Thursday 7 August 2014

Why Catering For Spectators Has Backfired

I realise some of my blog posts can take on a very cynical and negative approach to some things but after seeing the two toned ball in the super league semifinal I felt like writing this!

Anyone who is not blindfolded can see that the popularity of table tennis in live arenas is decreasing. While the World Championships have drawn reasonable crowds, most World Tour Events, particularly those not in the Super Series, have a pretty poor showing. Once upon a time table tennis was a hugely popular sport. Now our proud statistics are distorted by enormous numbers of players within China. The truth is table tennis was (and still is) a great sport, it drew great crowds and was a popular game.

Lots of empty seat at Athens 2004 Olympics
Then somewhere along the line things started to change, the crowds were there already but other indoor sports were starting to compete and table tennis had to change to survive. To please the spectators the ball was changed to a 40mm ball, they wanted to slow the sport down and also make the games shorter. You ask any international players from that era and they will tell you they preferred the 38mm ball and the game to 21. In my recent interview with Petr Korbel he also states this fact. The game was faster and fiercer. But ITTF catered for the spectators instead of the players. What happened? The number of players decreased, people were drawn to other sports, spectator numbers fell.

China were the first to ascend through the phase of the new game and their dominance began, a dominance people grew tired of. As magnificent as the Chinese are to watch and admire, nobody wants to see the same country win over and over again without so much as a challenge, sport is about seeing competition especially on an international level. So excitement dwindled, what's the point in watching if you already know which country is going to win the World Champs, Olympic Games, World Team Champs etc. Then move along a few years and speed glue gets banned because it's toxic. Another measure to slow the game down and bring in water based glue which offers no speed effect at all. Players like Kreanga, the big hitters, take a long period of time to adjust. China excels again, mainly for their creativity in discovering means by which to boost their rubbers which spread eventually around the globe. Once again ITTF tried to make these methods illegal also. They want the game to be slower so that people can watch. Who suffers? The players.

Are we heading back to this?
Maybe the next rule will be to wear long pants again
Now we come again to a new phase of the game, the plastic ball, we are slowing down again. For the spectators. While there are other factors in play like the nature of shipping flammable celluloid balls, the players will again take the hit and the game will slow down again. There are active players who will have to suffer through 3 different phases of the game in their lifetime, possibly even 4 at this rate, all for the spectator. So we will all go back and adjust to the plastic ball and it's slower and lower bounce, less power and speed and spin. Why don't we just go back to playing on a dining room table with sandpaper paddles?

The sport is growing online, viewership is growing online, but not so much in venues where it still suffers. On the internet, slow motion replays can be employed to help spectators see what is happening. Different camera angles and make rallies easier to watch. Higher quality streams and replays will ultimately feed the growing number of fans online. Why do we need to continually slow the game down for the spectators? Take the hint, it's not working. Events like Kuwait and Qatar Open bolster a handful of mildly excitable fans the finals.

Table Tennis was a game of speed and spin, we are gradually degrading to a simpleton sport of hitting a ball back and forward, the skill is diminishing. The focus on promoting the sport for spectators is wrong, sport is for playing. How many sports have we seen make this many changes in equipment and rules in the past couple of decades? I think just 1, table tennis.

The Two-Toned Ball
Now CTTA are proposing to introduces a two toned ball, half orange, half white. This is...for the spectators. We want to help them understand spin. Imagine playing with a two toned ball. You serve and your opponent can see the spin on the ball. You try and fool them with no spin, too bad, they can see the ball rotation. I was just watching the Super League semifinals, you can't even see the colours of the ball on the live stream, let alone the rotation. I doubt anybody watching live will be able to see the detail of the ball either. So why are we doing this again? The players are constantly losing out to cater for spectators, the numbers of which are continuously falling and the sport is becoming less popular. It is not the sport it once was.

ITTF should be using speed and spin as it's headline marketing campaign, they should be showing the skill and reflexes of the best players in the world and building up the reputation of the sport. Also they should stick to one equipment regime so that we don't have to keep changing all the time. Every time we change, China gets one step ahead because they already have a new generation of players in the wings ready to adapt to any new systems, rules or equipment changes that can be thrown at them. The popularity of the sport depends entirely on image and big events. Build the grandeur of the events and people will come to watch them live.


  1. Great article again, Matt!

    I have to say that I like the 11-point game, because I think it makes matches more dynamic, but I agree with you about changes in a short period of time. 4 big changes in less than 15 years? Pro players just adapt to one when another comes up.

    Maybe changes in the game aren't the key to catering spectactors and promote our sport. If we see the most popular sports in the world, their focus of attention is athletes. It seems that ITTF knows that now and has begun to work on it.

  2. This is a completely biased and inaccurate piece of writing. It is wrong on so many levels it makes it difficult to know where to start.

    Why pretend that table tennis is somehow unique in its problems with rule changes and declining numbers of spectators? As both a Pom and a Kiwi you must be aware of how the most popular sports – the big ones with huge financial backing – have all had major rule changes in recent years. Union is not the same game as it was twenty years ago; cricket has replaced a sensible game with mindless Twenty20; Rugby League has a scrum which isn’t even a scrum. Writing, “How many sports have we seen make this many changes in equipment and rules in the past couple of decades? I think just 1, table tennis,” is not just misleading; it’s actually deceptive.

    At the same time as suggesting that slowing the game down is hurting table tennis’s popularity, you post a photo with the caption, “Are we heading back to this? Maybe the next rule will be to wear long pants again.” Look at the photo: this match has a huge crowd, pointing to the reality that our sport was at its most “popular” from a spectator viewpoint when the game was slow and simple.

    I first played competitive table tennis in the 1960s in front of crowds of none; I next played in the 80s in front of crowds of none; now I play in the 21st century in front of crowds of none. Nothing has changed at the local level. What has changed is the viewing habits of sports watchers.

    When was the last time you stood on the sideline in the wind and the rain cheering on your local football team? I’m guessing that you’re no different from the rest of us, choosing to watch sport from the comfort of your lounge chair. All sports – including the major sports like football and cricket – are faced with the reality of diminishing spectator numbers. If you don’t believe me, turn on your telly on Sunday afternoon and get the attendance figures for the weekend’s NRL matches, or the cricket, or whatever.

    Your piece, apart from being objectively wrong, is nothing more than a biased rant against the rule makers, blaming them for something which is widespread across our culture and has nothing to do with ball size, speed glue or the colour of Sharara’s glasses. Try stepping back from your blinkered viewpoint and recognise that you’re doing nothing more than scaremongering.

    1. This is a blog. One may write whatever one wants to. This article's purpose is not to rant at rule makers or to blame the lack of live spectators on a third party. Rather, this article serves to highlight some recurring problems within the sport of table tennis. Although the prevalent tone throughout the blog post maintains a negative attitude toward the several changes, we must realise that the author is simply trying to relay a widely accepted viewpoint among players of the sport.

      The author does not care about cricket or NRL. The point he is trying to make is that there is a multitude of unnecessary changes in table tennis which are perhaps hindering the growth of the sport for both players and spectators.

  3. It's an opinion that lots of people share and this is a blog a place for just that. It's a strong opinion yes, but a good proportion of international players preferred the game the way it was before. These are difficult changes to adjust to and as Romina said it's not really fair to subject international players to 2 to 3 big changes during their career. The scale of the changes in our sport is very different to any other, we have changed the scoring system, composition and size of the ball now twice, service rules and gluing rules. This is quite different from changing a scrum or having twenty20 cricket matches, in essence the actual game itself is still the same to play. Thanks for your comment, I accept that this is not an opinion shared by everyone but these were my thoughts at the time I wrote the article which is what a blog is for.

  4. Hi Matt. I understand your right to your point of view, but I agree with the very valid points put forward by the previous post. Your youth and enthusiasm are no match for age and experience.

  5. Well if anyone can tell me what changing the ball has actually achieved I'm happy to hear it. Youth and enthusiasm is what's needed to put the sport on the world stage properly. Perhaps you need to play with the plastic ball first to understand where I am coming from.

    1. Hi Matt,

      I'm the grumpy old curmudgeon with the long post above.

      I agree that youth and enthusiasm are what is needed for our sport to have a healthy future. But having played across fifty years, I can assure you that our problems have not been caused by rule and equipment changes. The game today (and tomorrow) is more complex, faster, and more fun to play than it ever was in the past. And the plastic ball won't change that.

      Our problems are cultural ones. Back in the fifties when hundreds turned up to watch table tennis being played by the old masters (as in your photo), there were no alternatives for watching sport other than turning up (unless you count the 60 second newsreel before the movies began). Now we have apparently limitless access to an extraordinary range of sports - sports which didn't even exist fifty years ago – and we don’t even have to get up from our comfy chairs to watch it.

      Some of those sports will always draw a crowd; for example, mixed martial arts - the possibility of seeing blood will always have a fascination for some people. We no longer have bear baiting and cock fighting so people will get their rush from watching imbeciles hurt one another. Table tennis cannot compete with that anymore than it can ever hope to compete with today's major sports. TT will never draw the sort of crowd that turns up to watch an EPL match.

      But that's not the point. The point is, "Can we attract people to pick up a table tennis bat and learn to play a beautiful game?" I believe we can, but that is a marketing issue and has nothing (in my opinion) to do with dumbing the sport down.


  6. I completely agree. That's my point, the ball has not changed anything for the marketing of the sport but it is less fun to play with. What I'm trying to get across, as strong as the piece was written, is that the rule changes made no difference to the decline in spectator numbers so it is only the players who had to manage all the changes which seemed a little unfair. Especially considering that most players preferred 38mm to 40mm and celluloid to plastic.

  7. What table tennis needs is for table tennis to become a popular, professional sport in the US. Competitive US players, national team, and leagues will be good for everyone.

  8. If so many rule changes didn't help to return crowd, which is constantly in decrease, then conclusion is that authors of these changes are not able to do their job in good way. Only result is that players think they lost something, for what - for nothing. Even worse, somebody got something - that are equipment producers who earn lot of money by constantly selling new equipment, 'suitable for latest rules'. So, if ittf president is not able to bring crowd (except on olympics finals, where you rarely will find average spectator) after so many years, and cameras on big events must not focus empty halls, then, please step back from your position, allow somebody more competent to work..

    Spectators are not idiots, they can recognize creativity and geniuses. People liked Waldner and lot of top players of his era, because they could produce incredible shots. Why they could do this - because they had rules and equipment which allowed them to play inspired. In 11 point scoring system, nobody want to risk too much or play for crowd. in 21 they will. In 38mm era, balls had lot of spin and curvy trajectories so Waldner and friends were able to produce fantastic shots. This is still possible now to some degree. But I'm afraid with new ball with even more flatter and lower trajectory, game will become more boring - open bat hitting and chopping, like on picture in text.

    If we want popularity - make people enjoy watching. Snooker is interesting example, looks like this sport also going down with spectators despite some scoring changes. Probably nobody of average tv spectators watches it if Ronnie O'Sullivan doesn't play, people like masterpieces and he is able to produce it.



    The Tensor's catapulta needs to be restricted !!! Here I stand.


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