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World Table Tennis aims to serve up additional private equity investment

World Table Tennis, the new commercial arm of the International Table Tennis Federation, is continuing conversations with a view to selling further shares to private equity investors.

Private equity investment already secured from China has allowed WTT, which was launched as part of the Singapore-based ITTF’s restructure of its commercial operations from 2021 onwards, to establish itself and begin to roll out its plans.

WTT is now looking to continue negotiations around additional private equity investment, as senior commercial strategy consultant Philippe Le Floc’h, the former chief commercial officer at Fifa and marketing director at Uefa, told SportBusiness.

He said: “A lot of private equity companies are now circling around sport with [the] Covid-19 [impact]. You see them in football and rugby. We’ve also been approached and we’re having some conversations with various interested parties.”

CVC Capital Partners is looking to finalise an agreement with the Six Nations, its latest investment in rugby union, while at least seven private equity firms – including CVC – have been given the green light to proceed with potential investment offers to Lega Serie A, governing body of the top division of Italian club football.

Le Floc’h continued: “There’s definitely an interest from the private investment world to go into sport now. They see it as a good opportunity because a lot of people need the cash. For us that’s not the case yet because we already have somebody on board but obviously we have a very ambitious business plan over the next five to ten years and if we have more investment we could do more.”

WTT director Matt Pound added: “If WTT thinks it needs more equity to supercharge anything in our business then we can go out and do that and find new partners. In all the contracts and deals we’ve been signing with all our partners, WTT is at the centre of all the decision making so we still have that power in our hands to really dictate the direction of where the company goes.”

The drive for additional private equity funding comes with WTT having recently agreed a long-term media-rights, production and non-exclusive sponsorship rights sales deal with the Endeavor-owned IMG agency. WTT is tapping into other parts of the Endeavor group, including 160over90, the marketing services arm of which is helping to shape the global promotion strategy.

Le Floc’h insisted that WTT would press ahead with its full plans even without extra investment, but that an additional capital injection would “allow us to turbocharge what we can do and get people to help us to do things quicker”.

WTT and IMG will be going to market with broadcast, sponsors and prospective event hosts having tightened up their budgets as a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, as Le Floc’h acknowledges.

“We know that the market is going to be traumatised when we go into it and you’ve got fierce competition, but we think we’ll have an offering which will be interesting.”

Media-rights sales materials have been readied by WTT in recent months and some conversations have already been held with what Pound describes as “a few key broadcasters”. Tom Broom, senior vice-president at IMG Media & Events, told SportBusiness earlier this month that China and Japan had been “the first cabs off the rank” with the agency and WTT initiating dialogue in both markets.

WTT forged closer links with China through its recent commercial partnership with Chinese company Quanguan Sports (QG Sports) from 2021 onwards. Liu Guoliang, the president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, was also last month appointed chair of the new World Table Tennis Council.

Le Floc’h, the former chief commercial officer at Fifa and marketing director at Uefa continued: “We don’t have all the baggage of the old-style packages so we can start fresh and be agile, addressing the requests of the potential partners. The drawback is that this is a new product and people like to see it. We’ll try to have a test event in Macau in October/November to be able to show the world what it looks like.”

Meanwhile, Pound noted that the initial forecasts have been reviewed and that WTT would be “naïve to think we’re going to go into 2021 and have exactly the same results as what we predicted”.

He said: “In 2021 there are still question marks over international travel and when exactly we can get our events up and running. Now it looks like we won’t have a complete full calendar in 2021 and now we have an Olympic Games in 2021 and the 2020 ITTF World Championships will be delayed to 2021 so we have less windows in the calendar, which means less potential to have events.”

Hosting interest “from 40 cities and countries”

The new calendar is being overseen by the WTT’s event strategy director Stephen Duckitt, who came on board in March and brings with him 15 years of experience in organising and handling the PR and marketing for ATP and WTA tennis tournaments.

Pound said that there are 40 “active conversations” with potential hosts in 2021 and 2022, although conceded that the coronavirus crisis means that the number one priority for many cities and countries worldwide will not be bidding for sports events in 2021.

WTT does not anticipate a full calendar of events in 2021.

The WTT event structure has been revamped and now includes the Grand Smashes, WTT Cup Finals, WTT Champions Series and WTT Contenders Series.

Pound continued: “We’re still buoyant that the majority of the goals in terms of prize money and our income will be met, and once the world heals we’ll be back and fighting fit with a full suite of events for 2022.”

The hosting interest stems chiefly from table tennis’ core Asian market but there are also conversations being held with prospective hosts in Oceania, Latin America, North America and Europe and what Pound describes as “iconic cities around the world”.

He added: “It’s been great feedback we’ve had from the market but as soon as we can have proof of concept then we expect the market to be hotter for what we’re putting out.”

Offering up his first impressions of the ITTF project when he held initial talks with Pound and Steve Dainton (the ITTF chief executive and WTT director), the Malaysia-based Le Floc’h said: “I thought – if I had a blank sheet of paper for any federation, then you’re doing exactly the right thing – creating a bespoke entity which is fully autonomous from the governing body and housing all the commercial rights in it. And you’re opening the shareholding up to some equity [investment] which allows you not to have to request mothership money and you can finance your needs.”

“Credit to the ITTF to allow this to happen because there are not many sports governing bodies who would have the courage to let it happen.”