It’s fast and furious with matches shown live on BT Sport – and now the West Country is represented at the pinnacle of British badminton thanks to the introduction of Bristol Jets, the latest franchise to take its place in the growing Bristol Sport stable and one boasting an Olympic medal winner and European champions in its first line-up...
When you hear the word badminton, what do you think of? Many people (this writer included) remember playing the sport in echoey halls at school and stifling a laugh when the PE teacher mentioned the ‘shuttlecock’.
Some may still play on a weekend morning or weekday night in their local leisure centre to keep fit. Others might not think much about badminton at all, apart from stumbling across it once every four years during the BBC’s Olympic coverage and then flicking over to the athletics or swimming.
But did you know that badminton is the fastest racquet sport in the world? There is a national league being screened on national television, complete with cheerleaders, smoke machines and walk-on music - and last year Bristol Sport, the body that runs Bristol City FC, Bristol Rugby and the Bristol Flyers basketball team, has stumped up thousands of pounds to set up and enter its very own franchise, the Bristol Jets.
Hargreaves Lansdown chief executive Ian Gorham is the honorary president of the Jets and brings to the role a huge passion for badminton.
“I used to play a lot of sport, particularly table tennis,” said Gorham, who also chairs the Avon Badminton Association. “My daughters started playing badminton and when I started taking them to events I realised there were a lot of volunteers helping and there just seemed to be a real buzz. From there, I started running the county association and I just fell in love with it.
“In Avon we have a pathway to excellence programme and missing from the pinnacle of that was somewhere where people could go and watch professional players. We wanted an inspirational pinnacle for people to aspire to and the Bristol Jets is now that pinnacle.”
The AJ Bell National Badminton League (NBL) currently features seven teams – Loughborough Lightning, Team Derby, Surrey Smashers, Suffolk Saxons, University of Nottingham, University of Birmingham and this year’s new addition, the Bristol Jets.
Fixtures are played once or twice a month between October and February, with the Jets playing their first home match on January 9 when Birmingham Lions visited the WISE Arena at Stoke Gifford's SGS College. Their other Monday night home clashes involve Nottingham on January 30 and Surrey on February 6 (7pm starts).
It all sounds exciting, but there are questions about whether a sport which hasn’t really had much national exposure can really capture the imagination of the West’s sporting public. And, from a commercial perspective, what is it about a night at the badminton that will persuade people to part with their hard-earned money and buy tickets? According to Lee Ward, the regional delivery manager at Badminton England, the answer is: quite a lot.
“You’ll be amazed how loud a badminton audience can actually get,” Ward enthused. “It’s a fantastic atmosphere when it’s delivered right. Some of the teams in the league have really worked out how to put on a match night experience and others have learned from other teams what works.”
It’s clear from watching video footage of NBL fixtures online that the organisers are looking to create a match atmosphere similar to that generated at T20 cricket, Premier League darts or professional boxing. Crowds are entertained with cheerleaders before the lights dim and the players enter the action to music through a haze of smoke and pyrotechnics. It almost feels as if you’re about to watch a world heavyweight title contest, rather than something involving a racket and a shuttlecock.
The traditional scoring format has been changed slightly for the competition as well, with games becoming shorter and reaching the crunch, match-defining moments quicker.
While it could be argued that this might leave traditional fans might feeling like their sport is losing its identity and being rebranded for a younger audience, Gorham believes this isn't the case.
He said: “I think they’re as welcoming to it as anyone else; the concept that only young people like excitement isn’t fair!
“If you look at a sport like darts, at the razzmatazz, the crowd sizes and the level of enjoyment that people get from it, it’s amazing. That’s exactly the sort of model every sport should look at in my opinion and find ways to move with the times, badminton is no different.”
It’s a point backed up by Lee. “We’ve recently been going around speaking to county associations across the country. The number one thing being said is ‘get people excited about our sport.’ There is a universal feeling that this was needed and that’s coming from a cross-range of ages.”
Recruiting top male and female players for the Jets has been an enjoyable experience for Gorham too.
“It’s been a lot of hard work involving a lot of phone calls and emails, but everyone I’ve spoken to within the sport has been really lovely,” he added. “It’s not a scenario where agents are involved, players are very approachable, down to earth and very good at what they do.”
It also seems that, far from having to write big cheques to attract the world’s top talent to come and play, professional players are keen to travel from far and wide to be part of Bristol Sport’s newest project.
They include Mizuki Fujii, a 28-year-old who won women's double silver for Japan alongside Reika Kakiiwa at London 2012.
Gorham said: “She contacted us asking to come and play for the Jets. She won silver at the London 2012 Games and was a world number four. She doesn’t speak much English, so it’s a big thing for her, but she wants to be a part of it.”
Other members of the Jets squad are of similarly high calibre. Bristolian Chris Coles is a former European junior doubles champion, while Alex Lane is the reigning double under-17 European champion in mixed and men’s doubles and his younger brother Ben is a double gold medallist at the under-17 European Junior Championships.
The Jets made their competitive debut with a 4-1 defeat to Team Derby in November and Gorham is keen to see more opposition added to the schedule in the coming years.
He said: “I’d like to see us become like the Bundesliga (the premier German badminton league). We want more established teams, to fill up venues, gain more sponsors and see the league grow in a structured way.
“I also want us to get to a point in ten years where people will look at the NBL and won’t raise their eyebrows as if to say ‘that’s a bit different’ – they’ll recognise it and say ‘oh yes, the badminton, I’m going on Monday night.’”
High on Ward's wishlist is that a successful professional league inspires those playing grassroots badminton in the West.
“I’d like to see the league have a big impact at local level I want to see players inspired by the NBL to go through the elite pathway that exists here in Avon and become a Bristol Jets player,” he said. “A kid that shows talent has to be inspired to go and pull on that Jets shirt.”
With the National Badminton League now attracting the world’s top talent to its teams, a deal in place with BT Sport and a wide range of people attending fixtures, the early signs are good that it can become a big success as it goes through its third season.
There is still progress to be made but what is clear is that the world’s fastest racquet sport is getting faster, louder and more exciting.