Legacy homes and bespoke venues: new-look WTT calendar taking shape
By Jonathan Rest
The International Table Tennis Federation, the sport’s governing body, is looking to merge tradition with innovation as it analyses dozens of bids for a complete overhaul of its calendar from 2021.
World Table Tennis, the new commercial vehicle, opened the bidding window in March and while the process officially ended last month, Sportcal understands interest is still being welcomed from cities and promoters for events throughout the sport’s pyramid.
At the pinnacle of the sport will be four Grand Smash events, which will take place over 10 days, with the top 64 men and top 64 women competing for $3 million in prize money.
The Grand Smashes will be to table tennis what the majors are to golf and the grand slams to tennis: permanent homes that will act as pillars of the sport’s calendar.
In an exclusive interview with Sportcal from his home in Sydney, WTT events strategy director Stephen Duckitt said: “We want to create those into long-term, traditional homes for our major table tennis events. We’ll work with those hosts to build dedicated table tennis facilities that are the best for the sport and create a festival of table tennis, just like Wimbledon or the Australian Open or the US Open in tennis, where you will have a mix of top-level table tennis and all the peripheral things going on around it.”
He continued: “In table tennis of the past, there has not been that clear structural calendar, with events being confirmed on an annual basis and dates and cities moving around to fit all the jigsaw together.
“What we are doing now is building the sport strategically by having our Grand Smashes as the pinnacle in permanent homes and build a legacy there. So, you know that, for example, the first two weeks of March is when the first Grand Smash of the WTT calendar year is, and you can build all of your marketing and promotion around each of those four pillars.”
Asia is the hotbed of table tennis, and as a result Duckitt said it is “logical” for two Grand Smashes to be staged on the continent, with one likely in Europe and the other in either Oceania or the Americas to ensure geographic spread.
He revealed that four cities in China had submitted bids to stage a Grand Smash, while 15 cities in total from the country had expressed interest in hosting WTT events.
Below the Grand Smashes are the season-long WTT Series, offering up $8 million in prize money from the WTT Champions Series and showpiece WTT Cup Finals, while the Star Contender and Contender Series will be open to up-and-coming players to climb the ladder of professional table tennis.
The WTT Champions Series will comprise up to four men’s and four women’s tournaments, each of 32 players, leading up to the WTT Cup Finals for the top 16 ranked singles players and top eight doubles pairs.
Duckitt said the WTT wants to be creative around the Champions Series.
He explained: “They’ll be single table events, so we can do things a bit differently. They are ideal for more unique locations, such as casinos or bars or movie theatres. The aim is to move table tennis away from the traditional sports hall environment.
“We also wanted to boost up the women’s side of the game and create a platform to build up their personalities.”
Talks have taken place with a number of venue promoters, with some “out of the box discussions,” Duckitt said.
He continued: “This really needs to be a sportainment product. Yes, it will have table tennis at its core, but we want to be building a schedule that has DJs, cultural performances, comedians. Basically, everything that you would not expect at a sports event.
“We want to position it as something unique on the table tennis calendar, just like darts or rugby sevens do - make it an event that people want to be at, snap it and post it on Instagram.”
Hosts of WTT Champions and Contender (Star and Contender) tournaments are expected to be semi-permanent, albeit Duckitt noted: “We are open to those moving if whatever happens in market forces, just like events move on the Formula 1 calendar.”
Up to six annual Star Contender and 14 Contender tournaments will be played in traditional sports venues and mainly feature lower ranked players with the occasional marquee player competing at a tournament on home soil.
The WTT will hold all tournament licenses, with cities or promoters paying a hosting fee.
Those hosting agreements will be reviewed on an ongoing basis, Duckitt noted, to ensure they are “commercially successfully, well-attended, well-marketed events to build that table tennis market and help grow the sport.”
A traditional competitive bidding process is anticipated, however, for the WTT Cup Finals, the season-ending events on the men’s and women’s calendars.
Duckitt said he expects host cities to sign up to between three and five-year contracts, before the tournament moves on to another location.
WTT will consider one city hosting both the men’s and women’s finals.
The new WTT structure is very similar to that used in tennis, with the four grand slams dotted throughout a calendar that comprises tiered-tournaments and ends with the ATP and WTA Finals.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the ITTF recruited Duckitt to direct the WTT’s new events strategy.
He boasts more than 15 years of corporate global sports industry experience, including management and marketing of top international events on the ATP and WTA Tours.
Before joining WTT in March, he was the tournament director of the WTA's Tianjin Open, having previously carried out the same role at the Taiwan Open.
Duckitt does not take responsibility for the WTT tournament structure, which was already formulated before he came on board, but he can picture a roadmap for success.
He explained: “The biggest thing when I joined WTT, looking at table tennis as a consumer of sport, was I didn’t understand all the machinations of how the sport works.
“The one thing that was driven into me when I was at the ATP was you have got to tell the story of the sport and that is what this new structure is designed to do. We want to be able to clearly articulate to fans, broadcasters, sponsors and the players what the season process is, what the journey is.”
There are, however, notable differences with the structure of professional tennis, which give WTT greater control over the make-up of the calendar.
He continued: “All of the events are WTT events whereas in tennis you have got the Grand Slam committee running the Grand Slams, the ATP running the men’s tour and the WTA running the women’s tour. The big advantage for us is that everything is in-house and we can create a consistent feel across our events.
“That then mixes in with all the peripheral stuff within the table tennis family, the continental events, the Olympics, the world championships. It is a more cohesive calendar to tell the full story of table tennis. And we are leading that story telling.”
The ITTF had been hoping to announce a full calendar for 2021 and beyond in one big promotional, marketing push, but the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has naturally impacted plans.
When the bidding process was launched in March, there were 34 hosting opportunities on the table: four Grand Smashes; two WTT Cup Finals; eight WTT Champions (four men, four women); six WTT Star Contenders; and 14 Contenders.
Duckitt said a more cautious approach is now more likely.
He explained: “The world has been completely turned on its heads since then, so we have had to reassess the likelihood of achieving that target. I think we’ll likely roadmap through to 2023-24.
“We have had a couple of cities that have said they definitely want to host an event in 2022 because 2021 is just too tight. So at least there is that demand to host events. Whether they get up and running in 2021 or 2022, will be part of all these ongoing discussions.”
The first batch of hosts for the first six months of 2021 are expected to be unveiled in the next four to six weeks.