Badminton lost one of its great champions this week. Not that Tom Marrs enjoyed success on court much beyond representing Cumbria from 1957 to 1974. But as a tournament director he was second to none, and a pioneer of how major tournaments are presented today.
When the game turned professional in the late 1970s he was the trailblazer in attracting TV coverage for events.
Marrs had the persuasive talent of an impresario in being the first man to stage badminton at such a prestigious venue as the Royal Albert Hall, which hosted the first Friends Provident Masters in 1979. He had quickly grasped the importance of sponsorship if badminton was to be a commercial success. That is why subsequent sponsors of the Masters were household names – like British Airways and The Famous Grouse, the whisky brand which sponsored annual England versus Scotland fixtures.
He also had as good a contacts’ book as any journalist, which is perhaps why three years after the Masters was launched, the Thomas Cup Finals were staged at the Albert Hall with Her Majesty The Queen attending the finals – the only time she has visited a badminton event.
Marrs’ first job was as a youth employment officer. But in 1978 his career path changed and he became promotions manager at the Badminton Association of England, now Badminton England.
He was to become the tournament mastermind behind Masters events, European Championships and his absolute passion, the All England Open Championships, overseeing the tournament’s perhaps controversial albeit successful move from Wembley to its current home in Birmingham.
He was an opportunist too, using his contacts to take the annual national championships to different venues, backed by local authorities. Coventry, Paignton, Norwich and Haywards Heath were among the venues showcasing badminton to a wider audience.
Just as the renowned Grandstand producer Brian Venner was a key TV contact so Cedric Spiller was a British Rail link. The Railcards Challenge was launched with a special train from Bristol to London Paddington. The station master was there to greet the ‘badminton train’ dressed up in his morning suit and bowler hat. However, the grand finale was an anti-climax because the giant shuttlecock mounted on the front of the engine blew off, apparently somewhere near Reading!
The International Badminton Federation (now Badminton World Federation) was quick to harness his abilities and chief executive Neil Cameron invited him to be technical consultant to the World Championships in both Seville 2001 and Birmingham 2003.
Marrs simply revelled in events, particularly the annual and popular England versus China tours – a hectic and exhausting week-long trip around England (and Jersey the odd time) when England’s best players would take on China’s rising stars (and usually lose!).
No one will deny that Marrs’ lasting legacy is the Yonex All England Open Championships as we know it today, introducing innovations across the board as the oldest Open tournament in the world game was shaken out of its amateur era time warp and transformed into a dynamic and precisely organised major televised event. No wonder it today sits proudly among the top annual tournaments on the BWF’s international circuit.
Marrs had been mentored for many a year by WPG Birtwistle, a larger-than-life character with fixed ideas. It was left to Marrs to tweak this approach before finally taking over the reins and he was energised even further with the move to Birmingham.
Darren Parks, his deputy as Championships Director and currently BWF Events Director, paid tribute to Marrs: “Tom was the first Championships Director of the All England. Previously it had been run by a committee. Tom was probably also the best commercial director Badminton England ever had doing sponsorship deals large and small over the years with companies such as Yonex, British Airways, Friends Provident, Liverpool Victoria, The Famous Grouse, Bulgarian Vintners, Ricoh, Quality Hotels, NTT, Proton and many others.
“He was always an innovator and looking to find ways to improve tournaments. He also set up the organisational and commercial model for hundreds of England international matches played the length and breadth of the country against teams such as China, Korea, Malaysia, India, Denmark and Russia. He loved badminton and worked incredibly hard for the sport he loved.”
Marrs, who died on Tuesday in Northampton General Hospital aged 83, is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Sandra and her son Lee.
Farewell, Thomas Ernest Marrs (14 February 1937 – 14 April 2020)