Will Ultimate Table tennis prove to be a game changer?

Ultimate Table Tennis may have created a lot of excitement, but the league has to overcome a whole lot of challenges if it has to reach out to the public at large.

Not much glitter... with the exception of Sharath Kamal, other Indian table tennis players lack star value.   -  Rohit Jain Paras

Virtually every sportsperson — or even an aficionado — would have played table tennis at some point in his/her life. Still, table tennis is far from being a competitive sport in India. It’s perhaps the curse of being perceived as a recreational sport. It requires a revolution of sorts to change this perception in the country.

In terms of overseas players, Ultimate Table Tennis has had a lukewarm response. Even European stars such as Timo Ball (above) and Vladimir Samsonov (below), whose caeers are on the wane, didn't seem to find the league attractive.   -  Getty Images

 

READ: Kamlesh Mehta upbeat about UTT

The players and lovers of the sport would be hoping that the CEAT Ultimate Table Tennis — a six-team franchise-based league that has just kicked off — would play a radical role in changing the perception of the sport, from being a mere recreational one to a marquee sport. Despite the optimism of the table tennis fraternity, it’s time to conduct a SWOT analysis of sorts:

Strengths

The biggest strength is the league’s potential to reach the masses. Despite Indian table tennis players’ limited success at the international level, thanks to its popularity among amateurs, the sport does drive a lot of people. The league, despite its various lacunae, is the first real attempt to channelise this interest. If a layman watches Ultimate Table Tennis on his television for at least a quarter of the three-hour duration every evening for 18 days, that itself would mean a huge success for the league. However, 11Even Sports’ top brass, the promoters of the league — they include two of India’s greatest players, Kamlesh Mehta and Neeraj Bajaj, and Vita Dani, who entered the fraternity as a parent but has taken over the mantle of reviving the fortunes of the game — jolly well realise that the task is easier said than done.

 

Weaknesses

Lack of star appeal. That’s the biggest problem for the league, which is trying to reach out to the prime time television audience. The game has followers, but it doesn’t have many stars. A layman would have seldom heard of any other Indian table tennis player barring Achanta Sharath Kamal. The knowledge that Sharath is joined by three promising youngsters who are among the top 100 in the world is limited only to the table tennis fraternity.

ALSO READ: UTT launches in Chennai

Even when it comes to the participation of the overseas players, the top Asian paddlers — Chinese, Japanese and Singaporeans — along with the most popular European stars have decided to give Ultimate Table Tennis a miss. Even the likes of Timo Boll and Vladimir Samsonov, whose careers are on the wane, haven’t been lured by the league.

No wonder then that 11Even Sports, along with broadcaster Star India, has pulled off a coup of sorts by roping in Aamir Khan as the face of the league. Will the Bollywood star’s presence attract eyeballs for a fortnight? Watch this space.

Opportunities

Table tennis has just not been marketed as well as it should have been, and there is no dearth of opportunities. First and foremost, the Indian players will have everything to gain: exposure, money, fame and recognition.

That the top six Indian men and women, boys and girls will be able to train with some of the top players in the world — under the watchful eyes of a few successful overseas coaches — may help them immensely. Besides, the minimum guaranteed fees of Rs. 1.5 lakh for an Indian player is more than what a National champion receives as prize money. This means the players have everything to gain financially.

With the league being telecast, and should the league and the teams make innovative use of the digital platforms, then by the end of July, players such as Manika Batra, Sanil Shetty, Harmeet Desai and G. Sathiyan may perhaps start attracting attention, say in a mall or at the airport. Recognition and fame is something that the Indian paddlers — much like the fellow sportspersons from most other Olympic disciplines — crave for. And the league might just facilitate this.

As for the overseas players, besides the money, Ultimate Table Tennis will be a novel experience. Most of them feature in some European club league or the other, but never has any of them been a part of a mixed league of men and women. Perhaps the lure of featuring on TV in a country of billions and playing with a mix of paddlers around the world will attract more top players to the league, should it sustain itself in the future. The fact that the matches are of shorter duration (all nine matches in a tie will be played over three games each) will also be an attraction.

Threats

The biggest threat to Ultimate Table Tennis is the financial model. The organisers have adopted the central pool model, wherein all the six team owners have shelled out Rs. 2.6 crore for the first season. The players’ fees, logistical expenses and central marketing costs are covered under it. But all that the franchises are promised in return is prize money, which is Rs. 1 crore for the winner, Rs. 75 lakh for the losing finalist and Rs. 50 lakh each for the semifinalists. It effectively means that even if a franchise is able to attract a title sponsor — as allowed by the league — and gets sponsors for all the eight possible logos, it will have to bear a substantial hit, at least for the first four seasons.

The biggest challenge will be to see if the team owners —some of whom have bought the team for the love of the game — can retain their interest in spite of suffering losses.

Despite all the challenges, the fact remains that Ultimate Table Tennis attempts to lend a professional face to one of the most popular sports in India. Besides, it also tries to present a viable option to Indian sports lovers who primarily love to watch sports on television rather than sit in the stands and enjoy the game.

Having played the game competitively once upon a time, one hopes that the hashtag of UpTheGame works. However, one is not entirely convinced whether the experiment will work in the first year itself. While the cynic in me is apprehensive, the fan and the paddler in me hopes that I am proved wrong!

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