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New Delhi/Mumbai: Saina Nehwal sparked off a feisty bidding war, as was expected, at the player’s auction for the inaugural Indian Badminton League (IBL).

The battle for the World No. 2 women’s singles player was won by the Hyderabad team that bought her for $120,000. The most expensive buy of the auction wasn’t Nehwal though—Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, the World No. 1 in men’s singles, and the biggest international name in the fray, was picked up by the Mumbai team for $135,000.

The launch of the league, similar to the Indian Premier League (IPL) that has enriched cricketers and the country’s cricket board alike, may be good for the players, but its success isn’t guaranteed in a country where cricket gets the lion’s share of viewership as well as sponsorships and advertisements. This despite badminton being a popular game, and one invented in India.

Nehwal and Wei were among the six players whose base price was fixed at $50,000. Germany’s Juliane Schenk got the highest bid among the rest of the six, and she was bought by Pune Pistons for $90,000 after the team won a bidding duel against Delhi Smashers.

The six franchise teams—Hyderabad Hotshots, Lucknow Warriors, Pune Pistons, Mumbai Masters, Banga Beats (Bangalore) and Delhi Smashers—bought 10 players each and had a spending cap of $275,000. Each team features four foreign players, six Indian players, and one junior Indian player (the juniors were not up for auction). The 18-day tournament, which begins 14 August in New Delhi, will see singles and doubles matches played across the six cities, with the final in Mumbai. With a $1 million prize purse, organizers say that this is the world’s richest badminton tournament.

“What was most impressive about the bidding was that you could see that each team came with a clear strategy," said Pullela Gopichand, the Indian badminton team’s chief coach, and part of the governing body for IBL. “The teams knew exactly what they wanted, they had done their homework."

The players did not attend the auction but kept tabs on it through the Internet.

“It was so exciting to see something like this happen with badminton," said Guru Sai Dutt, world no. 55, who was bought by Lucknow for $40,000. “The prices were great, and the teams were well picked. We are all really excited about the tournament now—can’t wait for it to start."

To be sure, a successful auction is a big step forward for the fledgling league, but the real challenges begin now.

“I’m not going to hide the fact that it was very difficult to get this off the ground," said Ashish Chaddha, CEO of sports marketing and media rights company Sporty Solutionz, which is organizing the league. “For 12 months, we had a team of 40 people going from pillar to post to get these six teams going. We visited over 250 companies. But here’s the satisfying part—we’ve got three companies as team owners who’ve never invested in sports before."

The team owners form an eclectic group: some have a long history of investing in sports, like the Sahara group, owner of the Lucknow Warriors, that has investments in everything from cricket to boxing. Dabur, owner of the Pune franchise, also owns a team in the Hockey India League. Delhi-based real estate company Krrish Group was founded in 2007, and is a first-time investor in sports. PVP Ventures, one of the biggest financers in the Indian film industry, has already shown its adventurous streak by producing a film last year with a revenge-seeking housefly as the protagonist. The film was a major hit.

“We’ve been looking to invest in sport for some time now," said Prasad V. Potluri, chairman and MD of PVP. “We bid for but could not get (the IPL team) Deccan Chargers last year. Then this came along, and we were convinced that there is huge potential in badminton and in this tournament with its eclectic mix of international stars and its crisp format."

The team owners are clear though that this is not just an adventure, and that they are looking at it as a business venture.

“The potential for returns from this league is very good according to our calculations, and we think we can break even in three years," said Kartikeya Rao, CEO, Krrish Delhi Smashers.

Though the prices at which the teams were bought was not revealed, Sporty Solutionz said that the minimum price companies had to pay to own a team was 3.5 crore per year. Franchises will get 50% of the central sponsorship and the media rights money, and will have the right to sign on their own sponsors.

“There are six sponsors on board for the league, but we cannot name them yet," Chaddha said.

The broadcast and digital rights have also been sold, and though the broadcaster has not been officially named, people familiar with the development said it is Star Sports, the channel owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Star India. A company spokesperson declined to comment. The broadcast deal includes distribution in 80 countries, as well as a tie-up with YouTube.

Looking beyond cricket is still a risky business in India, where similar leagues for wrestling, volleyball, tennis, and motor sports were announced but did not take off. A boxing league, launched with plenty of media hype after the international success of Indian boxers at the 2008 Olympics, failed to make a mark. Only the Hockey India League, which held its first edition this year, managed to attract top business houses. Hero MotoCorp and Airtel are among the sponsors, and the Jaypee Group owns a team in the league.

Like hockey, badminton has a unique association with India, and investors are banking on some of those sentiments.

“This is a game that was invented in India," founder and managing director of real estate company BOP GroupAmit Mavi said. “It’s a game just about everyone in India has played at some time or the other. Both men and women play it, so it’s inclusive. And it’s a game where Indian players already have a good standing at the global level, and are sure to get better." BOP owns the Bangalore franchise.

Despite the positive outlook, generating viewership and attracting advertisers will still be a hurdle. “If you look at the Hockey India League, you will see that while the ratings of non-cricket events has been encouraging, they are still negligible when compared with cricket," said a senior executive of a sports channel who did not want to be identified. “To my mind, the biggest challenge (facing this league) is going to be attracting sponsorships. The returns through advertising will be low, as ratings are low."

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