Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Impact of College Table Tennis

Here are a few points which i believe are obvious and true:

1. Table tennis is a great sport and we want it to grow.
I can't truly speak for what anyone else really wants; i'm not a mind reader. But i'm going to assume that local players would prefer not to have to travel to find competition. I know that i'm constantly working with people who, like myself, spend thousands of unpaid hours every year to try to make things better. And i suspect that when people such as our top players, their families, and others donate to the USATT's Annual Giving Campaign, it is with similar intentions. I assume most people want things to grow.

2. Though many people in the US have played table tennis, it is not a major professional sport in the US.
I recall a story told by a friend about his degree in sports management. He had planned to write his thesis about a subject related to table tennis, and his faculty advisor suggested that for a "sports management" degree his thesis should be about a "sport", not table tennis.

It's one thing if a random person doesn't consider table tennis to be a sport; it's another when a person working in sports has this view. This is what we're up against.

3. The most successful table tennis countries have one of the following: (a) a cultural connection with the sport, (b) significant government funding of table tennis, or (c) strong and deep table tennis leagues.
I don't think we can count on (a) or (b) ever happening here. Not every strong table tennis country is well funded by its government, yet somehow they get by. Maybe they just have good organization, strong clubs, and a wealth of volunteers.

4. In the US, professional sports often have some connection to college sports.
It varies by sport, but professional athletes in many sports go to college first, and i get the feeling that college sports are more important in the US than they are in other countries. On the other hand, sport clubs seem less important in the US than in Europe.

Yeah this is rambling a bit, but it leads to this one:

5. College leagues and their associated scholarships drive junior participation in other sports.
How much money do your neighbors spend on their kids' participation in football or hockey or whichever sport they play - not with the goal of having them become pro, but rather so they can get a scholarship? Sometimes they spend more money in development than the resulting scholarship is worth.

Why can't this work for us?

Right now we have a nice group of juniors who play for a variety of good reasons: it's fun, healthy, and character building. It's a sport that can be played over your whole life. Some players aspire to be World Champions or Olympians. Another possible future is to become a professional table tennis league player, but i'm not sure how many are thinking in that direction.

These are not bad reasons to play, but they aren't motivators that reach a lot of people. Only a few people go to the Olympics and it's only once every four years. Our group of juniors wouldn't compare to the number of soccer players in a city school district. What if there were an additional motivation: The opportunity to earn a table tennis scholarship to a top university - one of thousands of such scholarships? How many young players would there be? How many collegiate and junior coaching jobs would be created to support these programs? How many adults would come out of those college programs with a desire to continue playing in adult leagues? How many of those adults would be willing to support a professional league?

If we had a complete system of college table tennis, the sport would be transformed at all levels.

We're still far from that, but even so, college table tennis has come a long way. 167 coed and 43 women's teams participated in the 2013-2014 NCTTA league - the highest numbers to date. A couple schools have varsity programs and scholarships, while many others have programs that are well-established as club sports, with funding for a little travel and some with part-time paid administrators. There are even players who moved to the US so they could play table tennis (and go to school). I think college table tennis has made an impact, but at the moment it doesn't transform the sport like it could.

To reach a new level, in which table tennis scholarships really have an impact, a lot of work needs to be done. At this stage, growth still needs to be pushed; it doesn't happen spontaneously. Many people think that some nebulous group known as "they" need to develop programs for players; instead of players, parents, and coaches doing it themselves. Unfortunately the small pool of table tennis volunteers is often working at capacity already. For every program that exists, somebody had to step up and make things happen. For every NCTTA club - as well as every USATT club - there is at least one leader. This is not going to change. An optimist will observe that this means we have over 200 table tennis leaders in our colleges. The pessimist will point out that for the sport to double in size, we need twice as many leaders.

We're always looking for more help. Any volunteers?

How about one final point?

6. Growth of table tennis in the US would bring value to the sport in other countries.
The US has a unique influence on world culture, and if table tennis became more popular in the US, it would have a worldwide impact on the sport. I believe the ITTF recognizes this and would love for the sport to be huge in the US. And i believe the ITTF sees value in college table tennis in particular because their marketing partner, TMS International, is the title sponsor of this year's NCTTA Championships.

The TMS 2014 College Table Tennis Championships is the finale of the 2013-2014 NCTTA league, to take place April 4th through 6th in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The action will be streamed live all weekend on the ITTF's YouTube channel, and will feature three US Singles Champions among a field that's deep as always. Don't miss it!