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Home » Tennis » “We want to be thought of as a global sport”: Steve Dainton on the ITTFs commercial shake-up – SportsPro Media

“We want to be thought of as a global sport”: Steve Dainton on the ITTFs commercial shake-up – SportsPro Media

“We want to be thought of as a global sport”: Steve Dainton on the ITTF’s commercial shake-up

For Steve Dainton, chief executive of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), there is a feeling that the sport within which he works is yet to reach its true potential.

The age-old problem for Olympic sports has often been attracting attention outside of the four-week window that thrusts them into the global spotlight once every four years, but there is hope at the ITTF that table tennis can be different.

Already hugely popular in Asia, table tennis is a sport played both competitively and casually around the world, with its equipment becoming a staple of hotel lobbies, trendy bars and indeed WeWork offices. In terms of statistics, table tennis balls are pinged and ponged by 300 million people worldwide, and in 2018 the sport’s events attracted 291 million viewers from 141 different countries.

The ITTF recently went to market with all of its commercial rights to all of its major properties from 2021 in a play which the global governing body claims will usher in ‘a new commercial era for table tennis’. The move comes after the ITTF brought all of those rights back in-house in 2017 in order to remodel the way they are monetised, before then implementing its first strategic plan in 2018.

The comprehensive range of rights up for grabs include sponsorship; media; digital; social  and TV; gaming and data; event hosting; licensing; players; CSR; and future products. In return, the ITTF’s new long-term strategic partner will have an opportunity to put its own stamp on the sport, with a task of driving revenue increases, creating a compelling new event structure and improving the promotion of table tennis.

With 40 companies already said to have registered interest in the commercial bundle, SportsPro sat down with Dainton at Sportel Asia in Macau to find out why he believes the ITTF’s new commercial plan can help table tennis compete among the world’s highest-profile sports.

What was some of the thinking behind bringing your commercial rights back in-house?

Well I think there are a couple of things. More importantly is looking at the current market situation and seeing where the future of the sports rights business is going, and seeing that in today’s world there’s a big change with different things happening with agencies etc. We can see that it’s less and less a discussion about trading of rights, it’s more a discussion about partnership or joint ventures, and having ourselves worked in that business for the last ten to 15 years, we’ve come to a similar conclusion that it would be much better to have a strategic outlook rather than a short period by short period selling and trading of rights.

We said we wanted to double revenue, and I think at the end we’d be disappointed with less than double revenue by 2024.

So I think that was probably the main reason why we are trying to aggregate everything into one and start this commercial vehicle, and then look for that help where as a federation we don’t necessarily have all of the commercial strength, and then go from there.

What do you see as the advantages of pooling all of your rights together?

What we can see as it is now when we segregate the rights and sell them piece-by-piece to different partners is that we lose a lot of synergy. So the simplest example is if you’ve got a sponsor that wants to do one, two or three activations, then it’s difficult because your other rights with your media are sold to someone else, and perhaps that’s not that interesting for them to link it in. So I think we can see that the synergies of having it all together blended will solve a lot of those disconnects that we’ve had in the past.

The ITTF says 2021 ‘will mark the dawn of a new commercial era for table tennis’

What do you see as being the big opportunity for a potential partner? Why do you think it’s a good time to be investing in table tennis?

Probably a couple of things. We’re a very Asian dominated sport – of course we’re not only Asian – we have some good roots in Europe and we’re starting to get some traction in some African and Latin American countries. A star or two from the US or Russia or these big markets can also boost the sport pretty quickly, because it’s a sport that everybody touches, and not every single sport can say that.

Another thing is that major Asian properties at the moment – the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) was the big one of course last year – and other big Asian sports, let’s say badminton, they’re in the beginning of a new long-term deal. So in the market in the next period there’s not a lot of big Asian-related properties coming with a big offering like this, so I think it’s good timing for us as well.

How significant is it that the 2020 Olympic Games are being staged in one of table tennis’ hotbeds in Japan?

Very important. I think also if you connect it to our current commercial discussions, that will be an important time because we will hopefully have our new strategic partner with us by then. We’ll be in the market for our rights for the future from 2021 onwards, and Tokyo’s kind of slap bang in the middle of that period, so I think if we connect it in that way, it’s super important that we can bring some clients, TV and media outlets to see our sport with huge crowds and huge followings.

You say you want to elevate table tennis to be competing as one of the most high-profile sports in the world. How do you think you can reach that level?

We have a long way to go, but I think it’s some simple things like creating a tour that’s a lot more attractive than maybe what it currently is. It’s also about developing stars of the sport from different parts of the world – not just from China. Then, on the other hand, trying to take a little bit more of the Chinese culture and values that they have to the rest of the world, which maybe hasn’t been done that well at least through table tennis in the past.

It’s a sport that everybody touches, and not every single sport can say that.

So I think marrying a few of those things up and especially focusing on a better product in terms of event structure, we can make a significant jump. I still won’t say that we’re going to catch up to the footballs of the world, but we can make a significant jump.

What are some of the areas in table tennis which you think haven’t been fully leveraged yet?

We’ve run our commercial business largely through the amateur federation style, which is not so bad from a table tennis perspective, but maybe from the market perspective is not ideal, so I think that means there’s probably a lot of opportunities. It could be in player management, it could be in event hosting rights where we can do a large change in how we’ve operated the business side.

Is a big part of this move also about wanting to revolutionise your event presentation and make the live experience more attractive to fans?

We can definitely improve. We’ve done a fair bit in the past also to try and improve the presentation of the events, with lights and better TV production, so it would be interesting to get a partner that comes in and wants to shake this up even more. Ultimately at the end we want more profits for the sport, more profits for the players, and an overall larger economic situation for our sport.

The ITTF believes that table tennis is yet to reach its true potential

Have there been any challenges associated with trying to put a value on all of your commercial rights?

I guess it’s sometimes a little bit like putting your finger in the wind and seeing which way the wind will blow – and a little bit of hope. We have faith in our product, that’s the key point. Also, we have faith that it hasn’t previously been structured perfectly, and with a little bit of support there we can quickly turn some numbers.

I think we have faith in seeing some similar sized sports take the commercial change and really boost numbers pretty quickly. So if we can follow some of those guides from the past, keep the faith that we have, we’re confident that we can get a far better outcome than our current outcome. What that far better number is involves a bit of speculation, but we’re confident that there’s a lot of upside in where we’re currently at.

What are some of the strategic objectives that you want to hit by 2024?

Well we have our new strategic plan that was introduced last year. We said we wanted to double revenue, and I think at the end we’d be disappointed with less than double revenue by 2024.

We also talked about a new event structure, and until now – although I think it will change with a new strategic partner – it had focused on our World Championships, and we want to have all of our member associations active in those championships. Until now it’s been somewhere between 110 and 120 as the record, so we’re only about 55 per cent. We want activity all over the world in every small country, big country, people playing table tennis, so that would be one of the other big objectives.

I think after that it’s trying to have some more star power in a bigger spread of countries for the sport so we can create more global interest. We don’t want to be thought of just as an Asian sport; we want to be thought of as a global sport.

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