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Should we change the way we marketize the sport of table tennis in China?

Tuesday, 04 Jul 2017 16:00   |   By Yutang Sports

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Recent news about table tennis stars Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin quitting the 2017 ITTF World Tour China Open in Chengdu has gone viral in China. All 3 players simultaneously posted the same reason on their Sina Weibo accounts at 7pm on June 23: “At this moment we don't feel like playing anymore, because we miss you, Liu Guoliang!”

Liu, considered to be one the greatest table tennis players of all time, is a former world and Olympic gold medalist who had been China’s men's national head coach. But on June 20,  the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) unexpectedly announced he would leave the top coaching position and become the association’s vice chairman. According to Caixin.com, this has been seen as a demotion as its an administrative position already shared by 18 people. The CTTA have also announced the removal of the head coach position of China’s national table tennis team.

Other Chinese table tennis players and coaches have joined the protest, posting the same line on their Weibo accounts but all the Sina Weibo posts have since disappeared.

This news came like a bombshell and has been under continuously heated discussion until now with table tennis fans inclining to believe that it is not reasonable to dismiss such a great head coach and forbid players discussing this serious topic. 

For one thing, forbidding players to discuss this issue is perhaps not a good way to respond to the controversy. As to the removal of the head coach position, although it may not be the correct decision in the pursuit of better results in table tennis competitions, it may indeed have a positive effect, to some extent on promoting the “flat management structure” in China’s national table tennis team structure and the marketization of table tennis in China. But what makes these measures confusing is, Liu, as the former head coach dismissed by CTTA, is considered one of table tennis pioneers dedicated to accelerating the marketization of one of China‘s favourite national pastimes.

Table tennis has always stood out among all the sports in China mainly because of the Chinese players’ dominant positions in the table tennis world. As a result, table tennis is usually regarded as the “national sport” of China, in which people are used to hearing Chinese victories in international competitions. However, it has become increasingly hard for Chinese table tennis to attract people’s attention over the past number of years. 

Fortunately, thanks to a set of positive marketization strategies implemented and led by Liu, Chinese table tennis and its players have reignited fans’ enthusiasm since the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Although different from other sports (especially soccer and basketball, two of the most popular sports in China), Chinese table tennis national team has done a good job in marketing themselves via means such as social platforms, media exposures and the organisation of marketing activities. 

For example, by interacting with Chinese table tennis fans on social platforms and participating in various marketing activities, top stars like Zhang Jike, Ma Long and head coach Liu Guoliang gained a booming fan base (the majority of which are female), which is a rare phenomenon in Chinese sports. 

Meanwhile, with the recent popularity gained from Rio 2016, China’s national table tennis team have partnered with Tencent Sports to stage and stream the qualification matches for the 2017 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships, which has received huge positive endorsements among Chinese table tennis supporters. 

Now, it has become clear that Chinese table tennis fans’ enthusiasm has gradually transferred from the players to the sport of ping pong, as it is affectionately known in China. According to Yutang Sports latest Weekly Report posted on their website, the 2017 ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open dominated the CCTV-5 ratings ranking with 8 matches in the top 10 list. 

Obviously, the marketization strategies of the national table tennis team have achieved initial success, although only in the sense of the national table tennis team and have not influenced the Chinese table tennis league very much. 

This is why the players have quit and the head coaches dismissal issue has been continuously discussed. 

In consideration of this large-scale reform taking place in more sports in China, the removal of the head coach position seems to be a major part of the reform occuring in the Chinese table tennis system today. 

We cannot deny that some drawbacks still exist in the marketisation of table tennis such as the lack of “future stars” apart from current stars such as  Zhang and Ma, as well as the temporarily low popularity of the professional table tennis league. However, all the facts we have introduced have proved that the Chinese national table tennis team is on an appropriate path to a good level of marketization. 

Consequently we do have to ask two questions about these “reform measures” taking place in China’s national table tennis system. Is the decision to cut the head coach position really aimed at marketizing the sport of table tennis?  If so, is it necessary to change the way the China table tennis team is doing now which has seemed to be successful?

Proofread by Raymond Fitzpatrick

Tags: Chinese sports

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