Ping pong for the masses: Bringing an old sport to a brand new audience with World Table Tennis

Stunning light shows at the WTT’s Singapore Smash 2024 are reminiscent of an esports arena

Table tennis, ping pong and whiff whaff… These are the names that this well-known sport, famed for its popularity in China, is known as. Table tennis is starting to evolve towards a broader fan base thanks to World Table Tennis (WTT), which is the commercial arm of governing body, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF). It was created just three years ago to grow the sport globally.

Explains Melissa Soobratty, senior media director at WTT: “We realised that if we didn’t do something, we were in danger of the sport stagnating. This was an opportunity for us to take a moment and think, “okay, what could we do? How can we change things to make it more relatable, more entertaining, more innovative, more exciting?”.”

WTT recently renewed and expanded its partnership with global sports video production and distribution agency, Story10 – part of SNTV – to promote the sport in key territories and engage new audiences worldwide. Now in the relationship’s second year, Story10 is tasked with amplifying game highlights from the 2024 Championships and WTT’s marquee Grand Smash, Finals and Champions events, across its network of 8,500 digital and social channels and 700 broadcast partners.

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SNTV is a joint venture between The Associated Press and IMG. Story10 was launched by SNTV in 2021, supported by SNTV’s global distribution network. Meanwhile, IMG is the WTT’s production partner for the series.

Story10 puts out anything between two and six video news releases every day of a WTT event. Comments Zoe Duffelen, global head of revenue at SNTV’s Story10: “It was the perfect partnership for us, just because WTT were in the place where it was almost like a blank canvas. We were learning as we were going, so we were able to develop what our offering was going to be to our news wires, across the SNTV news wires.”

Also, for the first time the expanded partnership will see Story10 and WTT develop a pilot project to create authentic influencer collaborations that increase the sport’s exposure and engagement with new audiences across social platforms, utilising Story10’s network of 7.5 million influencers worldwide.

At the WTT Singapore Smash 2024, players step out of the octagon and take a long walk down the catwalk and into the Infinity Arena. Sports presentations with lights, LEDs, and original composed signature music help with the atmospheric build up

Pushing ping pong

Soobratty explains how WTT is helping to push table tennis as a popular sport outside of China: “In China it’s more than just a sport. It’s really embedded within the culture. So it’s bigger, I guess even bigger than how football is in the UK, and they’re pretty good at it. To become a table tennis player for China, you are really, really tested from a very young age in terms of spotted and then trained. The resources that they have and that they invest in training the players are second to none.

“Now we’re seeing things grow [globally]. WTT was created in 2021 when there was a realisation that we really needed to do something to continue the growth of the sport and to change the perception that it was an Asian or Chinese sport.

“There are a lot of players from all over the world, whether it’s Hugo Calderano from Brazil, Patrick Franziska and Dima Ovtcharov from Germany, Bruna Takahashi, also from Brazil, Adriana Díaz, Puerto Rico, Kamal Achanta from India. So it’s a lot more global than people realise. It’s just the fact that China’s really good at winning that means they always hit the main headlines,” continues Soobratty.

She goes on: “Over the last 12 months we’ve seen the rise of France and the Lebrun brothers come up. As a result of that, and also as a result of the wider coverage that.”

Crew from IMG working hard to broadcast the Singapore Smash 2024

Aims of whiff whaff

On the goals and aims of the WTT, Soobratty says: “We really want to change how the sport is seen and perceived because traditionally it’s a load of tables in a sport hall, and you see how other sports have been moving, especially towards embracing entertainment. So it’s not just the action that’s taking place on court, on the table, it’s giving your fans and the public value for money, because these days when you buy a ticket for a sports event, it’s not cheap, so we wanted to make sure that we were giving value, but also bridging that gap from participation to actually watching the pro’s and growing the sport from a grassroots level, all the way up to the top.

“We have a programme called From Day One to World Number One, and that’s reflected in the series of events that we have. So the series that sold for commercial rights is the WTT series, but then we have two tiers below that as well: you have the feeder series and then the youth series, which is under 11 to under 19.”

Adds Soobratty: “The grassroots side is so important for us. India is going great guns; on the youth side they have a cracking team. And results-wise, the team is just getting stronger and stronger. So I predict in the next five years there will be other challenges to China outside of Japan and Korea and France, etc. It’s one of those sports that you can play for life.”

Smashing times

Soobratty comments that with Story10, that fan base and the reach of WTT content is expanding rapidly. “This is the third year we’ve done the Smash, and from having started last year with Story10, we have seen the increase in numbers. So for example, last year we broadcast to 129 countries. This year it was 138. This year we had a 69.5% ticket revenue increase. There was an 81.4% increase in tickets sold and we had over 12,500 spectators.”

Duffelen comments: “Our task was to create news editorial to ensure WTT was in the news agenda outside its usual-suspect markets of China and South East Asia. Story10’s newswires reach 700-plus linear broadcasters and 8,500 digital publishers. We started our partnership off at the Singapore Smash 2023 where content was distributed to 22 different markets across 40 media outlets with key usage recorded in Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Taiwan and Malaysia.

“Champions Frankfurt 2023 was distributed into 31 markets across 67 media outlets with key usage in Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Thailand but we were also seeing some slow build up of interest from other countries including the US and Australia,” she continues.

“The 2024 ITTF Finals in Busan was distributed into 47 markets across 111 media outlets with key usage in France, Spain, US, Brazil, India, Italy, United Arab Emirates and Sweden, and 6.4 million digital impressions were also recorded,” adds Duffelen. “To date, video from the Singapore Smash 2024 has been used by 54 media outlets and in 30 markets. The 54 media outlets is up 35% versus the Singapore Smash 2023, and the 30 markets it was distributed to in 2023 is up 36% year on year.”

Adds Soobratty: “It’s about getting the word out there and changing how we present the sport. We have the players walk out through a catwalk into the Infinity Arena and everything is black and it’s lit up; there’s lights, there’s music, there are entertainment acts at certain stages. We really want to make sure people are getting value, not just for watching the sport, but being entertained as well.”

The arena for the Singapore Smash takes traditional viewing of ping pong and turns it into a spectacle for viewers

Influencing the kids

On the Influencer Programme – which will be trialled at the new second Smash this coming May in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – the goal is to get younger people to relate to the sport and bring it to others in their circles.

Says Soobratty: “The aim is to target the Influencer Project for Saudi. Because table tennis is relatively new to that region, this is a perfect opportunity to do this proof of concept with the Influencer Programme from Story10, and see how we can grow the sport and bring new eyeballs – not just table tennis fans, but fans who are interested in other aspects of the sport – to the WTT. So this is quite exciting.”

She goes on: “We’re looking at the grassroots level [of influencer and potential fan] because we want the sport to really bed in. I think it’s an interesting opportunity to perhaps transform the preconceptions of the region. When you see how women’s football has grown in the region and the fact that our sport really prides itself on equality – it’s the same amount of matches played, it’s the same amount of prize money distributed – this is something that we’re really proud of and we think can help in terms of growth sport in that part of the world.”

The growth of sport has financial challenges, says Soobratty. She explains: “I think it’s a challenge for Olympic sports compared to other sports in the commercial world. We don’t have the same deep pockets as everybody else, and so we have to be creative in terms of how we’re going to grow.

“But I think what’s really interesting about this sport is we’re not trying to get into China and our demographic in terms of fan base is really interesting; it’s 55% male to 45% female. But at the Singapore Smash, there seemed to be a lot of women with disposable income flying over from China; very, very passionate fans. It was amazing to see that. These fans will travel everywhere. The French fans following the Lebrun brothers and Simon Gauzy as well. So as we become more and more established, you can see the following and the reach is increasing as well.

“I’m really excited to see how the Influencer Project goes, but also to see how the rest of the year goes with Story10 support in growing and putting us out there,” concludes Soobratty.

Create Share Engage 2024, sponsored by Appear, is a one-day event for sports federations, leagues, associations, clubs and other rights owners, as well as broadcasters, agencies and producers, that will focus on creating and distributing sports content, and engaging fans, across social media, streaming and other digital platforms.
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