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45-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

By Sheri Cioroslan | July 18, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 45, July 18 - Steve Dainton Summarizes the ITTF’s Marketing Strategies

“Events need to cater to TV broadcasters, media and the general population.”

Steve Dainton

Following up on yesterday’s Countdown interview, Steve Dainton today addresses his top priorities and where he sees the ITTF’s marketing efforts going in the coming years.  

Since ITTF Marketing is such an intriguing area, could you outline the steps taken and where you see it going in the coming years?

This is a massive topic, which could require a lot of time to discuss, but I will try to be concise:

  • In recent times and going forward, it’s vital for us to work with the Continents and the National Associations to bring the ITTF activities more closely linked with their activities. This will help us to be more global, and it will also help to strengthen each other’s events and make them more commercially viable. You can see the changes made to our World Cups, with the qualification process, for example. This is helping us sell the event in the Continents where table tennis has had difficulty penetrating – Latin America, Africa, Oceania and to some extent North America. Expanding on this theme will only help us.
  • The whole media landscape is changing. But there are also more choices for the media and consumers to choose from. So if our products are seen to be lackluster, it will be difficult for us to sell them. We will be putting more effort into the presentation of our products so that TV broadcasters find them attractive and the consumers of our products are as engaged as possible.
  • Finally, we need events that are less predictable. Like it or not, our sport is still nation-focused rather than individual-focused. And right now our sport is dominated by one country, China. Regardless of which country is the dominant nation, it is not good for the Global Marketability. Sport is about competition, but it’s also about entertainment. Unfortunately there is limited entertainment (read drama) in events that are relatively predictable. For this area, I believe we need more help from China. 

What are the opportunities for national associations to learn to apply the same winning modalities to their own marketing challenges?

If you take the whole interview into account, I think you will see what I believe is needed:

  • Events and products which cater more to the media
  • Ensuring the great things we do are seen by a wider audience.
  • I also believe that National Associations (NA’s) need to focus more on Marketing and Media. There are only 1 or 2 NA’s that have their own Marketing agency. In fact, many NA’s do not even have someone to work on Marketing and/or Media. This will be important for them to change in order for them to become less dependent on government funding and become more able to generate their own income. 

Many people in the ITTF family would like to see the United States take on a more proactive and engaged role, particularly in the area of achieving some marketing successes.  What particular opportunities do you see for joint marketing activities, knowledge transfer, TV broadcasting, or other mutually beneficial revenue-generating platforms between the ITTF and USA Table Tennis?

Of course the ITTF would like to see the market in the USA be more successful, just as we would like to see all big markets become more successful. So we would never limit our focus to one country. But specifically related to the USA, I think there needs to be a change in thinking and a push for them to create some more commercially savvy events, rather than the traditional large-scale participation events.

Events need to cater to TV broadcasters, media and the general population (spectators), who are event/entertainment driven. The media want glitz, glamour, stars, hype, sizzle, and drama and they want events that have some relevance for them.  There are no events in the USA (and many other countries in the World) that currently cater to the media, which is the key driving force to ensure Marketing activities. An opportunity, maybe?

That said, the door to our office is always open. We look forward to assisting any association, any event and all our table tennis stakeholders to develop their commercial areas. 

At the WTTC’s in Tokyo, you and I had a lively discussion on the subject of setting a fixed limit on the number of teams to be invited to participate in future World Championships.  We were equally passionate in, I should add, our opposing positions and beliefs on this matter.  Could you explain how reducing the scope of the World Championships will ultimately benefit Continental Championships?  Can you walk us through what your vision is and what your rationale was behind supporting this proposal that ultimately passed with a revision?

This is my favorite topic.  It’s one that I believe is the most important for the future development and growth of our sport. It is a topic I am hugely passionate about and one that I truly believe if we don’t find ways to solve, it will always limit our potential to grow from a Marketing and Commercial side.

It’s very simple for me. To create commercial opportunities (revenue) you need strong media coverage of your activity. Sponsors mainly sponsor so they can be visible; it’s a type of advertising for them. So the more media we can generate, in theory, the more commercial success there is for that event because we make our sponsors more visible.

Also, as mentioned above, the media want relevant interesting material that the public, their consumers, will find interesting, and therefore provide them with ratings, and hence boost their own advertising dollars.

At our World Team Championships, there is EXTREMELY limited media, let alone spectators, on anything that happens outside of the Championship Division. There is no TV distribution and there is almost no media coverage of anything else but the Championship division. In fact, our very own research shows that there is less than 1% of total media connected to anything happening outside of the Championship Division from our World Championships.

With NO media exposure, it is impossible for the ITTF and National Associations in the other divisions to commercialize. This begs the question: Why is there no media? The answer is simple. The media does not find it RELEVANT to their public. Try this: ask any person on the street (or even yourself) if they would be interested to watch their team at the World Table Tennis Championships. They might say YES.  Then ask them if they would be as interested if they knew their team could not be World Champion, but could only finish at best 25th (winner of the 2nd Division) or 49th (winner of the 3rd division), etc.

The reality is their interest would be greatly diminished. If I were wrong, we would have media and TV crews fighting to be at the Tokyo Gymnasium (the 2nd hall) during the recent World Championships. When I visited the gymnasium, I did not see one person from the media.  There were no TV crews and the Media Center was 100% empty. It was only our efforts to promote the other Divisions on YouTube that gave them any exposure at all.

Compare that to the Championship Division. It was the best media event in the ITTF’s history.  There were massive ratings in China, Japan and other parts of Asia.  Additionally, there was good coverage on Eurosport, and the media of the countries in the Championship Division were generally interested whether their teams could become World Champion (or maybe beat the Chinese team).

For me, that meant that our system was not correct. If we want to commercialize our World Championships and help our associations to get more commercial success, then our system needed a change. Imagine how much revenue the Championship Division teams can generate from their media exposure to the other teams outside. Huge disparity? Unfair even?

I strongly believe a qualification system with a Continental quota to the World Championships is the only way to go. That way the Qualifications and the Finals can all be greatly commercialized and far more countries and regions in the world can benefit. We only have to look at what is currently happening in the world of sport over the last month, the FIFA World Cup, to realize that a qualification system with finals has much more commercial success than one where every team participates.

But this is important to avoid misunderstandings: I believe that EVERY team and association should have the right to participate in the World Championships. In fact, I believe this is very important and, in my thinking, every team should have the chance to win, not finish 25th, or 49th etc. I just strongly believe it should involve a different pathway, namely through Continental Qualifications that leads to the teams in the Championship Division, supplemented with continental quotas.

This way we can assure:

  1. Every team has a chance to participate in the World Championships;
  2. Every team has a chance to WIN their Continental Championships and go on to WIN the World Championships;
  3. We can increase the media exposure globally;
  4. We can ensure each of our members has a chance to commercialize themselves and take away the huge disparity that currently exists; and
  5. We can ensure that our struggling Continental events can start to be more relevant and commercially successful.

There are two important facts from Tokyo we should consider to support this:

  1. We had 120 teams compete in Tokyo. A great number, right? But that’s actually only 55% of our total membership. FIFA, at its World Cup, had 97% participation - 203 out of 208 national associations.
  2. In our Championship Division we had in the Men’s one team (Brazil) out of the 24 and in the Women two teams (Australia and USA) out of the 24 not from Europe or Asia. Our TV and media distribution is Europe and Asia focused. Is that a surprise? A new system could change our media landscape to be more global.

It’s a long answer, but I hope my point is clear. It may not be the popular thinking inside the table tennis community, but I truly believe it’s as important an issue as any other in our sport for the future, if we are hoping to find more success from the marketing and commercial side.

This is why I strongly supported the move. It was a small step in the right direction. 

As the Countdown bids farewell to our intrepid ITTF President Adham Sharara, it would be interesting to understand what his direct and indirect contributions have been to the ITTF’s marketing successes, from your perspective.  Of course, feel free to add any other comments about any other areas of the ITTF’s progress in the last fifteen years.

Facts speak for themselves. Adham has been instrumental in growing the marketing revenues of the ITTF to be almost 20 times what they were when he started. In fact, there was almost no marketing activity or income before he joined the ITTF Executive Committee.

It all started by improving our events, taking back the rights that belonged to the ITTF to sell, and understanding what was needed to ensure that the revenue could grow with the products we had or needed to develop.  Agreeing to work with a Marketing agency, TMS, was also an important move. It’s much better to have a professional agency from the outside to help and push the commercial matters. More often than not, marketing is not the focus of the governing body and therefore it gets neglected or even politicized.

The fact that TMS and the ITTF Marketing Department could grow to where we are today is mostly due to Adham Sharara’s efforts.  In recent times he has allowed us to develop and grow the properties. Behind the scenes he has been instrumental in ensuring most of the large deals and most of the key commercial products have been a success, either by being directly involved, or by offering us the guided advice we needed. The business savvy he brings to the table is often hard to believe. Just when we think a deal may be going the wrong way or a negotiation not going well, 9 times out of 10 he will bring it back toward a successful conclusion. Truly amazing.

We really hope when he steps down as ITTF President he will continue to support us and help take the marketing activity and revenue to the next level. I believe this is Adham’s key strength and one where his legacy can continue.

Thank you very much, Steve.  I am sure members of the table tennis family appreciate your clear explanations and thought-provoking insights.