Since the ITTF's inception in the 1920s, China and some parts of Europe have dominated the game, while much of Southeast Asia and Australia remains untapped. In those markets, the game is seen as a hobby rather than a professional sport.
ITTF is now focusing on building tournaments and reaching out to new audiences in these markets, said Steve Dainton, marketing director, ITTF.
According to Dainton, the ITTF currently hosts more than 80 events across the world. Of these, there are about 20 tournaments in North Asia, which constitutes China, Japan, Korea and to a lesser degree Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, only a handful of tournaments take place in Southeast Asia, due to lack of awareness and under-development of national associations in these countries, Dainton told Campaign Asia-Pacific.
In North Asia, ITTF manages to sell out its title sponsorships. However, finding sponsors in Southeast Asia is not easy. Worse, events don’t necessarily fetch high sponsorship fees either, Dainton admitted. “This will improve when you have good players and see results that take the game to a higher level.”
As such, the ITTF is now focusing on the development of national associations to improve the level of the game. “Our basic and first strategy has been to work with the national governing table tennis bodies of these developing countries to work on their events to be more commercially oriented,” Dainton said.
In line with that, ITTF provides coaching courses, administrative tutorials and marketing lessons. Dainton said that marketing and media know-how is critical because most national associations, while equipped with the infrastructure, don't know how to promote tournaments and events. The ITTF has started creating media and marketing kits to help local associations raise awareness.
The ITTF is also connecting local events more closely to top international events. And it is investing resources both financial and human to improve the events’ TV production value and to offer greater prize money. “Eventually they can become more profitable events, so that the overall economy at the professional level of the sport improves over time,” Dainton said.
Thailand has taken advantage of this. ITTF, which has been hosting junior events in the country is looking to launch senior tournaments. The ITTF has also been sending coaches from China and Europe to help budding talents in the country. Elsewhere, the association has expanded its World Tour to include less experienced organisers such as The Philippines and Australia to join the 2014 tour.
Going into the new table tennis season, Dainton and his team have planned to invest heavily in social-media platforms such as Facebook , Twitter, YouTube and Flickr, a new avenue for ITTF to interact with fans. ITTF puts snippets of the tournaments onto YouTube for its fans to review. These videos have received a lot of views and positive comments from the public, Dainton noted. “We are just starting out in social media, and the ability to interact with fans is definitely promoting table tennis to new audiences.”
Still, traditional PR is the most effective way to generate publicity for mass audience reach.
According to Dainton, results have already started to trickle in. There has been greater interest from TV broadcasters to show table tennis events in these countries and as a result overall media exposure has also improved. One successful example is the Oceania Cup. It started three years ago in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, where there was very minimal TV coverage at the beginning of the tournament. “Recently, there has been live streaming of the events as well as a growing interest in the sport in these markets," Dainton said. With online media-monitoring company Meltwater, the association found that the TV media value of the tournament was over US$500,000.