16 Jan 2023

2023! We at the ITTF Group are genuinely thrilled about this new year! We believe a very exciting period is upon us and that it will be the busiest year we have ever seen.

In 2020 – it seems like a lifetime ago – I wrote about the need for us to prepare for when the pandemic would be over, that the sports industries would need to be ready for the new normal of life after. My key point, although it was a quite provocative message at that time, was that we should look at the “silver lining” of the situation.

Recently, China more or less took away its final restrictions, allowing travel flows in and out of the country to be less restrictive. A significant news for table tennis as it is by far our biggest market.

So, are we at the end of the pandemic now, and how are we positioned? Are we ready for 2023? I believe we are. Our comprehensive efforts, both prior to and throughout the pandemic, will enable us to capitalize on our hard work.

With the new Executive Board’s clear strategic direction, the team at the ITTF Group has a defined path to follow in the upcoming months. It will allow us to make meaningful progress towards our goals, positioning us for success.

Firstly, continuing our work to professionalise the events for the athletes and the fans. We didn’t stop in our pursuit or belief in the new platform World Table Tennis.  This evolution was a fundamental need of the sport for years leading up to the pandemic and whilst it slowed us down, and whilst some asked us to reconsider or even give up, we did not.

The final of the WTT Cup Finals Xinxiang 2022

We fought through the pandemic and politics to start in 2021 with approximately 20% of planned activity. In 2022, with only 40% of activity, we broke all commercial revenue records. This is proof that the bold, ambitious plans we had via World Table Tennis is the right way.

In 2023, we will be close to 75% of a full World Table Tennis Calendar and we are very confident for a full calendar in 2024. Pushing through the pandemic was super important so that, now it ends, we are ready to fully capitalize. This makes us very buoyant about the new year.

In fact, I expect the majority of all the activities of the ITTF Group to be fully back in 2023.

Development programmes which were mostly conducted behind screens in recent years will now be reshaped, rebranded and back to the field. The ITTF Foundation will also largely be able to go back to more physical activities. Better, our learnings of the use of technology during the pandemic years will be able to ensure that our activities touch even more people and Member Associations than in the past.

The qualification system for our World Championships will be able to be prioritised again – finally. At the recent Annual General Meeting, several associations showed their frustration that they were unable to play at the World Championships. Our goal should be to have all 227 Member Associations participating in the World Championships in some shape or form. This was always the goal with the reforms made in 2018 for the first edition to start in 2021. Now that the pandemic is behind us, the elected officials and the staff can put the attention back to this concept again.

TTX will start to make a comeback in 2023. Some countries like Italy and Uganda already embraced the concept and fell in love with it. With a more coordinated effort, an event calendar, a platform to be rolled out, and as people start to gather again, the timing is ripe.

Another frontier will be to professionalise our Para and Veteran activities and make the changes needed in these areas so they can also get a business model behind their events. I am sure here, with the learnings of World Table Tennis, that it will not be so difficult to adapt, innovate, and follow in the footsteps.

The ITTF Summit will return, at this stage touted for the end of August. After a successful first edition in 2022 plans are already in place to make the next version even more engaging, larger and with more involvement of more stakeholders. A fantastic new asset added to the growing suite of offerings from the ITTF.

The first-ever ITTF Summit brought the table tennis family together

And what other innovations can we look forward to in the future? With the re-opening of the “Home of Table Tennis” process, it is a great chance for us to now bring back a few key projects.

Academies to develop future stars in our sport will be crucial for the overall development of the game but even more crucial for World Table Tennis to grow. This is most evident in the Women’s side of the sport, now dominated by two countries, which we need to look at desperately. A great project for our High Performance initiatives within our sport and the new Athletes Commission representatives.

Another area that the new approach of Home of Table Tennis will allow us to develop together with Academies will be related to the technical development of the sport. Through a laboratory, we will need a much more holistic approach than ever before to link the role of table tennis equipment, the rules of the sport, and how this impacts the players and their performances. Never before have we linked these very important factors in our studies about our sport’s future – now we must so that any rule changes take all factors into account.

As the world emerges from the pandemic and transitions to the new normal, it may be an opportune time for the ITTF to re-evaluate its partnerships and position itself for long-term success. Other world governing bodies have recognised the benefits of a fully integrated organisation, and the ITTF should ensure that its own structure does not lead to multiple bodies with similar interests competing for the same resources.

As I said, 2023 will be busy. But also super exciting; with projects put on hold coming back and new initiatives we will start from scratch.

This will require a strong understanding that whilst we still grew our human resources in the past years, it was with a prudent approach. While we will certainly continue suffering from a Covid hangover and the war in Ukraine, we need to grow at a faster speed in 2023 to manage the increased activity.

Together with the new leadership, a new master plan will be drawn out over the coming months to ensure the long-term health of our sport post-pandemic. With improved alignment, continued support from our elected officials and still a lot of hard work, our sport will once again make giant steps forward to catch up with other major sports.

The silver lining from a few years back can now be achieved. The year 2023 – and 2024 – is the time to prove that, and we will show our sport has gone up many levels.

Steve Dainton

General News