11 Sports chairperson Vita Dani says 'not in the game for making profit'

“We are not in the game for making profit. We are here to see the game grow. It’ll take time and we are in it for a long race,” says a confident Vita Dani, the chairperson of 11 Sports, which promotes Ultimate Table Tennis and owns ISL franchise Chennaiyin FC.

“The biggest gain is we’ve been able to support and encourage some fantastic players,” says Vita Dani, chairperson of 11 Sports.   -  Jignesh Mistry

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to hit the Indian sports leagues hardest and the franchise-based leagues that have mushroomed in India over the last decade will take time to recover from the blow. Vita Dani, chairperson of 11 Sports — promoter of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) and owner of Indian Super League (ISL) franchise Chennaiyin FC — is confident about the future of the ecosystem.

It’s been more than five years since 11 Sports was founded. How has the ride been so far?

It has been an absolutely satisfying journey for me because I think table tennis was not given its due credit. People treated it more like a recreational game and somewhere in the last decade or two, it’s lost all its glory. I remember people used to wait outside the stadium to watch a game, it used to be a full house. I don’t know what happened in between and someone had to take up the cause of restoring the lost glory. That’s what we have come here for. We decided to change the perception of people treating this sport as a recreational activity than a professional sport.

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What prompted you to take up the cause of table tennis?

Sport is in our DNA. My husband (Jalaj) and I have grown up playing sport — not like our son (Mudit) who now plays at the international level — and we thought if we have to promote sport, why not promote table tennis where our son in involved. Nothing to look for his benefit, because that would defeat the purpose. If we did that, we would be promoting him, not the sport. I remember I started discussions with Star Sports seven years ago about starting a league. Suddenly football came in and it got derailed by about a year-and-a-half. We then went back and said this is what we started for. And I am really happy because it’s a great sport to promote. Thanks to my son Mudit we chose table tennis, but that is not the end of the journey. The journey is to see a world champion from India, not just him.

“If you look at players like G. Sathiyan and Manika Batra, they have done exceptionally well. I wouldn’t say it’s happened only because of UTT; they have worked exceptionally hard,” says Vita Dani.   -  Getty Images

 

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I believe in top-down and bottom-up approach where it’s important to focus on the grassroots and popularising the game (simultaneously). As far as grassroots is concerned, we have started a municipal schools coaching programme where we have 11 schools now. We started city-level leagues and we have conducted an inter-school tournament in more than 25 states with an inter-state national school championship. We also started sponsoring the national ranking and national championships across categories. That took care of the basic requirement nationally, along with the federation.

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To popularise the game we thought of having a league where the masses can relate to it via television. And it wasn’t only TV but the digital platform as well, where we were hoping to reach out to fans around the world from different time zones. We have had some fantastic viewership in countries like the US, Germany, some parts of Asia, especially where the players came from.

Do you have an update on Season 4 of UTT, or is it shelved due to the pandemic?

We’re in talks with TTFI (Table Tennis Federation of India) and in touch with the international federation. Without any clarity about various clearances, we cannot plan anything with regard to the fourth season. We are waiting for some sort of clarity from the Indian government. We are still open to host it this year. If other games can have it, why not us! You cannot rule it out.

What’s been the biggest loss and gain for 11 Sports so far?

I don’t think there’s any loss. The biggest gain is we’ve been able to support and encourage some fantastic players. If you look at players like (G.) Sathiyan and Manika (Batra), they have done exceptionally well.

I wouldn’t say it’s happened only because of UTT; they have worked exceptionally hard. I think the league has helped to the extent that they have exposure with some of the top players in the world. They train with them, they observe their work ethic and discipline and learn from them. That’s really helped them and made them more confident. That’s a real win-win.

The number of young players participating in the national ranking tournaments has grown. That’s equally important because if you have a larger base, we would definitely be producing many more talented players who will deliver. For me, there’s no loss, only gain.

Upward trajectory

₹50 crore: Total investment since 11 Sports' inception in 2015

UTT Television Viewership on Star Sports:

Season 1: 5.8 million

Season 2: 15.60 million

Season 3: 12.50 million

UTT digital reach for Season 3:

Global viewership excluding Indian subcontinent: 1.90 million

Approximately 16 million video views across digital platforms

(Source: 11 Sports)

 

How challenging have these last six months been for 11 Sports in general, UTT and Chennaiyin FC in particular?

We are not the only ones. Every industry, every sport has been equally affected by COVID-19. Everybody is making a gradual return. Be it EPL, NBA, IPL, everybody is slowly inching back. Of course, it’s not the same when you have a closed-door environment like when we played last year’s ISL final. We have to move on, but not ignore the facts. We have to strike a balance between sport and business. We are not writing off this season at all. I am quite bullish. If things are working well, we are happy to do it. But the most important aspect is safety and health of everyone involved. I cannot, at any cost, take a chance of risking anybody’s life. We’ll look at the new normal and new options. We are not writing this off. I am still quite excited about it.

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A property like UTT was always perceived to be operating more out of passion than commercials. Has the financial impact compelled the passion to take a backseat?

Not at all. As I always say, if you have the financial strength but not the passion, you will not do justice. When you get into sport, passion matters more than finances. We are not in the game for making profit. We are not here to say that I’ll spend only this much. We are here to see the game grow and for that you need passion, patience and perseverance.

That’s important for me. We need to be patient. Rome was not built in a day. It’ll take time and we are in it for a long race. EPL has been around for more than 100 years. Here we are barely around four-five years. We’ll create an institution, we’ll definitely create something big.

Vita Dani celebrates with players and other members of Chennaiyin FC after lifting the Indian Super League title in 2018. “Football has seen a huge difference in the last seven years. When we started seven years ago, it was only CSK (Chennai Super Kings of the Indian Premier League) in Tamil Nadu but now we have carved out space for CFC,” says Vita Dani.   -  B. Jothi Ramalingam

 

When do you foresee UTT breaking even financially?

To me, success of a league is not only financial but also in terms of how the sport is growing. If you are going to look at only the financial side, it’ll take some more years. We are making small financial losses but my success is in creating champions and a world-class league that’s making waves around the world. I think that matters more than the financial losses. Everyone in the international circuit knows we have UTT. That’s the bigger success than financial numbers.

If you compare UTT to any other sports league (in India), we are the most economical league. We have seen some of the big brands getting associated with us over the last couple of years. But as I said, we have to give ourselves some time, especially when people consider it more as recreation. That perception is changing and it’s great. I think we are moving in the right direction.

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Where do you see UTT, Chennaiyin FC and 11 Sports in three years from now?

At the helm. Only moving ahead. Only doing better. As far as UTT is concerned, we are making the right impact, be it in India or around the world. It’s critical that Indian players continue to do well.

As far as football is concerned, we have to do well not only in ISL but also at our grassroots programme. That is important to unearth talent. We have always believed in that. The current crop is great but we have to ensure that the next generation is even better. If we do that, we would have achieved our aim. Based in Tamil Nadu, we now have various age-group teams. We have also started baby leagues for under-6 kids, not only boys but girls too. That excites me even more because we are looking at a whole new vertical over there. It’s going good and it’ll only grow.

Football has seen a huge difference in the last seven years. When we started seven years ago, it was only CSK (Chennai Super Kings of the Indian Premier League) in Tamil Nadu but now we have carved out space for CFC. A whole bunch of people are now following football. Different sports have to coexist and not compete against each other. We as a country will do much better with multiple sports. For me, it’s just a one-way road. There’s no looking back, only marching ahead.