Underground Table Tennis
By Mark Tanner
The BBC ran a short piece featuring Andrew Baggaley, Britain’s leading Table Tennis medalist of all time at the Commonwealth Games, last week talking about the legacy of the 2012 games on minor sports in Britain. It looks at how table tennis at the top level hasn’t changed in terms of coverage but also that social table tennis has been an upturn.
Unfortunately the problems in the sport don’t end with a lack of top flight table tennis but in the playing age of league members in the local leagues. In the Bath & District League it is unusual to play anyone under the age of 30-35, with only around 20% of players falling in this category.
That’s why it was a breath of fresh air to join a Bristol business league, Battle of the Paddle, and see nearly everyone involved is 35 or under. Battle of the Paddle was an idea that started up in 2014 by a few friends knocking about at their offices in the city centre. A winter doubles league quickly followed and the appetite was there for a larger summer league in 2015.
Linking up with Ping, a Table Tennis England initiative bringing out-door tables to the UK’s major cities, games are played throughout the summer between Bristol businesses. There are also specific nights organised to bring more teams in one place to socialise in different Bristol venues.
The last night was upstairs at Pata Negra, an authentic Spanish tapas restaurant & wine bar, with a DJ and drinks. It was very well attended with around 10 teams present and some competitive doubles matches taking place. Unexpectedly a couple of former Welsh table tennis players turned up just on a night out in Bristol and played a great match against each other and then welcomed challengers.
It was a great night of table tennis with everyone enjoyed it and eagerly awaiting the next one. However this is a very social version of table tennis and the challenge facing Table Tennis England is how to convert these players into league players. Some of the players could play to a very high standard in the local leagues; Bristol currently boasts 7 leagues to Bath’s 3.
If some of these players don’t join up with established leagues then the standard of the leagues will only get tougher. In Bath already it is widely regarded that the bottom division is already at a very competitive standard and above that of a social player looking to improve. It’s not encouraging to get beat every week as a new player and you can soon lose interest and move away from the sport again.
Every year players retire from the sport leaving teams short and struggling and the number of teams is getting smaller each year. Only one club currently bucks the trend for this in Bath and that’s Yatton Keynell. Based outside the city they use their village hall for table tennis twice a week and focus on developing talent in every player that comes. Their league teams are very competitive with each team rising up the leagues quickly.
In a few years’ time it is predicted that Bath will only have one or two leagues and by that point instead of a 3 a side league game it will only be 2 a side. This is a worse case scenario but one that needs to be taken seriously.
So Baggaley is right in his assessment of top flight table tennis as it was the Liverpool GP at the weekend and the only coverage available was on the Table Tennis England Twitter feed (and upon a Google search on 24/8/15 the Liverpool Echo ran a story before but not after). However the other more pressing issue facing this minor sport is getting more young people in to the leagues.
Table tennis can’t continue to be an underground sport, it needs the exposer and younger people playing to help it improve.
Find out more about the Bath & District Table Tennis Leagues
Find out more about the Bristol Table Tennis Leagues
Battle of the Paddle website
The winners of the Liverpool GP were both Welsh with Ryan Jenkins in the men’s and Charlotte Carey in the women’s. They both received equal prize money of just £320; we’ll leave the funding issue of table tennis to another article!