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EXCLUSIVE: ITTF to adopt hybrid in-house and agency rights model

The International Table Tennis Federation has decided against awarding its commercial rights wholesale to an agency in its next cycle, and will instead use a combination of in-house expertise and agency assistance to market the rights.

The ITTF is restructuring its commercial activity from 2021 onward. Last year it launched a new commercial arm, World Table Tennis, and a tender process to identify new long-term commercial partners.

The federation was looking for deals of at least eight years in duration. It is understood to have been open to all options, including employing an agency or agencies to manage its rights. However, the ITTF has now opted for a mixed model using both agencies and in-house resource.

The federation is understood to have agreed a commercial partnership with Chinese company Quanguan Sports (QG Sports) for 2021 onwards. The rights covered by this deal are not yet clear.

SportBusiness also understands that Philippe Le Floc’h, the former chief commercial officer at Fifa, is working as senior strategic consultant to advise WTT on the development of its new commercial model. Le Floc’h left Fifa in September as is now based in Malaysia.

The ITTF is expected to soon announce the outcome of its invitation to tender and full details of its plans for its commercial rights from 2021.

A host of companies took part in the tender – more than 50 lodged initial expressions of interest – including most of the sports industry’s major agencies. Three agencies were involved in the final stages of the process – Infront, Dentsu and IMG.

The federation’s current international rights agency, Lagardère Sports, did not make it past the early stages. Mediapro is also understood to have been involved in the talks.

It is understood that the ITTF could still end up working with one or more of the agencies in the new cycle on selected elements of its commercial business.

SportBusiness reported exclusively last month that the ITTF was close to agreeing a long-term partnership with a Chinese company identified during the tender process. It is understood that this partner is QG Sports, a company currently involved in table tennis training and events.

QG Sports’ chief executive is Lei Zhenjian, former chief executive of LeSports, the Chinese sports video streaming platform that exited the market in 2017 after experiencing financial problems.

QG Sports is already working with the ITTF. Last year it was appointed the federation’s strategic partner in youth development and the two parties ran a training camp in Ningbo, China. At the start of this month, the federation announced the company as a partner of the 2020 World Tour Platinum German Open.

QG Sports has been working with the Chinese Table Tennis Association for the past year to organise training camps for promising players from China and Japan. Upon the announcement of the German Open sponsorship, QG Sports was described as “an emerging sports company dedicated to new business development in the field of table tennis training and events…whose commitment to the global development of table tennis will continue into the future”.

Chinese menswear brand Changxing Group, which was described as a “long-term strategic partner of QG Sports”, was announced as a partner of the German Open at the same time. Changxing Group is also a partner of the Chinese national team.

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 (€7.4m) per year and revenues from media rights at about $6m per year.

The rights 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 television advertising inventory were also on offer.

In the most recent cycle of media rights 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. The rights in the rest of the world were sold by Lagardère Sports.

(additional reporting by Martin Ross)