- The soccer and table tennis hybrid has been granted Observer Status by GAISF
- Sport’s $1.9m losses in 2018 were a part of “planned growth”
- Sport will debut as a medal sport at the Asian Beach Games in China
Last year’s third Teqball World Championships in Budapest was milestone for a sport which aims to disrupt traditional models and is seen by some as the standard bearer for a new generation of sports conceived in and developed for the 21st century.
And today’s announcement that the sport’s governing body, FITEQ, has been granted Observer Status by the Global Association of International Sports Federations is further evidence of both the speed of its growth and scale of its ambition.
While many traditional sports have gently evolved over more than a century, teqball came charging out of the gate just 16 years ago.
The germ of the idea came to a group of businessmen kicking a football back and forth across a tennis table on the shores of Hungary’s Lake Balaton back in 2004. Within 13 years they had codified – developed rules for – the sport, manufactured hundreds of teqball tables, established national federations feeding into an international governing body and staged an inaugural World Championship.
A hybrid of soccer and table tennis, teqball is played by singles players or doubles teams across a table tennis-style table that curves downwards on both ends.
Players rally a ball (a light soccer ball) back and forth over a Perspex net, using head, chest, legs or feet, with up to three volleys permitted before the ball must return the other side of the net.
But while teqball draws on elements of traditional sport – volleyball, sepak takraw and, of course, table tennis – the organization behind it is determined to do things in new ways.
The team driving teqball comprises three Hungarian entrepreneurs: former professional football player Gábor Borsányi and computer scientist Viktor Huszár are both presidents of the governing body. But the driving economic force is FITEQ vice-president Gyuri Gattyán, the third-richest person in Hungary, with a net worth of €866m (according to Forbes). He is owner of media production, adult entertainment and IT company Docler Holding Enterprise and is bankrolling much of teqball’s global expansion. His financial clout has been key to the sport’s rapid rise.
In one key respect teqball has more in common with esports than traditional sports. Like games publishers they effectively call the shots because they manufacture and market the game – or in this case the table at its heart – as well as running the governing body. The equivalent would be Fifa owning the world’s football pitches.
The marketing has proved as innovative as the sport itself and has maximized the power of social media influencers to spread the word.
FITEQ has garnered the support of many world-famous football players, signing them up as teqball ambassadors, without paying them directly. They include legends such as Ronaldinho, Carles Puyol, William Gallas, Nuno Gomes, Christian Karembeu, Robert Pires and Simão Sabrosa, many of whom have posted clips on their social media accounts of themselves and their peers playing, bringing the sport to huge, new global audiences.
“We are definitely disruptive with our model,” Huszár told SportBusiness. “It’s (built around) social media. The exposure is enormous.”
Ronaldinho is the current poster boy for teqball. At the 2019 Teqball World Championships, he made several public appearances, presented trophies and played an exhibition match alongside Puyol, Gomes and Sabrosa.
Huszár insists that, rather than paying the ambassadors, he offers them up as part of a franchise package when teqball events are staged around the world and sees that they are paid independently by the companies staging those events.
It’s a promotional strategy that seems to be working. Already there are 42 national teqball federations around the world and, according to Matthew Curtain, FITEQ’s sport director, that’s expected to exceed more than 100 by December.
“We’re obsessed about growing the sport as quickly and widely as possible,” said Curtain, who claims there are already “tens of thousands” of registered teqball players worldwide.
The sport has certainly gained traction among soccer communities. At a recreational level, there are tables in private homes, schools, colleges, sports clubs, hotels, resorts and parks, mainly in the sport’s heartland of Eastern Europe, but also across China. At professional level, there are official competitions in arenas, exterior venues and on beaches. At the World Championships, which were staged at Budapest’s Vasas Sport Club, there were competitors from 58 different nations.
Professional football has also embraced the sport. FITEQ claim a number of European clubs, including more than a dozen from the Premier League, as well as Real Madrid, Olympique de Marseille and Ajax, use teqball tables as training aids.
Already, according to board member and former secretary general Jason Kirkbride, over 10,000 tables have been sold worldwide – around 15 per cent of those in China and 10 per cent in Hungary.
In December 2019 they launched a new lightweight table retailing at €890, which they believe “will be a game-changer”, and within the budget of many schools, sports centres and private homes.
Huszár outlines his plans for global expansion. He says that in addition to table sales, revenue comes from membership fees – currently 50 euros per player per year, event licensing and the sale of sponsorship and broadcasting rights: Eurosport broadcast the 2019 World Championships but Huszár remains tight-lipped on financial details of the deal. Huszár suggests there could be future revenue from gambling on the sport.
Despite all this interest, the federation is still very much in the red. Kirkbride explains how in 2018 (the latest figures available), the sport incurred a net loss of €1.9m. “This was normal and within our planned growth,” he said at the federation’s 2019 general assembly. “Our sport’s development is in a growing phase.”
Teqball, which will make its Games debut as a medal sport at the Asian Beach Games in Sanya, China from 28 November – 5 December, is not alone in offering an alternative at a time when even some traditional sports are desperately reinventing themselves to mesh with the changing lifestyles and consumer demand.
Conceived in Spain in 2003, this combines the skills of football, volleyball and gymnastics, placing two teams of four players on an inflatable court with a trampoline on either side of a net. The founding company Bossaball Sports SL sells and rents courts, licenses events and estimates there are now around 2,500 players worldwide. So far 70 courts have been sold in more than 30 countries. The first Bossaball World Cup was staged in Turkey in 2009.
Flemming Sörensen, from Bossaball Sports SL, explained to SportBusiness how event license fees and sponsoring partners (including Pepsi, Rexona, and Orange) are funding the international development of his sport. He and his colleagues are looking for a major new investor so that they can build “permanent installations to make bossaball courts available on a worldwide scale”.
Like teqball, bossaball has attracted plenty of media attention, and Sorensen feels the video-friendly nature of his sport has allowed him to grow much more quickly than traditional sports have in the past.
“The sport was presented by CNN, BBC, Red Bull TV, Yahoo, TNT Sports and Sky Sports, among others, through covering our tournaments and projects via documentaries,” he says.
“The high-quality footage was later on used by various Facebook video channels. Some of the compilations went viral and we achieved more than 150 million views.”
The brainchild of Henrik Jessen, it is still at prototype stage, with only one court constructed so far – in Etampes, a town southwest of Paris.
But where FXBALL differs from other fledgling sports is in its combination of the physical and the digital. The court – called a pentadrome – looks vaguely like a basketball court, enclosed on all sides but with a net across the middle.
Two teams of three use feet, hands and heads to strike the ball across the net, while digital motion tracking and wall-mounted targets ensure players are rewarded for athletic moves and shots. “Playing is like being inside a video game,” Jessen told SportBusiness.
Only a handful of people currently play, and funding so far has been very low-key. However, later this year, Jessen is planning to build an FXBALL academy in Paris and launch the sport across France; then, provided sponsors come on board, internationally after that. Of course, there’s no hard and fast set of rules on how to develop new sports internationally.
While teqball was quick to establish its international body in Lausanne, the entrepreneurs behind bossaball, for instance, say an international federation is “not our top priority since we believe we can push the sport towards new possibilities without enchaining ourselves with the structure of a federation, where we believe we would rather lose our business flexibility”.
In any case, for many sports the ultimate recognition is Olympic status. Teqball has already been recognised by the Olympic Council of Asia and the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa and has set its sights on inclusion at the Olympic Games. But Huszár himself remains coy.
“We are trying to be very moderate about the Olympics,” he said. “I hope the consequence of our work is that it will eventually be an Olympic sport. It would be great to play in 2028 in Los Angeles. But we’re not being obsessive. If it’s not an Olympic sport at all, and we have 150 countries playing, then who cares?”