Ultimate Table Tennis: Players strike gold, but finances still a worry

Despite the laurels on the table, Ultimate Table Tennis hasn’t really been able to cash in on it, both in terms of increasing viewership in India or attracting sponsors.

A. Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra won the mixed doubles bronze at the 2018 Asian Games, India’s first-ever table tennis medal at the continental extravaganza.   -  PTI

The phenomenal success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) has led to the rise (and fall) of franchise leagues across sport in India over the last decade. Table tennis joined the flock in 2017, with the introduction of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT). With the pandemic hitting sports industry hard, UTT, despite a strong financial backing by promoters of repute, seems to be struggling to stay afloat, just like its counterparts from other sport.

UTT — a product of 11Sports, a firm with close ties to the promoters of Asian Paints — couldn’t have asked for a better timing to get off the blocks. Within a year since the first edition was held with 24 overseas and as many participants across three cities in India, Indian table tennis was at its all-time high.

Led by the sensational outing of Manika Batra, the Indian contingent returned from the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, Australia, with its richest haul with the lanky Delhi girl emerging as India’s athlete of the Games. It was followed by A. Sharath Kamal, the flag-bearer of Indian table tennis for over a decade, pairing with Batra to win a mixed doubles bronze at the Asian Games, India’s first-ever table tennis medal at the continental extravaganza.

READ| National Sports Awards: Why different yardsticks for different athletes?

Despite the laurels on the table, UTT hasn’t really been able to cash in on it, both in terms of increasing viewership in India or attracting sponsors. In fact, by the time the third edition was held in 2019, thanks primarily to a cost-cutting exercise, the numbers of players and venues had been drastically reduced.

While UTT hasn’t formally announced the dates of the fourth edition, the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) had specified the tournament window from August 14, immediately after the scheduled conclusion of the Olympics.

Sportstar understands Goa, Pune and New Delhi had been shortlisted as possible venues. But all this was in February, before the pandemic forced virtually the whole country — not just sport — to a standstill. For a property like UTT, despite table tennis being one of the most popular recreational activity, it would be nearly impossible to recover financially.

READ| This table tennis star loves to cook

Market experts estimate that the league, with an approximate annual budget of ₹25 crore, is nowhere close to even think about breaking even. Ahead of the inaugural edition in 2017, 11Sports chairperson Vita Dani had announced adoption of a central pool model. Back then, each of the six franchises was sold for ₹2.6 crore for the first year, with UTT bearing all other major costs.

For the last two editions, Niraj Bajaj, an Arjuna Award recipient with a lineage of one of the biggest business houses in the country, joined the UTT as a co-promoter. But there have been no details made available about finances of the league, although the table tennis fraternity believes every edition has seen at least one dummy owner, with the promoters managing all the expenses of the team. With such a backdrop, and whatever little sponsors the league had found for the last couple of years likely to stay away, the future seems to be bleak for UTT.

Sportstar had requested for an interaction with a UTT authority, even sharing a detailed questionnaire about the challenges it would pose in the post-pandemic world.

READ| Manika Batra: I had to be selfish for table tennis

In response, a UTT spokesperson stated: “No decision yet. We wait for instructions and directives from TTFI and ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) before deciding the future course of action.”

While the statement reads far from being optimistic, industry observers feel table tennis’ wider connect with general public, coupled with strong promoters, will help UTT to revive sooner than other major leagues.

“Table tennis is one of the most popular recreational activity along with snooker and billiards. At every stage of your life, you end up playing table tennis at some stage, so engagement is extremely high,” says Nilesh Kulkarni, founder director of the International Institute of Sports Management. “Naturally, the following and interest levels will remain intact, so UTT can resume engagement. I don’t see that as a challenge for resumption.”