Oh, what a difference five years makes.
I was young. Impressionable. Well, one of those two, anyway.
For reasons described in detail elsewhere (like, for example, in this book!) I once spent a year attending 100 different sporting events featuring 50 different sports. The order in which this sports walkabout brought me to each of these events was influenced largely by seasonality. After that…a mix of randomness and logistics. Which might explain why events #1 and #2 of this adventure consisted of an NBA double-header at Staples Center (Lakers by day and Clippers by night), where I had plenty o’ company in a semi-plush corporate suite, while event #3 involved traveling solo to the Orange County Badminton Club, where I rolled up my sleeves and tried to make heads or tails out of the curious world of Events That Aren’t Trying To Be Spectacles.
At the time, it turned out to be more than my event production-addled brain could handle when I encountered a…gasp!…non-fan-oriented elite-level sports environment. In America! Nobody on the premises seemed to notice the lack of television cameras, courtside celebrities (present company excepted, of course) or corporate luxury boxes. Again, I say, in America!
It took the better part of that year and visits to dozens of humble sports environments for me to learn that bigger is not necessary better. But back when I attended my first USA Badminton Adult Nationals, “humble” equated to me as “needs to be fixed.” Turns out that my perspective was what actually needed to be fixed.
Fast forward five years, and when I set out to watch the 2015 USA Badminton Adult Nationals, it was because I just wanted to watch great badminton. That’s it. Even still, with the Orange County Badminton Club (the sport’s equivalent of the Cowboy’s “Jerry World”) serving as my only barometer, it was a little bit of an eyebrow-raiser for me to walk into the Manhattan Beach Badminton Club. For if the event environment at my first Badminton Nationals was humble, at my second it was downright bashful.
Manhattan Beach Badminton Club is an understated, surprisingly small building on a residential side street several blocks removed from the center of this beach town. The club opened in 1936, which for the Golden State, makes it living history. To put it into perspective, the club has been in existence for nearly half the time that California has been a state. And for all of that time, MBBC has seen continual membership and play.
To the untrained eye, it looks like an ordinary gymnasium, albeit a very well-maintained ordinary gymnasium. Upon closer inspection though, one can see that it’s been highly customized to the sport.
For example, the entire playing facility is bathed in the same shade of green used for the centerfield batter’s eye in every Major League Baseball stadium. And while the lighting grid isn’t new, it is configured for maximum visibility and lack of glare. Nothing is elaborate, but everything’s been done specifically to support playing of the game at highly competitive levels.
I paid the customary entry fee for these types of proud-but-invisible championships—nothing—and made my way over to a bench situated such that I had a great view of play on two separate courts.
Inevitably, comparisons emerged between the two renditions of this tournament that I’d seen, for right away I noticed the difference in diversity. The sport of badminton is huge in the Asian Rim, and I’m pretty sure that all of the competitors in my first Badminton Adult Nationals were descendants of that part of the world. As I glanced around my surroundings five years later, though, I saw a number of badminton “minorities” taking part, especially among the younger players. See, in my ideal melting pot of recreation, kids are introduced to sports by parents who’ve emigrated from cultures in which a given sport is wildly popular. These first-generation Americans then share that sport with the friends they grow up and, viola! New converts locally to sports played globally. At least that’s the way it should work, and based purely on what I was seeing, that seems to be the case with badminton.
A case in point unfolded in the first mixed doubles match that I saw. The four “shuttlers” (is that a cool name for “badminton player” or what?) represented a variety of ethnicities, and all appeared to be well under the age of 25. Sure enough, I later learned that one team consisted of two players who were competing in their first Adult Nationals, coming in at the minimum qualifying age of 17. Differences in ancestry and culture aside, all were prototypical teenagers, displaying emotions unabashedly as they played. And most of those emotions indicated they were having a blast. Granted, it was a first-round match, and with expectations about advancing in the draw tempered by reality, they exuded “just happy to be here.” But still…