FEATURE INTERVIEW – with Sara Sutcliffe, CEO of Table Tennis England

Table tennis 2

Table tennis is the most popular racquet sport in the world and ranked second overall in terms of participation with over 10 million players competing in sanctioned tournaments each year. At the elite level, the sport is dominated by China; a country where it has a major and passionate following. However, despite a high level of participation the sport does not generally have the same profile in the West. Touchline spoke to Sara Sutcliffe, Chief Executive Officer of Table Tennis England, to find out what was being done to increase the profile of table tennis and whether English players had a chance of breaking the Chinese supremacy any time soon.

How did you become involved in sports administration?

Sport has always played a big part in my life. I was good enough at it to be picked for school teams and even the county on occasion but I was never a sporting superstar. Growing up in New Zealand meant that sport and physical activity was just part of life. So when as a junior lawyer I spotted the opportunity to go in-house as the Legal Director at the British Olympic Association I applied, and it changed the direction of my career. I spent 12 years at the BOA, with the opportunity to be part of Team GB at four Olympic Games, being part of the London 2012 bid team and being there when the curtain came down on those magnificent Games four years ago. But by then I decided that I wanted to remain in sports administration rather than being a lawyer and took the opportunity six months later to take up the position of Interim Chief Executive Officer (which subsequently became permanent) of Table Tennis England. I also felt I had skills to offer other Boards and took up two positions as Non Executive Director on GB Taekwondo and British Gymnastics.

Are the sports administration issues that you encounter similar across the organisations that you have been involved with? What are the main issues?

Most sports bodies have had to tackle governance issues in the last few years, especially in the UK where the funding agencies, UK Sport and Sport England, have made it part of their funding criteria. For decades National Governing Bodies have been largely run by dedicated and hard working volunteer structures with a skeleton of paid staff. The arrival of public funding changed that and over time the governance structures of NGBs has had to adapt to becomes more ‘business-like’ whilst not losing the knowledge and commitment of the volunteer base.

One of the other big challenges facing Governing Bodies is being clear on their purpose. The Government strategy is changing to one of wider physical activity with outcomes ranging from participation to social values – rather than supporting sport for sports sake. That is a challenge for NGBs who traditionally have focussed on supporting and growing their core regulated sport; we are not experts in social change for example. But by working in partnership with other organisations whose main focus is health, social inclusion and community engagement we can provide the ‘products’ to help deliver the wider strategic aims, without ever losing sight of what our core membership require us to deliver for them.

How many people play table tennis in England? Is this increasing or decreasing? What are you doing to improve this.

The number of people playing is generally increasing. The number of club and league players is quite static unfortunately but certainly there is a lot of growth in social table tennis. We have plans in place to grow and support both sides of the sport but one of our newest initiatives is called Loop. This is the programme through which we take table tennis to people in places where they already go – we remove one of the barriers that exists with facility based sport. We have launched Loop at Work (putting tables into office environments), Loop in the Clubhouse (using clubhouse facilities of other sports) and Loop on Campus (social table tennis schemes on University campuses). These programmes are not just about putting tables out, they include a range of activator materials and we recruit ‘Ping Pong Pioneers’ to champion the table and create the community around it.

How much appeal do you feel that table tennis has to a wider spectator audience? How are you trying to increase the appeal?

We know from ticket sales and audience figures from Olympics and Commonwealth Games that there is an appetite for table tennis both in terms of spectators at an arena and on television.
Television exposure is so important to all sports, particularly so the smaller ones, and we have worked with commercial partners to ensure that the final stages of our National Championships were televised live on ITV4. This is the first time in decades that our domestic championships have had this exposure and we will be working hard to ensure it is not the last.

To achieve this, we had to raise our game to deliver a Championships which provided an attractive spectacle for TV and for audiences at home and at the venue, and we will continue to raise our game going forward to make the Championships must-see viewing.
Success on the international stage and supporting our athletes to be good role models and ambassadors is a key part of increasing our appeal – viewers relate to athletes’ journeys and back-stories and are inspired by watching English victories.

How do the top English table tennis players currently compare to the best countries in the World? Who are the leading countries and players?

The answer to this question has just changed considerably! At the World Team Championships which have just finished in Kuala Lumpur, England’s team of Liam Pitchford, Paul Drinkhall and Sam Walker won the bronze medal in the men’s competition. This was the first time we had been on the podium since 1983 and the first time that a newly-promoted team had won a medal. We won that promotion at the previous Worlds two years earlier and were competing in the top division for the first time since 1997 – and we were seeded 18th.

Our target was to make sure we remained in the division but the boys played brilliantly to beat Germany in the group stage and gathered momentum from there. Beating France in the quarter-finals made us the last remaining European nation in the event and even though we lost 3-1 to Japan in the semi-final, it was a close match and we had our chances. Both the losing semi-finalists get bronze, so we were delighted to be on the podium. Getting back to the top of the world is our plan – but we have made quicker progress than we envisaged and that is huge credit to the players, who really seized their opportunities.

The event was won by China and they remain the best in the world by some distance. They currently have the top four men in the world rankings and the top three women. The game is something of a national obsession in China and there is a conveyor belt of world-class talent – as evidenced by the fact that since table tennis joined the Olympics in 1988, China has won all but four of the total gold medals on offer. The current world champions are both Chinese – Ma Long in the men’s game and Ding Ning in the women’s.

Other far eastern countries including Japan, Korea and Singapore, are also strong.

In European terms, the leading nation is now us, I guess! Joking apart, we have a long way to go to match the consistency of Germany, Portugal, France and Sweden, who are all strong, with players near the top of the world rankings and a long history of achievement.

In the women’s game, Germany are the strongest, while Romania, Russia and Ukraine consistently compete to a high level. Romania has the current continental champion, Elizabeta Samara.

Our women are currently ranked 33rd in the world after the latest World Championships, with only one player inside the top 200.

What are your targets for the Rio Olympic games?

The first target is to qualify. Paul and Liam will have a chance to earn qualification for the men’s singles by right at the European qualifying tournament in Istanbul in April. If they don’t do so, their world rankings are high enough that they should make it, though this will depend on the position of individuals from other countries in the list.

The ranking points they picked up at the World Championships will certainly help – Liam rose from 64 to No 44 in the world and Paul rose from 72 to 64. With only two players per country allowed in the singles, two of the top four in the world will miss out simply because they are Chinese. This does, however, open up the field to other nations, so getting as high up the list as possible is important. Paul and Liam will also play a number of World Tour events – as they do every year – in order to earn ranking points.

Sam was the really big winner, moving up from No 159 to No 118. There is a chance that, depending on the rank of our third player on the rankings list, we can qualify for the men’s team event as well, so this big move up the pecking order bodes well for Sam. Again, it will all depend on how players from other nations perform.

Unfortunately, none of our women are currently at a level where they can qualify.

After London 2012, we were one of a number of sports to lose the elite funding which we were awarded for the host nation games. This was expected as our sport could not deliver podium potential. However, as things stand we could qualify for Rio without having had that elite funding, which would be a tremendous achievement – we now have to do everything we can to make sure we help the players to deliver this.

What are you doing to improve performance of English players on the world stage?

Working with our own resources and with our funding partners at Sport England, we have invested and continue to invest in a ‘player pathway’ which the best young prospects can follow. This includes extending our nationwide network of Talent Development Centres from four to seven, with more due to come on-stream. Here, the best young players can access top-quality coaching on a regular basis to ensure their talent is given the best chance to develop. We have also created an England Youth Squad in the last two seasons, where the best of the best meet up monthly to work with our national talent coaches and with each other. We arrange for top-quality practice partners and coaches from other countries – plus our adult elite athletes – to visit on occasion.

I mentioned coaching – we are also taking steps to ensure there is a more defined pathway for coaches to follow to extend their skills, creating more and better coaching courses and opportunities for them to network with each other and with leading coaches from other nations and other sports. Driving up the standard of coaching is a key part of our talent development strategy.

We have also formed sports science partnerships, most notably with Sheffield Hallam University, which gives our elite athletes access to physiotherapy, nutrition and psychological input.
And we are building links with clubs and coaches overseas. Some of our top players already play professionally overseas – notably in the strong German and French leagues and we are working to create more opportunities for our top players to do so. We currently have some of our best under-18 players working with a club in Sweden, for instance. This gives them access to international coaching, top-class practice partners and helps them in their personal development.

We also fund, where appropriate, the chance for players to compete at international tournaments at adult and youth levels, again on the basis that the chance to play against the best players from around the world will lift their standards. Where we are unable to fund our players to attend events, we support them to self-fund their participation.

Domestically, we have changed our competition structure to mirror that which you find in other leading nations. This means that when our players do compete overseas, they are used to the mental and physical requirements and familiar with the format.

All of these projects are linked into an overall strategy to give our elite players of all ages the best chance to succeed on the international stage, whether that is giving them the technical, physical or mental tools to do so, or the opportunities. There is no ‘magic bullet’ which guarantees success, but we want to make sure we have a joined-up strategy which pulls all the necessary strands together.

What impact are social media and new technologies having on the table tennis player and fan base? Where do you feel that this will go in future?

Social media is increasing our fan base. Some of this is driven by us – we use various social media platforms which are growing and reaching new audiences. But most of it is not driven by us – there are thousands of people posting video of their trick-shots, live streaming matches and talking about table tennis on message boards, and it’s all adding to the reach of the sport.

Communication is key to getting people together and promoting our sport, so it makes sense for us to use technology and platforms which are popular and which people find useful – and it’s also important to give them relevant information and content, in a tone of voice they respond to.

We have just launched a new email communications system, revamped our website and are researching an app which allows social players to find potential opponents and arrange matches in their area. It is always a challenge to keep up to date with current trends within our resources, but it’s important that we do so.

Any other general thoughts on the future for table tennis in England.

We have gone through a lot of changes as a governing body and as a sport in the last two years. We believe those changes have left us a lot better placed to deliver our mission of creating an increasing number of outstanding and exciting opportunities for everyone to enjoy and achieve in table tennis, plus our vision that everyone is talking about table tennis.

We have some big targets in the years ahead, from achieving on the world stage and hosting major international events to getting more people playing in more places than ever at the grassroots. We will need to invest effort and resources in the people, facilities and structures to make that all happen.

There are a lot of challenges and a lot of hard work ahead, but it’s an exciting time for our sport.

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