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Going it alone | Table tennis takes its rights in-house

  • Federation parts ways with TMS International Agency
  • ITTF’s commercial revenue has grown from single to double digit millions from last year to this year
  • New approach bore fruit when ITTF signed four-year sponsorship deal with Seamaster

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has entered into a new era in 2017 as it aims to take stock and assess its commercial performance relative to compatriots in the Olympic Movement.

As of January 1, all deals brokered by the TMS International agency with marketing partners, contractual partners, sponsors and broadcasters transferred back to the ITTF. The federation is now building up an in-house team to exploit its rights led by marketing and commercial director Steve Dainton at the ITTF marketing and Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore.

“There’s more understanding at our federation that we need to take more of a commercial approach,” Dainton tells SportBusiness International. “Other similar in nature sports have maybe got a bit of a head start on us in being more commercially savvy in what they’re doing.

“I think we can take lessons from that, but also some comfort that if you do things well commercially you can see decent improvements from broadcasting and sponsorship, to finding event hosts that are also willing to invest into the events. TMS is a boutique agency focused on table tennis and we both decided we needed to look at doing something bigger.”

Growing ambitions

TMS had been managing ITTF commercial rights since 2003 and the parting of ways was an amicable one. The agency’s managing director, Anders Thunström, concedes TMS would have struggled to accommodate the ITTF’s growing ambitions.

He tells SportBusiness International: “Based on the number of staff we have, and the size of the company, we realised we had reached the maximum of what we could generate for the ITTF in terms of TV rights, sponsorship etc. Increasing the number of staff and the size of our operation wouldn’t have been easy.

“For sure there’s room for more income from commercial rights and by doing this I think it gives the ITTF more flexibility. They can decide on which commercial contracts to keep in-house and which they can potentially approach larger agencies with more manpower for marketing partnerships.”

Thunström says that the ITTF has enjoyed “tremendous” commercial growth with TMS as the federation has moved away from an administration-focused role. Dainton adds that the ITTF’s commercial revenue has grown from single to double-digit millions from last year to this year.

From a broadcast perspective, the showpiece World Tour series has progressed from a “handful” of broadcasters in 2010 to being broadcast in 2016 to over 100 countries, while the ITTF now boasts a combined following of around 1.77 million across its social media platforms.

The ITTF will also be able to focus on new deals, rather than renewals, as the TMS era has meant it has inherited numerous commercial contracts agreed by the agency for the four-year cycle leading into the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“When the TMS agreement started, there was next to no commercial activity within the ITTF,” Dainton says. “Most of the rights were passed on to the organisers of the events and the international federation was happy for them to market the rights.

“When TMS was setup there was more commercial thinking in table tennis at that time. They were the ones who tried to consolidate all rights and make a concerted effort to have a direct relationship with broadcasters and sponsors. That was a pretty smart move and they have built it up to a reasonable level from which we have a solid footing to take the next step.”

Broadcast reach

The ITTF has goals in mind under its new in-house model, with Dainton saying that enhancing the sport’s broadcast reach is a major target. To this end, the federation is set to utilise a key contract agreed in the TMS era with the Lagardère Sports agency.

Lagardère is marketing media rights to the ITTF’s events worldwide on an exclusive basis from 2016 to 2020, excluding China, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan – four of the sport’s biggest territories.

“For sure we have to improve on the previous revenue situation under TMS,” Dainton adds. “That’s a definite target and is a strong message being driven by our executive at the moment.

“Of course, we’re also looking at whether there are different means in which we can increase our broadcasting reach and numbers, in terms of more broadcasters and countries seeing table tennis.”

He also says that whilst the outlook in Asia is “pretty good”, there is definitely room to grow in other parts of the world.

“Europe has traditionally been quite okay in table tennis, but recently the broadcast situation is not that fantastic,” he adds.

“We’ve always been weak in the other continents – Africa, Latin America, North America and Oceania – so a big goal is to see if we can secure a stronger reach into these markets and hopefully turn that into commercial value.”

TMS will also play a role in this as it will continue to service table tennis through clubs, regional and continental associations and federations, with a special focus initially on North America. Headquartered in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, TMS already holds a partnership with the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association in the US and Canada.

“North America has always been a weak spot for table tennis,” Thunström says. “If there is a breakthrough there it will be very good for the sport itself. Everybody in table tennis would like to see a couple of leading North American players because that will have a trickle effect on other areas.”

The new in-house approach bore immediate fruit in January with the announcement of a wide-ranging four-year sponsorship and strategic partnership deal for the World Tour with Chinese shipping company Seamaster, from 2017 to 2020.

Dainton says that the most important factor in brokering the deal was the direct relationship with the ITTF afforded by the in-house approach.


China is the powerhouse of table tennis, with February’s ITTF rankings illustrating this fact.

Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin made up the top-three in the men’s rankings, while the leading women’s players, Ding Ning and Zhu Yuling, were also Chinese, and China topped the team rankings for both sexes.

In February the ITTF also claimed the milestone of becoming the second international federation to reach one million Chinese followers on social media platform Sina Weibo, in the process stating that its 1.77 million global followers across social media made it the third highest-ranked Olympic federation.

With China to the fore, the timing appears ripe for a partnership with an entity such as Wanda Sports or Alisports, which have been prolific in striking deals with federations of late.

“We have had conversations with some of those agencies,” Dainton admits. “However, the first thing we wanted to do was get all the rights back in-house.

“We don’t need to rush to make that decision, in terms of potentially going to a Wanda or an Ali. We want to consolidate all our rights, make sure we have everything in order and probably, because we’ve just finished up with an agency, try for one or two years to see where we’re at and where we’re going before making a decision to go with a larger agency, such as a Wanda, or even a Lagardère.”

Looking to the future, Dainton says that the ITTF is currently in talks over deals that could be announced over the next three to four months, while also casting an eye over how the federation could shape up come Tokyo 2020.

“I think we have a quality product and if we can tweak or refine it we have something that has a lot of potential to grow on the commercial side,” he adds. “There’s a much stronger understanding in the table tennis world over the past couple of years that’s it’s not just about putting on an event.

“As long as that kind of energy stays around then from the next Olympic cycle we can hopefully look at doubling our commercial revenue and significantly increasing our media reach around the world.”

EXTRA: Seamaster sponsorship

Seamaster has secured title sponsorship rights to the ITTF’s World Tour, but its commitment to the federation is more deeply rooted. Headquartered in Shanghai, the company specialises in dry-bulk shipbroking and offers various services in the professional shipping sector.

Seamaster chairman Frank Ji tells SportBusiness International that the partnership represents the firm’s biggest sponsorship in its portfolio and its only investment in the sports sector.

“Seamaster had sponsored the ITTF Women’s World Cup and World Tour Grand Finals in 2016, and found it a great sport for Seamaster’s global promotion,” Ji says. “Through the new long-term World Tour agreement, Seamaster is looking to continue to create global brand awareness, and engage our local partners to drive business development.

“Additionally, the ITTF World Tour is the biggest professional table tennis tour in the world. However, it is currently nowhere near its potential. Seamaster saw this as a fantastic opportunity to work hand in hand with the ITTF to help the World Tour fulfil its potential, which will be highly beneficial for table tennis as a sport, both professionally and in the grassroots.”

To this end, Seamaster will work to develop all facets of the World Tour, which this year includes 12 events, culminating in December’s grand finals at a destination that is yet to be decided. Seamaster’s involvement will cover prize money, sports presentation, fan experience and global promotion of the tour.

Ji adds: “Seamaster will be investing directly into ITTF’s team to grow their marketing and media department. Therefore, we will work with, and heavily rely on the ITTF to use our resources to activate our World Tour sponsorship. In the new age of technology, we will be focusing heavily on digital and social activation through ITTF’s extensive networks, with the players at the forefront of everything we do.”

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