WTT turns to IMG in long-term media rights, production and sponsorship deal

World Table Tennis, the new commercial arm of the International Table Tennis Federation, has appointed the IMG agency in a wide-ranging and long-term agreement that includes international media rights sales and broadcast production oversight of WTT events.

The agreement, which was announced this morning, begins in January 2021 and also includes betting streaming and data rights for IMG Arena, non-exclusive sponsorship sales and a “general mandate to grow the sport of table tennis globally”.

Events covered by the deal include the World Table Tennis Championships and all levels of the revamped WTT event structure, namely the Grand Smashes, WTT Cup Finals, WTT Champions Series and WTT Contenders Series.

The appointment of the Endeavor-owned agency comes after the ITTF issued a worldwide invitation to tender in April 2019 as it searched for a global “strategic partner” to grow the sport. That process ultimately led to equity investment from China and three agencies – IMG, Infront and Dentsu – in the final stages of vying for the international rights.

However, the deal now struck with IMG does not represent a minimum guarantee rights buyout, with WTT instead retaining control and signing the contracts with broadcasters and providing IMG with a commission. Previously, the ITTF has adopted an agency buyout model, albeit with direct sales in some key table tennis territories.

Speaking to SportBusiness, WTT director Matt Pound said: “The benefit of this relationship is that it’s an open partnership. It’s not your traditional agency buyout model, where the agency gives you a chunk of money and they take the rights behind closed doors and then sell them as, and if and when, they wish. The beauty of our partnership with IMG is that everything is a completely open book.”

WTT senior commercial strategy consultant Philippe Le Floc’h, the former chief commercial officer at Fifa and marketing director at Uefa, offered up the example of the Uefa-Team Marketing model as one that table tennis will now look to pursue with IMG.

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 the Lagardère Sports (now Sportfive) agency.

Wider parts of the Endeavor network are also to be leveraged in the tie-up between IMG and WTT with deals with other parts of the group to be announced in due course.

Pound explained: “We’ll be hooking in to all their elements of business – not just trying to maximise the revenue lines of those areas of the business but assisting us to grow World Table Tennis as an entity. If WTT and the sport of table tennis is bigger, then all the key commercial rights are going to be worth more, so then WTT and IMG will be successful.”

IMG will also work with WTT on host city partnerships for its newly-structured events in a non-exclusive capacity.

Steve Dainton, ITTF chief executive and WTT director, said: “The World Table Tennis era will revolutionise the sport forever and we are delighted to be welcoming on board an industry powerhouse in IMG, whose wealth of expertise will help us to make this historic transformation for table tennis.”

Adam Kelly, co-president of IMG Media & Events, described the deal as “an exciting partnership at a key stage in the commercial redefinition of table tennis, through WTT, around the world”. Kelly added: “We share the vision that the ITTF and WTT have for the sport over the coming years and believe our energy, creativity and expertise on a global scale will add true value across all aspects of the WTT business.”

Unified production, priority media-rights sales markets

As part of the agreement, IMG Productions becomes the WTT’s official production agency with the table tennis body having taken production responsibilities in-house.

Until now, the production model has been disparate in nature with the various organising committees in charge of finding production companies or, in some cases, the host broadcast duties being part of rights deals in certain territories.

This has led to an inconsistency in standard which WTT and IMG will look to correct.

Pound remarked: “It was a key strategic decision by WTT to take the production in-house and control everything. We want to redefine what table tennis is.

“Everyone has a perception of what a sport is but we want to be showing the amazing skills of the players in the most professional and innovative way through our TV production, digital strategy and a high-level entertainment-focused event series.”

Tom Broom, senior vice-president at IMG Media & Events, told SportBusiness: “We will have a brand-new graphics look and it will be consistent, which will be an improvement on the past. We’re going to use a lot more data in the coverage and will definitely explore new camera angles.

“There are ranges to which we can challenge the norm in that and that’s a discussion we’re having with Matt [Pound] and his team as we speak.”

The Hong Kong-based Broom, who will lead the WTT project on behalf of IMG, said that “big pieces of innovative tech” could also be added to the broadcast.

Talks with IMG over production plans are well underway, according to Le Floc’h, including discussions over the number of cameras to be used, the possibility of 4K production or super slow-motion replays to showcase ball rotation, albeit there is reduced time to show replays between points given the pace of play.

Data elements such as a player’s distance from the table, reaction speed, how fast the ball is spinning and distance travelled by players are all under consideration to build into the broadcast. A search for a technical data partner has been initiated by WTT.

Pound added: “That’s the benefit of having one production company doing all our events across the world. We can be consistent and keep innovating to improve our product and our offerings to the media rights-holders to hopefully increase the overall value.”

In production terms, Broom said that the first task is to build a core editorial team within IMG Productions to ensure quality and consistency, also bringing in IMG producers from other sports to contribute improvements to the presentation.

The ITTF’s existing in-house digital team will work with IMG Productions, Broom said, although the agency “will take some of the day-to-day work off their hands so that it can be done more efficiently, such as highlights production, adding colour and education and stunt-based talent development” content that will form part of the WTT’s digital push aimed at a younger demographic.

Asked about WTT and IMG’s immediate plans to go market with the media rights, Broom noted: “The current revenue model is very much skewed towards China and Japan and that’s something we want to grow but correct at the same time.

“The relationships there are very key so they have been the first cabs off the rank and ourselves and WTT have initiated dialogue in both of those markets. WTT have occasionally taken the lead on that given history and [existing] relationships.

“In the rest of the world we’ll start a roll-out geographically and also look at multi-regional broadcasters and tech companies in the early phases, trying to work rigorously around the key markets and players who have a footprint in a variety of markets.”

In the belief that its commercial rights are undervalued, tables tennis’ world body launched its global invitation to tender process, which was overseen by Deloitte, with the aim of at least doubling the rights’ value by 2024. In 2018, revenues from sponsorship stood at about $8m (€7.06m) per year and revenues from media rights at about $6m per year.

Going into the ITT, the ITTF was looking for deals of at least eight years in duration. It subsequently agreed a commercial partnership with Chinese company Quanguan Sports (QG Sports) for 2021 onwards.

QG Sports has already worked with the ITTF. Last year it was appointed the federation’s strategic partner in youth development it has also been working with the Chinese Table Tennis Association for the past year to organise training camps for promising players from China and Japan.

Last month, Liu Guoliang, the president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, was appointed chair of the new World Table Tennis Council.

Commenting today (Thursday) on the multi-faceted long-term deal with IMG, he said: “We are very excited to have IMG on board this historic journey to help us professionalise and commercialise table tennis throughout the world, and I look forward to our joint efforts to develop the global game to greater new heights.”

A video to herald the signature of the agreement has also been produced, and can be viewed here.