Better Means More Expensive - A Discussion on the Problematic Growth of Badminton in the San Francisco Bay Area
Note: The following discussion and analysis include some common stereotypes that are (to my knowledge, at least) among the community here in the Bay Area. Please take note of this fact and try not to be offended when such references are made.
It's really nice to see that there are more and more badminton centers available around the San Francisco Bay Area - it is an indication that the sport is indeed growing and expanding. However, is this growth in a good direction for the sake of badminton as a whole?
I still remember an old article written by kwun here on these forums about how badminton is stuck in a vicious financial/popularity cycle.
In light of all this, I cannot help but to think that the current direction in which badminton is developing towards here in the greater San Francisco Bay Area is wrong and is actually detrimental to the overall bigger picture of the sport's popularity and support.
I have played badminton in the S.F. Bay Area for over 8 years now. I started in my freshman year in high school, and I have been actively playing and training ever since. I have gone to many badminton centers here in the Bay Area (including #1-3 of the ones listed below) and in China. I have also played through numerous racquets (Yonex, Yangyang, Wilson, Victor, etc). All in all, one could say that I have spent on badminton (racquets, shoes, memberships, shuttles, etc) what a normal college student would consider a fortune.
As I look back to all of these spendings (mostly from my mom supporting me playing badminton), my passion for this sport stirs inside me to ask myself these questions...was all of this money worth it? For me? For badminton?
Here in Fremont, CA, there are quite a few numbers of places to play badminton. To name them,
1. A local community center (ICC) here in the Irvington district that charges a flat drop-in fee of $4 for roughly 2.5-3 hours of play - duration depending on which day of the week it is. Decent lighting and normal wood gym flooring.
2. A recreational facility called City Beach with 8 badminton courts at a flat rate of $7 each drop-in. Slightly better flooring - but still wood. Mission San Jose High School used to come here for their training.
3. United Badminton Club (UBC) - professional-quality mats - opened about 5 years ago - $7 each drop-in after peak hours. $5 during non-peak hours.
4. California Badminton Academy (CBA) - recently opened - $8 evenings and $8.50 weekends are their regular prices after the initial opening promotion.
If we simply step back and look at the list above, one emerging trend should become obvious: newer facilities = better = more expensive. But where do we stop? Let's take a closer look at #1-3 (since I have not been to #4 yet) of the above facilities and analyze how they have impacted the development of badminton here in Fremont, CA.
Eight years ago, Irvington Community Center (ICC) was the place to go in Fremont for badminton. On weekend nights, the place would be packed with a vastly different array of people that ranged from under-13 youths to competitive high school players to older adults and seniors who simply played for recreation and fun. At this time, City Beach was the main training ground for Mission San Jose High School (mostly Asian) players who trained there each day out of season.
Then United Badminton Club (UBC) opened up during my junior year (year 11) in high school. For over a year, the place was extremely popular and mostly packed both night and day by players of all levels from around the Bay Area - this was when their drop-in rate was a flat $7 regardless of time - and players were allowed to stay for as long as they wanted/lasted. ICC gradually became more empty on weekends.
After about 2 years, things at UBC changed when Coach Liu Xiaomu took over the business from the initial owners. Gradually, the same people I have seen for over a year stopped going. Membership rates increased and pricing policies changed - players were only allowed to stay in the facility for the period in which they paid for (i.e. if you went in any time during non-peak hours, you are expected to leave at start of peak hours). More courts were also reserved for coaching even during peak hours - and the facility more or less became a training center for the UBC Elite Team. At the time of this writing, the website's introduction page is entirely in Chinese (with minor English navigations on top). It has been 5 years since the facility opened, and the rubber floorings are now detached, out of place, and dirty with shoe marks - with no signs of maintenance whatsoever.
Around this time, newer and better maintained facilities such as Bay Badminton Center (BBC) opened as well. However, it seems that $7 is now the standard minimum for drop-in! In fact, BBC charges $8 per drop-in (although it is graceful about freedom of leaving and returning), and the newest California Badminton Academy (CBA) charges $8.50 on weekends.
Okay, I'm really sorry to complain about pricing and to say this now...but I'm a college student, and I'm not rich enough to continue to play badminton like this - and neither are most people here in the Bay Area.
Living in the Bay Area is expensive. To put things in perspective, the median household income in 2006-2008 for the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland area was $76,476 according to the U.S. Census. To analyze the situation for 2009-2010, we need to take into account of increased taxes (on top of the regular income taxes), increased tuition fees for students, average mortage and rent toppling over $1500/month, and other living expenses. Putting all of this together, I resoundingly declare that it totally absurd to charge $8/drop-in if the main goal of the facilitiy owners is to actually promote the popularity of badminton!
Yes, I do realize that huge sporting facilities require a hefty amount of money to maintain and that money has always been a problem for badminton. However, let's just step back and think about the underlining problems revolving the badminton financial-popularity cycle if we were to keep heading in the direction that we are now. Let's begin by asking the following:
What would make the majority-basketball, football, or baseball-exposed general public to want to ever play badminton, an Asian-majority sport that requires an incredible amount of personal spending, and receives little mass/media recognition/sponsorship - if their favorite sport is already so popular to the extent that there are scouts seeking players out in addition to that sport looking good on a college application?
I mean, really, colleges are practically paying those guys to play, and where does that leave us badminton players? We simply pay more and more in order to play at a better facility with better equipments and more coaching.
And where does all of this money come from? The answer, if not already apparent, is that the money more or less strictly comes from the audience in which this development is focused towards: the already-enthusiastic Asian-majority badminton community. We can see this directly from UBC blatantly making their website Chinese-oriented with little focus on the larger English-speaking community in which badminton might be exposed to. Similarly, we can see the same pattern emerging in California Badminton Academy (CBA), with head coaches from China being involved in its opening publicity while promising quality training from professionals.
If the badminton community's passions and desires are to truly make badminton popular through media, funding, and participation, then we need to consider two aspects of popularity: recognition-popularity and participation-popularity.
Currently, the goal seems to develop the recognition-popularity of the sport here in the U.S. through Olympic and other international sporting recognitions by training and pushing our players until they are on par to compete with Chinese players and bring back the medals.
However, it is equally important that we do not forget the necessity of a participation-popularity balance. But where is the open-ness and publicity to non-Asian/badminton sport enthusiasts that actually may be interested? Why are all the UBC's and CBA's badminton advertisement photos all of black-haired, yellow-skinned people? Are non-Asian/badminton folks meant to be stuck at ICC with no real understanding and instruction of the game? Oh, and before you even suggest it, please don't count those P.E. classes in high school where they supposedly "teach" people badminton - because as far as I know, I learned basket ball in 1st grade - and that was in China.
It is also interesting to note that my psychology classes (both in high school and in college) taught me that if people see themselves in advertisements that they can relate to, they are more likely buy the product. And of course, I have never seen a single advertisement here in the Bay Area for badminton coaching (or anything that has to do with badminton, rather) where a non-Asian person was involved. Go figure - where's Peter Gade of Denmark when you need him?
The situation of badminton's development in other parts of the United States might not be as bad as I had just described. However, because badminton is already arguably most popular here in the San Francisco Bay Area (and rest of Southern California) out of the entire United States, I believe that the arguments made here are indeed applicable in their strongest sense. Thus, in all seriousness, while this ethnic and cultural barrier might not be intentional, it is actually setting up badminton in a position that will be extremely difficult to backtrack from.
In addition to what I have seen in the past 8 years with the ever-increasing prices of facilities, the propaganda-based advertisements and prices of the Li-Ning racquets due to the Chinese team, and the lack of support from (many high schools here are cancelling badminton due to budget cuts, etc) and outreach towards the non-Asian community are making the situation worse and more biased towards the rich Asian communities.
Badminton is not an easy sport to pick up to begin with; the unique and delicate wrist movements are not usually involved in and developed from everyday activities. Combining this fact with expensive facility fees, equipments, and private coaching, then, the choice of whether or not to play badminton for the general non-badminton-enthusiasts is simply as straightforward as this: "Why even think about it? With $8, I can watch a movie instead!"
In fact, even for us badminton-enthusiasts, we might as well add facilities and membership fees to the top of kwun's list of Badminton Central's Guide to Choosing Equipments!
So, unless there is some kind of economic recession in badminton (apparently there is none even with a real economic recession throughout the country!), the prices are not going to drop, and the sport will remain stuck behind this narrow ethnic barrier here in the Bay Area, and badminton will still be forever stuck in its viscious popularity-financial cycle.
To overcome this, a lot of economic and self sacrifices will need to be made from the racquet manufacturing industries, coaches, private facility managers, and us players around the world. We all have to ask ourselves: what do we want?
For the coaches, private facility owners, and racquet makers...are you out there to use badminton as a tool to make money for your own gains, or do you truly support the sport and take careful consideration of every sale's impact on the community and the sport's publicity? For us players, are we simply going to tolerate the marketing schemes in place and not speak up? Or do we simply quit and not play anymore? I'm speaking up now, but I may have to quit anyway at this rate. What about you?
I just know that I can only dream of a day when a new gym opens here in the U.S., and Peter Gade - along with Lin Dan - are the public spokesman figures.