Pom-pom girls and kiss cams: badminton gets edgy to win fans
NANJING, China: Pom-pom girls strut their stuff, pop music reverberates around the arena and a "kiss cam" trains its sights on the next unsuspecting couple.
Sounds like a basketball or baseball match? Think again: this is badminton, and probably not as many imagined it.
It is all part of an attempt by the sport's governing body to attract and keep new fans, the younger the better.
"Increasingly we see ourselves as part of the entertainment business and not only the sports-entertainment business," Thomas Lund, secretary general of the Badminton World Federation (BWF), told AFP.
"That's a conscious choice... We are competing for people's time and attention - on television, on social media, online," the Dane said on the sidelines of the World Championships in Nanjing, China.
"We want to engage them in badminton and make them think badminton."
For spectators, that means more than just loud music and the fancy spotlights that rake over the audience between matches.
It is also the thudding "heartbeat" sound that plays to the crowd during a video decision review, ratcheting up the tension, and players walking onto court like rock stars.
"The big thing for us at the moment is to ensure that it is not really about the court or the surroundings, it is really about the players," said Lund, a former Olympian in the sport.
"It is about... how you present the players, these players that people think of as stars, present them as stars.
"It's a theatre thing."
The notorious "kiss cam", when couples in the crowd are flashed up on the big screen and encouraged to smooch, was in full effect in Nanjing, where Japan's Kento Momota was crowned men's champion and Spain's Carolina Marin won the women's title.
Badminton - popular in Asia and bits of Europe but a niche sport in many countries - is "growing as a sport on many different levels", according to Lund.
The BWF has attracted new sponsors, notably global banking heavyweight HSBC, and there is more prize money for players, he said.
For the first time, there is a handful of semi-professional referees and later umpires too.
Getting children interested, whether as spectators or players, is a key plank of the Kuala Lumpur-based BWF's drive to make badminton more popular and find the stars of the future.
"It's about getting a racquet into their hand and keeping it in there," said Lund. To that end, the BWF has a schools programme in 132 countries.
Nobody is pretending that badminton will rival football for global popularity, but the BWF believes there is plenty of room to grow.
At the London 2012 Olympics, China cleaned up, winning all five titles.
But those days of Chinese domination have gone, even if the hosts did win the mixed and men's doubles titles when the World Championships wrapped up on Sunday.
Japan took gold in the women's doubles to go with Momota's singles title.
China's somewhat waning powers can only be good for badminton's popularity - who wants to see the same country win everything?
"But the good thing is that it is not because China have become worse, it's that the others have got better, we have seen a rise in standard," said Lund.
"Japan are fantastic, India are fantastic, Thailand, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), the Spain story with Carolina (Marin), Denmark still hanging on, which is good for the sport.
"It has become more diverse."