Table tennis aims for big leagues, to professionalise from 2021 By Low Lin Fhoong ITTF (From left to right) STTA president Ellen Lee, Sportsmaster founder Frank Ji, IOC member Ng Ser Miang and ITTF president Thomas Weikert at the announcement at Shangri-La Hotel. Published02 July, 2018 Updated 02 July, 2018 SINGAPORE – The sport of table tennis is set for a major transformation from 2021, as the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) embarks on an ambitious plan to emulate big-money sports such as tennis and golf. In a move to professionalise the sport – which could see Singapore’s paddlers competing with the world’s best for more prize money – the ITTF on Monday (July 2) signed an agreement with sports marketing agency Sportsmaster to set up a new professional platform for its tournaments. Under the ITTF’s new structure, the professional platform will include the existing World Tour, Challenge Series, World Veterans Tour, the T2 Asia-Pacific Table Tennis League (T2APAC), and Table Tennis X, a time-based format competition introduced in 2016. The annual world championships, global junior programme, and para table tennis will come under its institutional platform, and both platforms will incorporate the systems for world rankings and Olympic qualification. The changes will help boost tournaments’ prize purses, increase players’ tour earnings and turn them into star athletes, said ITTF president Thomas Weikert. “This is a significant step for us as it’s a big game changer…it’s a brand new proposition for us, for associations, players, and the fans,” said Mr Weikert at the ITTF’s announcement at Shangri-La Hotel on Monday. “This will open up commercial potential for table tennis, more income for the players, more funds for development projects, more income for national sports associations, and the ITTF family.” Compared to other professional sports such as tennis and golf, the ITTF World Tour still has much catching up to do before it can join the big leagues. The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour in 2012 boasted a total prize purse of US$279 million (S$382 million) for 45 events, while the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour offered prize money of over US$100 million in 2015. The Badminton World Federation, which is regarded as the closest rival to table tennis, currently offers a prize purse of over US$15 million for the 2018 season. In contrast, the 2017 ITTF World Tour’s 13 events had a total prize purse of US$3.305 million. ITTF chief executive Steve Dainton acknowledged that the sport is “a little bit behind”, but is hopeful that with the move to professionalise in 2021, “we will be able to jump above them (badminton) in a few years”. The move was welcomed by paddlers, including Singaporean world No 46 Yu Mengyu. “The ITTF has taken a positive step to turn table tennis into a leading sport globally,” said the 28-year-old. “I am looking forward to taking on this new challenge, and seizing these new opportunities.” As part of the agreement with ITTF, T2APAC – which is owned by Sportsmaster – will organise Diamond-level events in 2019 and 2020 to test new initiatives that will restructure the tour and transform the sport. New gameplay formats, ball-tracking technology, and broadcast innovations could be some of the changes introduced in a bid to make the sport more exciting and attractive to fans and commercial sponsors, said the ITTF. Mr Weikert said T2APAC’s “dynamic, fresh, and new ideas” was what the ITTF wanted for its own products. Started last June, the US$1.75 million T2APAC in Johor, Malaysia, featured 24 of the world’s best paddlers competing in an innovative mixed team league comprising 24-minute matches and kill-zone games. Hailing T2APAC as a “disruptor” to the sport, Sportsmaster founder Frank Ji said that putting its slate of events under the ITTF’s umbrella would allow it to act as a testbed. “Table tennis has massive untapped potential…this is great news for the table tennis world, and something we should be very excited about,” he added. However, any changes will only kick in from 2021 as the ITTF’s commercial rights agreement with Sportsmaster for the World Tour and other events will run till 2020. Table tennis fans here could also get to see the world’s best paddlers in action in 2019 or 2020, as the ITTF revealed that it is in talks with the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) to host the season-ending US$1 million World Tour Grand Finals here. If successful, this will be the biggest table tennis event to be hosted by Singapore, after the US$150,000 Volkwagen Women’s World Cup in October 2011. STTA president Ellen Lee said the association hopes to host the event “in the next two years”, but that it would depend on funding from the relevant authorities, as well as corporate sponsors.