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ITTF commercial restructure accelerates during shutdown, Pound says

The International Table Tennis Federation’s work on its commercial and events restructure has accelerated during the Covid-19 shutdown, the organisation’s marketing director Matt Pound told SportBusiness last week.

In an exclusive video interview, one of a series by SportBusiness looking at the impact of the pandemic, Pound said the ITTF is also looking at launching a computer game to keep fans engaged during the sporting shutdown. And he said that, although the federation would have liked some more notice of last week’s Tokyo 2020 postponement, it backed the IOC’s decision and sympathised with the difficulty of the call.

The ITTF has, like all sports, been grappling with the impact of the pandemic on its calendar. This week, it suspended all tournaments involving international travel until June 30, pushing back its 2020 World Team Championships which had been pencilled in for June after the original dates in March were ruled out. New dates for the World Team Championships are to be announced this week. The changes were announced following an executive committee meeting on Sunday. The federation also froze its world rankings, agreed to reduce expenses, and said senior staff had offered to take a salary cut.

Speaking to SportBusiness late last week, Pound said it was far from clear when the federation would be able to resume its events: “We wake up every day, we read all the news, everything is changing minute-by-minute, hour-by hour, day-by-day….it’s a bit early for us to be saying an exact time when we can be getting our events business started again, but we are hopeful it will be sooner rather than later.”

Restructure continues

The ITTF’s commercial restructure has been a project running for more than a year. The groundwork is nearly complete, with the federation last month announcing its combined in-house and agency approach, the hiring of ex-Fifa chief commercial officer Philippe Le Floc’h as a consultant, and a new competition structure. Several more announcements are expected in the coming months. Pound told SportBusiness that his team were further along in the project than they expected to be at this stage, partly because they were confined to the office.

“It’s actually been a little bit of a blessing in disguise being forced to stay in our office, and we’ve really been able to focus on the World Table Tennis project, getting all our strategy and documentation and event structure in place,” he said.

“We’ve just been able to focus fully on it..and it’s in a much more advanced state than where we would have been if we didn’t have these isolation periods.

“We’re excited to have a couple of announcements coming in the next couple of months in terms of some new partnerships we’ll be entering.”

The new events structure, and new commercial unit World Table Tennis, are to launch properly in 2021, the first season of the federation’s next commercial rights cycle. 

“We’re in the middle of negotiations now with host cities for events,” Pound said. “Some will be delayed now for obvious reasons. But we’re still fully confident we’ll be putting out quite a revolutionary product for table tennis in 2021.”

Getting creative

Pound said the second-busiest department in the ITTF currently, after the team working on the commercial restructure, is the one producing content for its media channels. A mixture of archive and fresh material is being used to fill the gap left by tournament content. And Pound says a gaming experience is on the way, with table tennis being, after all, the subject of the world’s first sports computer game.

“They’ve had to be a lot more creative than normal to be pushing out content to our four million fans on a daily basis,” he said. “So we have been getting into our archives. This week we’ve been playing out all our matches from our 2006 World Championships, because our 2020 World Championships should have been this week in Korea…

“We’ve been doing a lot of interview and behind-the-scenes content with our players sitting at home, seeing how they’re keeping fit, how they’re passing their time, what measures they’re putting in to do their social distancing, and all the buzzwords that we’ve been seeing for Covid-19.

“We’re actually looking at getting our own ‘e-game’ out because, as everyone will know, table tennis was the first ever esport – Pong, the famous arcade game. We’re looking at trying to bring back that to have a bit of fun and engagement.”

IOC sympathy

The ITTF found out about last week’s Tokyo 2020 postponement the same way everyone else did – from the media. While this was not ideal, Pound said, he sympathised with the scale of the decision the IOC had to make.

“We know the complexities that are involved in postponing an event, especially our larger events where we’ve had to deal with a complex array of stakeholders, including cities, broadcasters, sponsors, players. It’s really a minefield and I can only imagine what the IOC and Tokyo 2020 have gone through over the past few months…

“ITTF completely agree with the postponement because…the health and safety of the athletes and officials are paramount.

“We would have appreciated a little bit more communication and a heads up…we found out the same time the rest of the world did in the media. But, of course, we do understand that these things happen very quickly, and a decision had to be made, and we’re now just happy that it’s clear.”

Click above to view the video interview with Matt Pound in full, and keep an eye on SportBusiness.com in the coming weeks for more video content charting the Covid-19 story.

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