Setting up a Community Sports league from Scratch

Jon Kaufman is a legend in UK sport. Unfortunately it's in the wrong sport. Jon is the most successful Table Tennis club manager in England. His club London Progress were British Senior Premiership champions for 10 years in a row.

The idea was simple: tournaments for people who don't play tournaments.
Since moving on from club management a decade ago, Jon has concentrated on blogging and working in various West London schools as a coach. However, both his organisational skills and ambitions remained. In the Autumn of 2018, he came to me with an idea.

He wanted to create a London Table Tennis ranking scheme. A series of tournaments that would cram as many people as possible into a hall to experience the adrenaline rush of actual competition.

However, unlike other tournaments, these would be open to all.

Potential participants could be very young kids who were learning the game but were nowhere near basic tournament level. It might be adults who used to play as kids but gave it up years ago. It might be parents of regular tournament players who were used to coming as spectators, but who might just want to scratch a competitive itch.

The philosophy boiled down to this: there should be absolutely no barriers to entry. Players could be of any standard. Their equipment could be as basic as possible. Above all, they did not have to be registered with Table Tennis England, which is a requirement for almost every other tournament. Finally, the events should be as affordable as possible. The whole point was to broaden participation as far as possible within a single series.

The problem was that nothing like this existed. If we were going to do this it would have to be done from the ground up. Happily, Jon had a number of soft assets at his disposal. His real legacy at London Progress wasn't its overflowing trophy cabinet. It was the network of players, coaches and managers who had all grown up in the club. Especially those players who had moved on to forge their own identities and carve out their own success stories. In particular he was able to draw on the help of Bhavin Savjani at the London Academy in Edgware, and Jason Sugrue at the Greenhouse Centre in Marylebone.

These London Progress alumni had access to players, resources, and most importantly venues. Spaces which they were generously prepared to put at our disposal for little or no cost. They also provided access to a ready made pool of players at different levels.

The first tournament was put together in a rush. This was deliberate. Where new projects are concerned, Jon's philosophy is to generate as much momentum as you can, as soon as you can, and then just run with it.

It worked, sort of.

We ended up with 200 hundred players in a hall playing on 30 tables in six different talent bands. Each band acted as its own mini-tournament. Players were divided into groups and group winners went on to the knockout stage. The bands were divided on ability alone, not age nor gender. I have watched as an 11 year old girl beat a man in his mid-50s. I saw a top 30 UK senior player playing next to a couple of callow youths. I saw a woman of retirement age playing defence against an attacking player more than 50 years her junior.

It was a big success, but it was exhausting to plan, advertise and execute. So exhausting that it had seemed to me that it had absolutely no future.

This was a tournament being run on 20th century lines. People were phoning through their entries, or they would turn up at practice sessions with half a dozen scribbled sheets. Nothing was online, data was non-existent. Communications were haphazard, to say the least.

Advertising the tournaments involved travelling to clubs and public tables and trying to sell the idea to people one at a time. It was labour intensive and inefficient and frankly a pain in the neck. There was no way either of us was going to last long doing it this way.

What we needed was a number of tools to reduce the labour and repetition involved. Thankfully those tools are out there. Moreover, those tools are cheap and/or free and don't actually require that much knowledge to turn them to your advantage.

First of all we needed a website. This was easy enough. I'm a web developer but there was no way that I was spending time on this project. So using WordPress and a nice free theme solved that problem. The website was up and running in the space of a couple of days.

Secondly, and most important was a mailing list. We began to sign up people to the website's mailing service. This service was created using Mailchimp. We had a free service up to 2,000 users. Our business model depended on getting around 1,000 people participating in total, so we would never need to pay for their services.

So far, our outgoings were about £10 a month for web hosting services.
Finally we needed an online booking system. This was done using PayPal. Integrating PayPal into an online ordering form can be tricky, but it works really well. The costs involved are transactional. For every ticket we sell, PayPal takes a cut. So nothing was required up front.

By the time the third tournament started, the majority of entries were coming from the website. When this was combined with the players provided by the venues themselves, we never fell short of 200 entries for each tournament. More importantly, we didn't have to work that hard to get them. Each tournament involved sending out one email to advertise it, and another later one to remind people of the date as it approached.

On one occasion Jon rang me to tell me to take the online form down because we had sold out a week early.

So the tournaments continued throughout 2019 and into 2020. By February of this year, we had over 850 players on the rankings list and we were well on our way to hitting our target of 1,000 participants.

And then the virus hit us.

Covid 19, of course, put an end to the tournaments. Packing people into a hall like sardines was no longer an option.

]However, we proved that this could be done. we proved that their was an appetite for rough and ready community tournaments. Once the virus is gone and the world returns to some semblance of normality, we might just prove it all over again.