ITTF president talks Olympics growth and new formats
Thomas Weikert recently outlined plans to increase table tennis’ presence at the Olympic Games and tweak the way the sport is presented for the benefit of commercial partners, should he be re-elected as president of the International Table Tennis Federation next month.
The German incumbent, who took office in September 2014 when Adham Sharara stepped down after 15 years in the post, used the occasion of World Table Tennis Day to publish his campaign manifesto, ‘Delivering Value and Growth for Global Table Tennis.’
Since taking office, Weikert has launched Table Tennis X (TTX), a new faster-paced version of the sport, overseen a rebrand of the top-tier World Tour and taken the federation’s commercial rights in-house from this year by ending a long-term partnership with TMS International.
Weikert told Sportcal today: “We have done a lot in a little time, but I think we need to be more modern. It is not easy to bring new ideas and events in, or make more marketing income. You have to convince the staff members and associations that change is for the best. I think since the beginning of 2016 we have been on a really good path. The marketing income is going up.”
Annual marketing revenue was between $6 million and $7 million in recent years, but is expected to exceed $10 million for 2017, thanks largely to the biggest commercial deal in the federation’s history, with Seamaster, the Chinese shipping giant, which has become title sponsor of the World Tour and the exclusive commercial partner of TTX.
In addition, for the first time, this year’s World Championships in Düsseldorf, where the elective ITTF congress will be held on 31 May, will have four major sponsors.
Weikert faces challenges to his presidency from ITTF vice-president Khalil Al-Mohannadi, president of the Qatar Table Tennis Association, and former Belgian international Jean-Michel Saive.
Many governing bodies are reluctant to divulge the revenue targets, but Weikert, a lawyer, said: “This has to be done in a transparent, clear way. Good governance is important for all organisations. You need to be transparent otherwise you lose the trust of commercial partners.”
He cites imposing terms limits as another example of good governance, and said he will only serve for one more four-year term if re-elected at the ITTF congress in May.
He added: “You have it in the US constitution – two terms of eight years. It is a good timeline for everybody. Then you have chance to make changes, to keep your organisation fresh.
“So if I’m re-elected, the ITTF will have someone new in 2021. If you follow exactly the measures of good governance, then this has to be the case always.”
Re-election will ensure Weikert oversees table tennis at another Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020, where he hopes as many as three new events will be added to the programme.
The ITTF presently runs four events at the Olympics, men’s and women’s singles and men’s and women’s team events, but applications have been submitted for the addition of mixed doubles and the return of men’s and women’s doubles (replaced by the team events at Beijing 2008).
Weikert said: “We feel we have improved a lot in the Olympics. We are now in Group C of IOC funding, which is a big honour for us and recognition that we are on the right track.
“Japan is a very strong market for us, and so Tokyo 2020 is an opportunity and we felt rather than only having four competitions, we must have five and maybe even seven… We will not increase the number of players so for the organisers it is a little bit easier… Group C is the first hint that we are stronger. The next is to make the competition stronger.”
It was during the Rio Olympics that the ITTF launched TTX in a bid to attract a younger generation of followers. The game features a larger, heavier ball and simplified rackets which create less spin. Matches are played across three sets of two minutes (instead of the traditional first to 11 format), and includes ‘winners’ and ‘wildcards’ for players to score extra points. Weikert wants to replicate that innovation in the professional game. He continued: “The German media tells me ‘it is difficult to cover your games because we know football is two halves of 45 minutes. Table tennis might be one-and-a-half hours or three hours’. So now we can change some of the rules.”
Tweaks may range from simply having more balls on the side of the table to reduce the downtime between points, to limiting each set to six minutes.
Weikert said: “We are testing this in some competitions. We feel it is better for TV.”
At the World Championships in Düsseldorf, the ITTF will enhance its production capabilities, with the use of spider and slow motion cameras to “show spectators how dynamic the game is.”
There will also be a focus on data, with technologies that track ball speed and spin to be used.
Weikert said: “It is a big investment, but we have to sell our product to the world and show people not in the venue how good and fine our product is. That all depends on how you present your sport, how you use technology.”
The seven key pillars in Weikert’s manifesto are: fuelling the development of table tennis and empowering national associations; setting the highest standards of governance, integrity and transparency; ensuring stability, continuity and positive Olympic/IOC relations; maximising commercial and marketing opportunities; enhancing the presentation of our sport; engaging our audiences digitally and attracting younger fans; and developing para table tennis.
He has called upon the services of Vero, the sports communications firm led by Mike Lee, which has worked on the successful presidential election campaigns of Gianni Infantino, Sebastian Coe and Brian Cookson for Fifa, the IAAF and UCI, the governing bodies for soccer, athletics and cycling, respectively.