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“Instead of a draw ceremony we had an emergency meeting” | ITTF chief executive Steve Dainton on the impact of coronavirus

With its biggest market at the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic, table tennis is one of the sports most affected. Steve Dainton, chief executive of the International Table Tennis Federation told SportBusiness how his organisation is handling the crisis.

How has the ITTF been responding to the epidemic?

“We’re very much learning on the spot. It’s a situation that’s evolving day-by-day and hour-by-hour, and I don’t think any of us here at the ITTF and in other sports have been in such a fast-evolving crisis situation. The things that are now starting to come into play are qualification for the Olympics, the financial effects of postponing events, how do these events being postponed to post-Olympics affect seedings and rankings…

“We called a management meeting about 10 days ago and re-looked at our finances and budgets. We took a prudent approach…where we look at some of the less essential things that we were planning to go forward with in a normal 2020. We’ve done that as a prudent measure, with a date of the end of June that, if things aren’t picking back up, then we’ll have to take more drastic measures…We’re just scaling back a bit on some of the growth projections, while we take a little bit of a ‘wait and see’ approach…

“However, even during this difficult time, we are pushing forward with our commercial plans and the launch of World Table Tennis.

“The first half of 2020 is going to be a lot about ‘compromise’ and ‘sacrifice’. I use these words quite a lot with the guys. That’s just how it is. Our president from Germany, Thomas Weikert, he’s often using the word ‘solidarity’.

“I think these three words fit together quite nicely at the moment. Everyone needs to compromise. There will be some sacrifice. But let’s keep solidarity.”

Tell us about the postponement until June of the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Busan, South Korea.

“A whole bunch of our team were in Busan around February 21. We were having an inspection to prepare for the World Championships, which were originally scheduled for 22 to 29 of March. It was on that day that the news started to break that in the city of Daegu there was an outbreak of the coronavirus. That is about 100km away from Busan. I said to the guys, ‘This is not good news for us’.

“We were actually having a press conference that day to say we were confident to go ahead. We had the press conference, we tried to give positive signals, but as the day went on the news became bigger. It was becoming international news and suddenly there was a lot of pressure on us. Then there was news that the first case or two in Busan had been detected. And, instead of having a draw ceremony the next day, we ended up having an emergency meeting to discuss postponing the event.

“That’s our biggest event of the year – the most revenue, the most-viewed event, the most interest worldwide that we get. The last time we had to postpone or change the World Championships was when it was due to be held in 1999 in Serbia, and then the [NATO bombing of Yugoslavia] broke out. So that’s been a pretty tough one for us.”

Has the ITTF been favouring postponing events, as opposed to cancelling them?

“[Postponement has] been the approach of most sports. From our side [that’s what] we’ve been trying to do. Of course, postponing is much smoother than cancelling. It just means that we add some costs, such as having staff for longer – they have to stay and wait a little bit longer and support [the event] a little bit longer. The financial cost is relatively minimal with postponement. If starts to come to cancellations that will be a different story.”

There have been some reports of increased TV and online video consumption of sport. Have you seen this?

“It’s clear that TV numbers are up massively…We were just tracking the numbers of a recent event we had in Hungary – the Hungarian Open, part of our World Tour. It is not normally in the top 10 in terms of TV viewership, but suddenly it’s having three to four times the usual numbers. Without even having the China team play, it’s having huge numbers in China…

“If that’s a positive or not, I’m not sure. But in terms of TV viewership, it’s definitely way, way up. We have our Qatar Open this week, and it will be very interesting to see if the numbers increase for that as well.”

The ITTF’s media rights partners in China are state broadcaster CCTV and streaming platform Zhibo.

Have there been any other positives for the ITTF amid the crisis?

“If you look at our website, there’s a video about how we helped the Chinese team. I think it’s a pretty nice story…We worked hard to find a place for them. It happened to be in Qatar because the Qatar Open is this week, and there are good sports facilities there. The Chinese team has now spent a month there. We worked to make sure they had a solution – we didn’t want them to get stuck in China and find it difficult to travel to events – including, hopefully, our World Championships and then the Olympic Games.

“We’re now in same light trying to help our Korean friends…They’re not able to go to the Qatar Open because of restrictions Qatar has put on Korea in the last week.

“We also helped source 600,000 face-masks that were donated to Wuhan.

“Whilst it’s a costly exercise at the moment, I think that due to the good will and good spirit in these difficult times, potentially it can help us to have a more favourable outcome at the end….Helping our internal friends from countries that are more affected – I think that’s the best thing that we can do at the moment as an international federation.”

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