the CEO and his team are working on making the event more appealing to the viewers, by introducing entertainment elements like dance programmes and interactions between fans and actors, to prevent such a fall.

The inaugural season will focus on the establishment of the CBL brand, rather than on profit-making, with franchisees aggressively campaigning and training the team members for the tournament. Hemachandran noted that all stakeholders would take a minimum of two years to break even.

The tournament was supposed to have kicked off in Chennai on September 18, but owing to the strained relations between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the Cauvery crisis, the first round will commence in Kochi. Hemachandran adds: “This has not affected the bonhomie shared between the Tamil and Kannada actors. They know that it is a delicate issue that should not be aggravated by their actions.”

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