Ultimate Table Tennis, India’s first professional table tennis league, is set to go on stage from July 13 to 30, and one hopes it to be a stepping stone to revolutionising the sport in India.
The league, promoted by Eleven Sports Private Limited, is expected to create a manifold impact on not only the Indian table tennis players but also the popularity of the sport in a cricket crazy country, which has recently opened its arms to other sports.
Adopting a six franchise-based ownership model, the league will feature 24 foreign and a similar number of Indian players who were drafted on June 9. Each team will consist of four Indian and four foreign players, and an equal number of men and women players.
Played in a span of three weeks, this unique model is committed to create conditions for the Indian paddlers to rub shoulders with the best of players in the world. All 24 foreign players are ranked in the top 60 in the world, and for Indians, sharing the same stage as these players for three weeks will be a great learning experience. They will get an opportunity to live, train and compete alongside these eminent players, thus learning the finer details of the game like strategies, tactics, match preparations and other best practices to be a world class player, which is mastered either by experience or highly skilled training.
The league-based learning has been successful with India’s top player, Olympian and Arjuna Award winner A. Sharath Kamal, whose success came only after he moved to Europe to compete in the top professional leagues, reaching his highest world ranking of 32. While Sharath had to move out of India to achieve that level, UTT brings the best of the world to India, thus importing the knowledge to the country.
From an international participation perspective, India has long been considered a no-no destination for the players to travel to because of organisational, environmental and safety concerns. However, the success of the ITTF World Tour India Open in February this year changed this perception, as the tournament was organised in an Olympic Games-like environment. UTT will further elevate that status, as foreign players will be given the best of facilities for the three weeks of the league. The influx of the top athletes will unquestionably open doors for the Indians to share the same space with the best of players. Additionally, this will bring professional table tennis to TV screens of every household, thus exposing and educating the Indians to world class table tennis action, and changing the common misconception of table tennis being a recreational sport. Moreover, being up on the calendar of the International Table Tennis Federation speaks volumes of the impact UTT will have at the international level.
UTT has also included eight Indian youth players in the squad with an aim to give the younger generation an experience of the highest level that will help them learn the sport’s best practices. Moreover, six Indian coaches will work along with six foreign coaches, making UTT a unique model that promotes holistic development of the game.
I would debate on UTT’s goal of helping India win a medal at the 2024 Olympic Games, but their mission to be a ‘world class league that inspires the youth, entertains and engages fans, drives development at grassroots level and delivers value to all the stakeholders’ is certainly achievable.
The Indians have been performing well by not only winning medals at the Commonwealth Games but also at the world level, but they lack consistency. The league is scheduled for a duration of three weeks, but the enthusiasm of the athletes around it and their fight to make it to the squad will be year round, adding a new goal for Indian players of all age categories. This addition will change their preparations and will certainly push them out of their comfort zone to match the level of the foreign players. Additionally, UTT will be watched by millions of Indians on TV, which puts a positive pressure on Indians to perform to the best of their abilities and come back as improved players in the next season.
From a marketing perspective, ESPL needs to ensure that the four Ps fit well in UTT’s unique model. UTT is a low cost league, unlike the Pro Kabaddi League or the Indian Badminton League, and the focus of the organisers is assuredly single-minded on the development of the sport. ESPL has been very clear about it. However, the commercial success of the league is important for ESPL and the broadcasters to ensure sustainability of UTT.
The format of the matches means the show will be about two and a half hours. UTT, thus, has to keep the ‘entertainment’ quotient up and include ways to keep the audience hooked to the TV screens for that period of time. On the flip side, the dates of the league do not clash with any of the other sports leagues (IPL, ISL, PKL, PBL) which makes UTT one of the few sports events to watch on TV in India.
The promotion of the league is hoped to be backed by Bollywood celebrities, which will surely build an enthusiasm in the country.
Every Indian table tennis enthusiast is profusely excited about UTT and its potential to promote, develop and change the perception of the sport in India. At the same time, they eagerly await to see the Indian table tennis players earning the recognition they truly deserve.
(The writer is India’s only woman table tennis player to take part in the Olympics, in Beijing in 2008)