I Am Lee Chong Wei
As I made my way toward the exit after witnessing yesterday’s U.S. Adult National Badminton Championships, my thoughts were drawn (as they often are) to the question of “who’s paying the bills?” While badminton is not the operational money-gobbler that many other sports are, it definitely costs money to stage a national title tournament. Like all Olympic sports, there is a Team USA for badminton, but it is the rare Olympic sport that doesn’t rely on additional revenue streams. And as I thought about that, it struck me that sponsorship presence at the Championships was decidedly on the very down-low. A quick check of the event program verified that the roster of sponsors was limited to just three: Yonex (the sport’s endemic equipment maker), Orange County Badminton Club (the host site), and a company named K&D Graphics.
Set in the light industrial section of Orange, a stone’s throw from both Angels Stadium and the Honda Center in Anaheim, the Orange County Badminton Club is part of a large, very pink complex that literally joins at the hip the Club, Bebe’s Thai Cafe, and the operations of K&D Graphics. In fact, when in the Club it was obvious that I was one pull-up warehouse door away from being in the midst of K&D’s printing operations. Hmmmm…quite the strong connection there. Just who are the mysterious “K” and “D”? This called for a little investigative work. I stopped by the event’s operations center on the way out and caught the attention of a tournament official who was more than happy to answer questions about the event, the venue and the host. Here’s what I learned.
The U.S. National Championships tournament has been held every year since 1937, save for a four-year hiatus during the WWII years. Prior to 1980 it was held all over the country, rotating roughly by region, and never in the same city in two consecutive years. Of late however, it had become more concentrated on the West Coast, and in fact this was the 12th year of the past 14 in which the event was played at the OCBC. I asked my new friend if this had become the de facto home court of Team USA Badminton. He became almost imperceptibly defensive.
He explained to me that the headquarters for the national governing body of Team USA is in Colorado Springs, but that people come from all over the country to stage the championship. He himself lives in Indiana, and was once an active competitor. Now he and others like him administer and officiate national-level badminton competitions for the love of the game. And they do it on a volunteer basis – they even cover their own travel costs except for the “really big ones” for which they are reimbursed by USA Badminton. It is quite obviously a tight-knit group of people who enjoy each other’s company and share a passion for the sport.
As for the almost annual return to the OCBC he replied, “No, we still do it all over the country – just two years ago it was in the San Francisco area, and next year it will be back there again, but at a different facility”, placing emphasis on the word “different”. He explained that badminton clubs had to bid to host the Championships, providing proof that they had the organizational wherewithal “and especially the sponsors” needed to do so. Given that the event that I had just witnessed appeared to be all but un-sponsored, I asked just how much involvement and influence K&D Graphics had on the tournament. “Oh, quite a bit – they love badminton”, he said, which turned out to be the understatement of the day.
As I exited the facility I noticed a trophy case lining the wall of the entrance corridor and stopped for a look at its contents. That’s how I learned, from reading the reprints of at least a half dozen newspaper and magazine articles posted there, that K&D are Kim and Don Chew – and that yes indeed, they do love badminton.
Don Chew grew up in badminton-mad Thailand, where he himself attempted a professional career, unfortunately without much success. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1972, got into the printing business, invested wisely and wound up a wealthy man. Chew never lost his passion for the game, and about a decade ago when his business plans called for expansion he decided to build a custom-designed, all-in-one commercial printing and badminton facility. You know, just like…well OK, like nowhere else.
No detail was spared on the badminton side of the complex. A customized ventilation system was installed, given that a normal HVAC system would influence the flight of a shuttlecock. And the floors upon which the games are played? Danish beechwood, laid over a layer of cushioning material – the gold standard for badminton courts.
According to one of the articles I read, Mr. Chew spends up to half a million dollars annually to fund the shortfalls in the operating budget of USA Badminton, “leading some to dub him the Godfather of American Badminton”. It is of little surprise then that two of his grandchildren are up-and-coming junior players of national stature. Chew describes his grandson in particular, as the future “Tiger Woods of badminton”. One hopes he’s referring to his grandson’s prowess with the racket.