A new table tennis league hopes to revive interest in a sport that lost out in popularity in the modern age because it was relatively less television friendly.

The Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) league, which will be held from 13-30 July in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai, had a players’ draft last week, with six teams picking eight players each.

With Star India as a broadcast partner, a format shortened to make it more appealing to viewers, and a host of Indian and foreign players in the fray, the UTT joins more than a dozen leagues in the country across sports with a similar franchise-based business model.

Each owner has paid Rs2.6 crore for the franchise in a 10-year deal, with the players’ salary ranging from Rs1.5-20 lakh, depending on his/her stature and ranking. The winner of the league will get Rs1 crore in prize money—from a total purse of Rs3 crore.

“All expenses have been done centrally; teams can perhaps break even in the second year itself," says Vita Dani, chairperson of league organizer 11even Sports Pvt. Ltd. “We have a low-cost model—operationally and for franchises."

Each team will have four women and four men, half of them Indian. The plan is to have eight singles and a mixed doubles match between teams, with the international players playing more matches than their Indian counterparts. Each team will have an Indian and a foreign coach as well.

World No.7 Wong Chun Ting of Hong Kong, among men, and No.9 Han Ying of Germany, among the women, will be some of the top players in a league that will have only one participant from China (Wu Yang, No. 11). Sharath Kamal, the highest-ranked Indian at No.44, and Manika Batra (No.100) will head the local talent in the competition.

Manika Batra
Manika Batra

“A league of this kind will take Indian TT players up and I hope to pull off some upsets," says Gnanasekaran Sathiyan, who expects to get into the top 100 ranking soon. “It will bring more visibility, people will get to know this is not recreational sport alone, (it) is professional as well. When I say I play TT, they ask me what else I do. That attitude will change."

“There will be some changes in format, like best-of-three games, because seven (games) is too long. People are not patient, like they can’t even watch a 50-over (cricket) match. From the first point, you will be on fire, and there is no chance of making a mistake. Foreigners will find it difficult because they will have to keep the focus on and crowd support will be on our side," adds Sathiyan, of the Dabang Smashers TTC team.

Gaurav Modwel, the chief executive officer of Wadhawan Sports Pvt. Ltd, which owns the Maharashtra United team, expects the league to provide the sport the kind of push which would put it on a par with badminton—which has been propelled by the individual successes of players like Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu.

India are ranked No.14 in the world in TT among men and 23rd among women, though individual success on the world stage has been sporadic and inconsistent. But the sport’s governing body, the International Table Tennis Federation, has given this league a dedicated annual window—so players who wish to participate in this do not have any other commitments, says Kamlesh Mehta.

Mehta, a former eight-time national champion and a director with 11even Sports, says this is the only such short-format league anywhere in the world.

While sports sponsorship has grown steadily over the years, different sports leagues have had varying degrees of success. Many team owners of UTT have teams in other leagues as well—like Wadhawan Sports (Indian Super League team Pune City), DoIT Sports Management Pvt. Ltd. (Dabang Mumbai, hockey; Dabang Delhi, Pro Kabaddi; Dabang Smashers TTC, UTT), RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group (Rising Pune Supergiant, Indian Premier League; Atlético de Kolkata, ISL; RP-SG Mavericks, UTT), among others.

Though all the stakeholders in this table tennis league are “bullish" about its success—it’s the biggest thing in Indian TT in 50 years, according to Niraj Bajaj, a former national champion and co-promoter of this event—a lot will depend on how the first edition of the league fares.