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ITTF CEO Explains How Table Tennis Survived COVID-19

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nternational Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) CEO, and World Table Tennis (WTT) director, Steve Dainton, spoke with Ministry of Sport on how COVID-19 affected the world of table tennis and the battle between traditional broadcast and Over-The-Top digital streaming broadcast (OTT).

In part one of a two-part feature interview series, Dainton said the strength of table tennis as a commercial product has only improved through 2020, despite the effects of COVID-19 and cancellations of international events from March to November.

“If you take 2020 as a year, it was a tough year because everyone was looking at whether you were having events or not,” Dainton told Ministry of Sport.

“Basically from our last event in March all the way to November, we cancelled or postponed every single international table tennis event, but what we decided in June or July, even though we had been planning longer, was to try and pivot and bunch a group of events in one location.

“We ended up having what we called our restart series in China.

“China is of course a huge and important country for our sport, and they are also quite good on the table, so we had the women’s world cup, the men’s world cup, our finals, and a launch event under the umbrella of World Table Tennis.

“This allowed us to go back to all our commercial partners whether broadcasters or sponsors and try to pivot with them.

“Most of them were very supportive, probably because they’ve been long term partners.

“That was an important milestone for us, there’s not that many Olympic sports at our level, we’re not yet, but hopefully we get there in the future, to the level of the huge commercial sports.

“We’ve been quite reliant on Olympics for a long time, but we are probably one of the few Olympic sports at our level to really bring back events and pivot in 2020 and we’re quite satisfied with what we were able to do at the end.

“And those broadcasters, they’re all looking for content, whether it was any sport, but they were happy we could have that content at the end of the year,” he said.

Discussing the launch of World Table Tennis (WTT) during the global pandemic, Dainton said it is about modernising the sport of table tennis in the entire international market.

“We’ve been working on a major new entity called WTT, we’ve been working on this long before COVID came into play, and we feel a little bit unfortunate the year we are going to launch is 2021 having the pandemic right in the middle,” Dainton said.

“What we’ve tried to do is reimagine our events and ourselves as a sport, modernise ourselves and try to professionalise ourselves as an organisation.

“A lot of the Olympic international federations are quite traditional and conservative, and we wanted, as a quite young management team, to see what we could do.

“There was a marketing agency that had the rights from around 2000 to 2016 and we took them back in house around 2017, so the federation had the rights.

“We could have pivoted in that time, but we thought it was good to give us some years to decide, check the market, study other sports and see what models they have come up with.

“We think this structure could turbo charge where the sport could go in the future and take it up another level to where we think it could be, and all of that led to WTT, which will start in 2021,” he said.

When asked about the commercial value of table tennis with the creation of WTT, Dainton said: “I hope some of the sponsors and broadcaster who are maybe a bit doubtful on conservative, non-modernising, and non-professional sport, will see the movement we’re making is in the direction that will be beneficial for them as well.”

“We will try to look more professional; we will make sure that our events are better broadcast, that we will have a centralised TV production, all the things modern professional sports do, but maybe not all traditional Olympic federation sports have done in the past.

“We’re taking that pretty giant leap.

“Simply, in many parts of Asia we’re one of the most popular sport, in China we are arguably the most popular, at least in TV ratings, our major events are always in the top few sports every single year, and it has been like that for 30 or 40 years.

“Our world championships regularly get top two or top three in terms of the figures every year.

“We’re relatively big also in Japan, Korea and North Asia heavy but quite popular in the rest of Asia, Europe has been a traditional market for us, we have decent broadcast figures through Eurosport, and other broadcasters and we’re making in-roads in other markets to try and become a bit more global in Africa, Latin-America and the Oceania region.

“Having Fox broadcast table tennis for the first time in the last few years in Australia for example.

“Hopefully, that’s reason enough, we’re one of the most global sports, we’re also one of the sports where almost every person on the planet has touched the sport in some point in their life, I don’t think we can say that for every sport, and therefore I think people understand it.

“If we want to critique ourselves a bit, we want to try and get a few more countries with top stars to try and challenge our Chinese friends and I think that will help us get a little more reach and interest outside some of those core markets,” he said.

Speaking about the rise in digital technology in the sporting world, accelerated somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, but seen commonly as a trend in the sporting world long before COVID-19, Dainton pointed to OTT as the future of broadcast.

“Our team is trying to ramp up and taking the time we’ve had off to ramp up all of our IT areas, which include the digital streaming and so forth,” Dainton told Ministry of Sport.

“Personally, I would love to be rolling out an OTT platform that does everything, but there’s still some transition time to go through before we get to that stage, the broadcasters and traditional broadcasters are still quite important.

“On the other hand, we can see the trend from the younger people that are not watching traditional platforms at all and that’s a trend that’s also growing with the older demographic as they start to move towards mobile.

“Now with WTT, some of the deals the ITTF have done in the past are transforming, instead of just doing a deal with a traditional broadcaster, who then also may sub-licence out to a digital platform, we’re seeing that the digital platforms are maybe coming in the reverse order and wanting to buy the rights and then they go and do a deal with a traditional broadcaster.

“We can see that in the negotiations and the deals that are on the table at the moment, I think that’s probably the way it will go, we would still need time as a sport, from our side.

“We would need time until we are at a stage where we can build a platform that is truly a table tennis OTT platform or something like that, but it is in the long-term strategy for us to be working in that direction.

“The trend is moving the way that with higher bandwidth, higher speeds of internet, higher mobile 5G and probably later on even more improvements, we can see the way of viewing in a high definition through digital channels is improving day-by-day.

“You would assume as the population moves everything to mobile and tablet, you would assume that would be the way, it just depends on how those big broadcasters that have held rights and customers and viewers for a long time, how they pivot.

“You can see in Australia with Fox and Kayo, where they are trying to align as a company to ensure they have both, and we will probably see that for a while.

“The question is just the monetisation on those products and how to make them profitable, we see anyone that goes deep into OTT at the moment still not quite finding the right model to make sure it’s a profitable business,” he said.

Keep an eye out on the Ministry of Sport website and social media platforms for part-two with Dainton, looking at what 2021 will look like for table tennis and international sport as a whole.