Charlie Newman

“Badminton players have a unique opportunity to develop a close relationship with fans”  BWF Secretary General, Thomas Lund.

It is nothing new to suggest that the reason we fall in love with a sport is due to our admiration for particular athletes. Clubs, leagues and federations play a vital role, but it’s the athletes who have the larger social media followings, higher levels of engagement and the ability to build personal relationships directly with their fanbase.

However, what is new is the approach taken by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) in recognising that the long-term success of the sport is dependent on creating star players; athletes who inspire and encourage followers from across the globe to both play the game and follow the on-court action. 

In late 2019, the BWF commissioned Seven League to run what has become known as the Star Creation Programme; a bespoke course for athletes to help them improve their social media profiles.

The programme aimed to educate each athlete to become competent and confident at using social media to grow their profile, and in turn, the profile of the sport. 

 

My introduction to the BWF World Tour was back in October 2019 at the French Open in Paris. It was here I met with the first five athletes from the programme in a one-to-one chemistry workshop.

The aim was not only to establish a personal relationship with the players, but also for me to better understand each of their social media abilities and agree on exact areas of support for the programme.

Following their induction session at the French Open, I provided each athlete with six months of hands-on practical and personalised tutorship. Through individual WhatsApp groups, I was able to advise them on platform usage, posting times, tone of voice, content and creative guidance, fan interaction best practice, crisis management, handling trolls, channel setup and optimisation as well as how to work with sponsors.

The five players I worked with were: 

> Kim Astrup (@KimAtsrup) – Winner of the 2020 Barcelona Masters 

> Mia Blichfeldt @Mia_Blichfeldt) – Ranked 18th in women’s singles

> Sapsiree Taerattanachai (@popor_sapsiree) Ranked 2nd in mixed doubles and has over 350k Instagram followers

> Ashwini Ponnappa (@P9Ashwini) – Commonwealth Gold medal winner 

> Beiwen Zhang (@Beiwenzhang). – Highest ranked US singles player

Alongside these individual groups, I created a shared community, the purpose of which was to give athletes content inspiration and best practice examples from the wider world of sport and entertainment. Here is an example from Kim Astrup where I pointed out an online trend and helped him quickly react with his own take.

 

It was fascinating to get to know each athlete, each very different with a need for  bespoke guidance. One was great at selecting engaging photos but needed help interacting with fans, whilst another wanted advice on opening a YouTube channel. All of them needed help in working with commercial partners.

An integral part of my role in the programme was to empower and instil a sense of confidence in the athletes, helping them to continue to grow their social media presence once the programme had ended.

A perfect example of this is Ashwini Ponnappa who, at the start of the programme, had withdrawn from publishing on Twitter (despite having over half a million followers) due to the abuse she received from various trolling accounts.

This is something we discussed and, using a series of techniques (blocking and reporting), she overcame this and is now posting regularly again and seeing her following continue to grow. 

@p9ashwini

Arguably, the biggest success of the programme came in a viral piece of content from Danish singles star, Mia Blichfeldt. Mia filmed herself firing a shuttlecock into a coffee cup and, in doing so, coined the #CoffeeCupChallenge.

I then quickly shared this with the BWF social media team and the other players. Within days the wider badminton fan community started to take on the challenge and tag their friends to do the same.

The challenge has generated over 2,500 UGC videos, from at least four continents, with over 130k interactions and over 870k views.

In April 2020, this innovative and athlete-focused programme saw the first five players graduate into the next phase where they will receive advanced interview and media training skills to help prepare them for major tournaments like the Olympics in 2021. 

We received some positive feedback from both the athletes who took part and the BWF:

“Loved being a part of it. The team helped me get out of my shell and understand the importance of social media and interacting with fans. Loved the creative ideas that they shared. I have definitely enjoyed posting and being more open about sharing things” Ashwini Ponnappa 

“Thanks a lot for this great opportunity! It has been my pleasure to get to know you and learn from you.” Mia Blichfeldt

“We are very satisfied with the results of the pilot programme and we look forward to seeing more players sign up in the coming years.” BWF Secretary General Thomas Lund

It has been a rewarding experience watching these athletes develop their social media abilities, try new ideas and grow their social media channels, especially during these uncertain times. 

The BWF has been very pleased with the programme and has just commissioned Star Creation Programme group 2. This time round we’ll be working with our colleagues from Mailman in Shanghai to train six new players from Taiwan, Canada, Australia and India, they will be receiving individual advice (this time via video calls!), sharpening their social media skills and helping to grow the sport of badminton across the globe.

We look forward to the challenge ahead!

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