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Ping-pong League Ready to Bounce Back
    2007-03-07 14:40:57     China Daily

By Zhao Rui

After a season of boom and bust in 2006, this year consolidation is the name of the game for organizers of the Chinese Table Tennis Super League.

World No 1 Ma Lin was at the center of dramatic events last year when Shaanxi Yinhe paid a record 5 million yuan ($645,000) to secure his services. The team won the league title but neared financial meltdown, and last Friday he moved to Ningbo Haitan for a cut-price 1.3 million yuan ($168,000). [Photo: Reuters]

Last year teams shelled out millions of yuan to sign up China's premier paddlers, but poor attendances and sponsorship revenues meant the strategy was a costly failure.

World No 1 Ma Lin sent shockwaves through the sport when Shaanxi Yinhe agreed to pay over 5 million yuan ($645,000) for his services. Ma himself earned the season maximum 1 million yuan ($130,000), and the 4 million yuan ($510,000) transfer fee was split between his former club Shantou and the Chinese Table Tennis Administrative Center.

But this year Ma was on the move again, last Friday announcing a switch to Ningbo Haitan for just 1.3 million yuan ($168,000), including his 1 million yuan salary.

"Everybody is more conscious now and everybody knows what they want. It is a good sign for the players and also for the league as a whole," Liu Fengyan, director of the Table Tennis Administrative Center, told China Daily.

Other national team stars moving clubs include Wang Liqin, who moved from Bayi to Zhejiang for 2.45 million yuan ($316,000), and talented Ma Long, who joined Sichuan Quanxing for 1.39 million yuan ($180,000) from Beijing.

"Personally I cannot say if the prices are high or low. It's the market that is deciding the price this time," said Liu.

According to Liu, last year's huge sum for Ma Lin was the result of an intense rivalry between Shaanxi and Ningbo, and therefore did not represent his true market value.

On the surface the huge investment appeared to pay off for Shaanxi as they won the league title, but behind the scenes financial realities quickly hit home.

"I realized we were over-budget after winning the bid," the club's general manager Li Yihong said. "We were in debt even though we won the league."

Realizing they were unable to make the payment the club sought to renegotiate, eventually gaining more television coverage and advertising opportunities from the Administrative Center.

According Li, the club's average annual revenue is around 2 million yuan ($260,000), and with half of that going to one player the team could not make ends meet. Having moved Ma on to Ningbo, this season Shaanxi will not recruit any national team players.

"We have to cut expenses this year if we want to stay in the league," he said. "I don't expect anything like a top three finish this year. This is payback for what we did last year."

Ma, meanwhile, is unfazed by his plummeting value.

"For me there is no difference," he was quoted as saying on Sina.com. "No matter who I compete for, my target is to win the league title."

The league starts in June, with 10 men's and 10 women's teams from 20 cities around China aiming to be crowned champions in September.

Rocky road

Despite dominating international table tennis, China has struggled to organize the talent into a viable league system.

The sport was played on a provincial level until 1998 when the Super League was established. The league has been plagued with problems, notably scheduling clashes with international competitions, team venue switches, absence of top players and falling sponsorship revenues.

The infamous 2003-04 season was originally meant to be 22 rounds, but it stretched on for an agonizing 14 months with just 10 rounds played as Olympic preparations wreaked havoc with the schedule and frustrated sponsors withdrew.

Despite the ups and downs, optimism remains.

Cai Zhenhua, assistant to the director of China's General Sports Administration and former table tennis chief, said ahead of last season that the league could one day become China's answer to the United States' National Basketball Association (NBA).

"We are aiming to develop our table tennis league into one of the best sports leagues in the world, just like the NBA," he told China Daily. "We have the widest fan base here in China and we have the best players, so that is my expectation in the long run. I feel we are moving closer to it."

Others believe China could learn a lot from Germany, home to the most successful professional table tennis league.

A total of 15,000 teams compete at various levels under the German Table Tennis Association, which also governs three popular professional tournaments- the League Cup, League A and League B.

Top players there are able to earn over two million yuan a season, compared to the maximum one million yuan payment in China.

Chinese paddlers swept the medals at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and Sydney, and are favorites to dominate again at the 2008 Beijing Games after winning the first four International Table Tennis Federation tournaments in 2007.

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