‘Babolat really supported me when I started trying new things’ – the Tricky Pandars story

5 min. reading
Published on 05/06/24

When Japanese telecommunications giant NTT West announced it was winding up its professional badminton team for financial reasons in 2002, Tatsuyoshi Watanabe didn’t fall into a funk or fret for his future in the sport he loved. Quite the opposite, in fact.

After devoting seven years to NTT West, first as an accomplished player then as the manager, Watanabe saw the Osaka-based team’s demise as an unmissable opportunity. From the ashes of the corporate outfit, he launched the Tricky Pandars, a not-for-profit team, in 2003. In a sport dominated by generously funded corporate teams, it was a bold — and risky — move. “I wasn't nervous [about starting the Tricky Pandars],” says Watanabe, 53. “I was confident that it could be done.”

More than 20 years after its birth, the organisation is thriving. Based in a suburb of Kyoto, a few kilometres southwest of the ancient capital’s famous temples and Zen gardens, the Tricky Pandars compete in the men’s division of Japan’s top S/J League, a 12-team league that features the country’s best shuttlers, including former back-to-back world champion Kento Momota.

Although the Tricky Pandars — named after the panda, an animal much loved by the Japanese — finished the 2023-24 season (only their second in the S/J League) in 11th spot, the trailblazing outfit has enjoyed considerable success over the years, including an impressive third-place finish in the Japan League in 2011 after beating a team stacked with national team players. “We need to prove that we can compete and develop players without depending on a company,” Watanabe says.

Without a corporate benefactor, the organisation survives by providing badminton lessons, renting out its home arena’s courts, and through the support of sponsors like Babolat.

When Babolat entered the Japanese market in 2006, it was drawn to Watanabe’s quest to shake up Japan’s pro badminton scene.

“While Babolat is widely recognised in Japan for tennis, it is still an unfamiliar brand in the badminton community,” says Babolat Japan’s Takiko Toyama. “By having top players in the S/J League use our racquets and wear our shoes and apparel, we are reaching a wider audience, including recreational players.”

Watanabe says he sees Babolat, a relative newcomer to Japan’s mature badminton environment, as a natural collaborator. “They really supported me when I started trying new things,” he says. “There is no doubt that the players are the biggest Babolat fans.”

Over the years, Watanabe has nurtured plenty of young talent while imbuing shuttlers with “the hunger I had when I was a player.” His efforts saw the Tricky Pandars win promotion from S/J League II to the top tier in 2022.

“We are currently in a transitional period of league reform,” Watanabe says, “and we are trying to figure out how to position ourselves for the future.”

Whatever that future holds for the Kyoto team, Babolat is keen to be a part of it. “We’d like to continue to support the Tricky Pandars, so they can excel in the league,” says Takiko Toyama. “And we hope to work together to convey the joy of badminton to as many people as possible.”

As Watanabe and his seven players prepare for the challenges of another season of top-flight badminton later in the year, their achievements in a highly competitive environment are hard to ignore. “We’re an organisation not bound by convention,” Watanabe says, “and we take pride in running our own business while holding our own against the well-funded big boys.”

If that proves a recipe for even more success, exciting times lie ahead for both the Tricky Pandars and Japanese badminton.

Team babolat pro players may play with a customized or different model than the equipment depicted.

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