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EXCLUSIVE: ITTF to appoint long-term Chinese commercial partner after nine-month search

Ma Long of China faces compatriot Xin Xu of at 2017 Table Tennis World Championship (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The International Table Tennis Federation is close to announcing a Chinese investor as its long-term partner as part of a wider commercial overhaul, SportBusiness understands. The new partner would be in place from 2021.

The company will be a partner in World Table Tennis, the governing body’s commercial arm, which was set up last year. It will not be directly involved in the sale and distribution of rights internationally, it is understood, with three leading agencies still remaining on a shortlist of bidders.

A tender process to identify a new long-term commercial partner was launched last March.

At the time, the ITTF chief executive Steve Dainton told SportBusiness that the federation was looking for at least an eight-year deal. In going to market, the ITTF also said it was open to the sale of a minority equity stake in World Table Tennis to a strategic partner.

The ITTF was advised on the process by accountancy firm Deloitte. The federation declined to comment this week beyond saying the process was reaching a conclusion.

Table tennis’ world body believes that its commercial rights are undervalued and is aiming to at least double their value by 2024. In 2018, revenues from sponsorship stood at about $8m (€7.2m) per year and revenues from media rights at about $6m per year.

Following initial expressions of interest from over 50 companies, the ITTF produced a shortlist of five companies, which was subsequently reduced to four. Along with the incoming Chinese investor, the latest shortlist is thought to include sports marketing agencies Dentsu, IMG and Infront.

One of the first decisions the new World Table Tennis management will have to make is whether to appoint an agency, or agencies, for the global distribution of its rights or build up its in-house capability.

In the most recent cycle of media deals, from either 2016 or 2017 to 2020, the ITTF sold its rights directly in China – by far the biggest single market for the sport – Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. It agreed a deal for the rest of the world with the Lagardère Sports agency.

Local industry sources believe it is highly likely that the rights in China will be carved out again in the next cycle. This would make the remaining rights far less attractive to agencies.

The rights being tendered by the ITTF included sponsorship, media, video betting and data, event hosting and licensing. The management of top players’ commercial rights plus digital, social and TV advertising inventory were also part of the rights on offer.

Dentsu is already involved in table tennis in the Asia-Pacific region in a deal between Dentsu Sports Asia, its Singapore-based sports marketing division, and the T2 Diamond, the pan-regional competition. DSA acquired a 20-per-cent stake in the competition and exclusively manages global sales and marketing for T2 Diamond commercial rights.