Dear Table Tennis Friends,
A message of hope.
On Sunday 29th March, the ITTF was basically forced to suspend all activities until at least the end of June and therefore to postpone our World Championships for a second time.
We are living in an unprecedented moment of history, not witnessed by a few generations. Never have we been so restricted in our movements, social interactions and normal day to day life. The entire live entertainment and events industries are suffering massively from the current situation, none more so than the sports industry. And whilst we hope that the crisis will end sooner than later, as we now enter into the 2nd quarter of 2020, it is almost impossible to know when it will be over for good.
One thing that we can all be sure about is that it will end in some way or another; and when it does, we will have to be ready for what will probably be a very different world and reality. It will be up to all industries to adapt to the new era. This will be no different for the table tennis industry. With International events postponed or cancelled, domestic events equally affected and thousands and thousands of table tennis fans not being able to enjoy what they love most, when the situation concludes, we need to be ready.
These are very hard days, but this also gives us an immense opportunity. This crisis places us in an unprecedented situation where we can reflect and work on all the areas that we know have been underperforming, needed to change and adapt – but were not tackled because priorities laid elsewhere and, whilst we were aware of such areas underperforming, it was simply due to time and resources that we were unable to dedicate ourselves to tackling these areas. Now is the time to act. The crisis forces us to do so. If even simply to survive, we must adapt. Often these changes were difficult for internal, political reasons or financial implications, or simply that change is often very difficult. It is in a moment like this that we should look to make changes which will ensure that our future is even brighter than before and not be afraid of some of the past challenges that had kept us from evolving.
So today, I want to give you some updates about what we are doing to ensure that the ITTF and table tennis are managing this crisis, and later to discuss some longer-term ideas:
1. Ensuring Health and Safety as the number one priority
As you all know, we were one of the first international federations affected by COVID-19 when our World Championships in Korea Republic needed to be postponed. At first, June seemed like a feasible date, but as time passed, we realised that we had to extend the suspension of all ITTF activities until at least the end of June. We now hope for the global situation to improve in order for the World Championships to be held between late September and early October 2020. With a task force set up to monitor the daily situation, the ITTF is fully informed with the latest updates and this allows us to plan more effectively.
2. Looking for reasonable Calendar and sporting solutions to our events
As events are postponed or cancelled, and now with the Olympic and Paralympic Games also moved to 2021, we are constantly checking the 2020 and 2021 Calendar to try to integrate the ITTF events and also to assess the impact on the Continental Events, National Events, National Leagues, etc. 2020 and 2021 will be a complicated puzzle to solve as the entire sports industry deals with changes to the dates of all major events. At this stage, we expect that only by 2022 will we see some normality return to our Calendars.
On top of that, the sporting solutions connected to our World Ranking and Qualification for the Olympic and Paralympic Games are hugely affected. Our Competition Department, Athletes Commission and World Ranking experts are currently evaluating all the possible scenarios to try to keep the integrity of the various sporting platforms intact.
3. Ensuring the Financial Survival of the ITTF
Unfortunately, it goes without saying that all sports and properties (among many other industries) are majorly affected financially. Without our full portfolio of events in 2020, it is inevitable that this also has an impact on the ITTF. After some amazing growth years, it is impossible that 2020 will be anywhere close to the last few years or according to our budget. The overall outcome of the 2nd half of the year will also impact on the overall finances of the ITTF and will determine the future steps. I was proud that the entire ITTF staff and the President agreed to some salary and honorarium cuts for the year as a starting point. Further reductions on our usual activities, our contracts and our human resources are absolutely inevitable in 2020, no matter the situation. Despite some tough sacrifices needed, we will ensure that the ITTF survives this difficult period.
4. Helping to facilitate positive exchanges among our members
As you probably saw, when China was the first hit by the crisis we worked hard with our good friends at CTTA to try to find solutions for them by organising and facilitating their training in Qatar and also by sourcing and supplying the necessary medical equipment, such as face masks, to Wuhan. As the virus has now become global, we will soon be setting up fundraising initiatives that will try to support all our stakeholders affected by this crisis.
However, these days, as I sit on my balcony overlooking a very quiet Singapore, it has been an excellent time to reflect. Whilst still needing further work and discussions, here are some of the thoughts that I believe will help our sport when the crisis is over:
A. Ensuring that International Table Tennis events are significantly improved
The ITTF has been either extremely smart or, given the situation, extremely lucky to set up World Table Tennis over the past 2 years. The transformation of our events, the way they are managed, the way they are presented and how the entire business works around them, was already touted prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After the crisis, this will be precisely what our sport requires and arguably the timing could not have been better. Inside the system, some will see this as a mini revolution and will need time to adapt, but this is exactly what the sport needs to move forward and beyond these difficult times. We will benefit from a business-minded and managed International events platform that has hired industry experts to ensure it, has investment needed to transform the product, focusing purely on the value of the sport and the company – all of which will enable table tennis to become one of the leading global sporting properties. “Freshness” will be what the market is seeking. This will also allow us to ensure that the lines between the ITTF as a Federation serving its members and a company, whose goal is to commercialise the sport, are more correctly drawn.
B. Putting our Athletes and our Fans more at the heart of the sport
Too often internal politics and our old structures mean that the true benefactors of the sport – the Athletes and the Fans – are forgotten and miss out. We need a new structure which truly recognises their importance, their needs to be well treated, our desire for them to be international, household names and the real stars of the show. It is time to completely review our structure with the Athletes at the centre-point. This can be done by WTT through a better defined approach regarding the roles of the ITTF and WTT. The National Associations should focus on the Team events as well as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, while the Athletes should be able to control their destiny for the individual events. This will ensure a better focus for our Members and for the Athletes, whilst crucially providing a much clearer narrative for our Fans to follow.
C. Ensuring that the World Championships, Olympic and Paralympic Games platforms help strengthen our Member Associations and assist them to focus on developing table tennis in their territory.
We currently have an annual World Championships. I believe it may be time to think if, for the future, it would be better to have a World Team Championships only. This approach would allow for a clearer line to be drawn for each of the platforms. The World Team Championships and the Olympic Games, with the team competition as a key component, will remain under the responsibility of the Federations, while the professional platform can focus on the growth of the individual events, allowing our sport to pursue the real table tennis stars of the future.
Why do away with the World Individual Championships, you ask? The idea is simply that in WTT we plan to eventually have 3 to 4 “Grand Smashes” per year. These events will be equal to or larger than a World Individual Championships. With 3 to 4 “Grand Smashes” per year, we would be overstretching and confusing the Calendar and market if we also have a World Individual Championships. The 3 to 4 major events held on the International stage throughout each year will reach a larger audience and will perform much better than once every 2 years. From these events, we would also be able to define an Individual World Champion.
D. Redefining our Development and High Performance pathways
Whilst the 3 points above define more the commercial roles of the Federation, this 4th point would then allow the ITTF to work more directly with our Member Associations and support them through customised Development activities – an area that I truly believe is where the Members should invest the majority of their efforts. We should set up a new system where for a certain tier of our membership we work directly with them and ensure that we create programmes and pathways for sustainable table tennis development in their territory. Separately, we would work commercially by investing in different markets to deliver the implementation of a new system which guarantees the rise of new table tennis stars from all over the globe. We need fantastic table tennis players from more corners of the world if we want to truly start saying that table tennis is a global sport. Better defining the roles of the Federation will help us achieve this.
This is also a chance to take the major step needed in modernising the ITTF handbook and constitution to ensure that we realise the plans detailed above and to make sure we have a robust and modern platform of Governance that will lead us post-crisis. A handbook that more clearly defines the role of the ITTF, its members and the areas which it should focus on.
So in conclusion, whilst this is a very tough year, I wanted to send this as a message of encouragement that our sport will overcome this crisis and will emerge in a better position than ever before. We have put in measures that will enable the ITTF to serve its members for years to come. We are building platforms and events that will help to ensure that when the pandemic is over, we are ready to go full steam ahead with our commercial properties and we are constantly challenging ourselves about how we can fix these deficiencies and perhaps make large changes to the organisational structure to better suit the modern world.
As Winston Churchill once said “never waste a good crisis” – and whilst these are very hard times for all of us, we are trying to ensure that we make this moment as positive as we possibly can, given the current circumstances.