ITTF president Adham Sharara. (ATR)
(ATR) Adham Sharara, president of the International Table Tennis Federation, discusses sponsorship, TV rights, London 2012 preparations and expansion out of China and into the Middle East.
Canadian Sharara was first elected as head of the ITTF in 1999. He was last re-elected in 2009 to serve a four-year term.
Around the Rings:
What does it mean to be the second largest international sports federation [215 members]?
: When I started as president I believe we had about 178 federations 10 years ago. We never had a target to be second or first. It's the fruit of the development work.
How do you measure whether it is succeeding or not? There are several indicators: one by the participation of different associations in our projects and events. Fifteen or 20 years ago you would never hear some of the associations taking part in any of our activities. But now they do.
It means the development work we have done has activated them. A total of 95 countries last year participated in our junior circuit, which is a lot, and we have 30 junior events.
What are your objectives in your current ITTF presidential term?
: When I first started there were two main streams: the first one was development. The federation used to spend $30,000 per year on development for the entire world. Now we spend over $2 million per year, so in a quadrennial we are spending between $8 and $10 million. It was our objective to invest more and more, and we have used profits from sponsorship and TV revenues to increase development. We also provide a lot of equipment to associations in need.
Ahoy Arena, host venue for the Rotterdam world champs. (ATR)
The second stream was marketing. We established a marketing plan with very clear objectives in order to bring money from outside the table tennis family. Until I became president, most of the money came from "internal" sponsors such as the manufacturers of table tennis equipment. We targeted almost 100 possible sponsors. We worked very hard for a period of two years. The first big one we were able to land was in 2002 which was Liebherr, a big construction company. We started very small and we just celebrated 10 years of partnership with them. Next year they will be the title sponsor [of the world champs] because the event is in Germany. But they sponsor many of our events, even our museum. These are the kind of companies we are looking for, big companies that can afford the projects we have and then we try and give them maximum visibility.
For the Rotterdam championship, we had a brand new sponsor [signed up three weeks before worlds] GAC, the Chinese manufacturer of cars. They will sponsor 2012 to 2015 a vareity of events, we gave them this event as part of the package. At the moment, our sponsorship income is around $8 million per year net. Now we are trying to target not just big brands but specific types of sponsors, so we are looking for example for an airline and clothing partners because all our events are already covered. So now we would like to have sponsor across the board.
Is the ITTF's TV rights income increasing?
: The amount of money that we generate from TV income has reduced, not increased. But for us the TV was a vehicle in order to get the regular sponsors. So we may have lost maybe 20 to 25 percent on the TV side because we give much more of events without charging just to get the sponsors.
In a way we sacrificed a little bit the pressure in getting more income from TV so they can take more product and if they take more product then more TV networks cover our events. Then it's easier for us to get more money from the sponsors because we are giving them more visibility and more value.
We have a formula at the ITTF where we try to give sponsors a 10 to 1 value. That means if they appear on TV and we do an analysis and they say this is worth $10 we charge them a dollar. And that's why they stay with us for a very long time because they get very good value for the amount of money they pay. Each time they pay us more we have to increase their TV visibility and that's why the income from TV is slightly reduced. We get about $2 million per year for TV revenues.
When most sports are trying to break into China, why is table tennis keen to break out of the Chinese market?
Paddlers from China dominated the week's events, contesting all five finals and bagging 14 of the 20 medals on offer. (ATR)
The first aspect is that China dominates our sport as far as the athletic ability and technical results. For this event [world champs] the audience will be close to 80 million per day; the semi-finals and finals will exceed the news ratings in China.
[In terms of participation
levels] The group of players directly related to the national team is about 2,000 that have full-time coaches and playing full-time. That's a big number
if you compare for example to Holland which is a group of maybe 20 [elite] players. The problem is that obviously we can continue to draw all the sponsors from China. If I go to China for a week, for example, and put an announcement in newspapers that I am looking for sponsors, I will not sleep because I will get every half hour a company wanting to sponsor table tennis. That's how popular it is. But it will regionalize the sport, if the money is coming from China, the top players are coming from China and all our best events are held there.
In the beginning, of course, this was very useful, even the European companies such as Volkswagen were interested in the Chinese market but now they have made a lot of inroads. So now we are thinking of pulling out of China and trying to develop the sport in Europe and other places as far as marketing, viewership and spectator interest is concerned. At the moment, the top live spectator interest is in China, followed by Japan and then Germany and France. So Germany and France are targets, we'd like to have more sponsorship from these countries.
How are preparations going for the London Olympics and what do you think of the ExCeL venue?
The existing ExCeL exhibition center will host table tennis during the London Olympics.
Usually, international federations don't like these multisport places and then you use it just for the Games and then there is no legacy after. But for table tennis it is a good thing especially in England where table tennis is not one of the most popular sports.
We are under the roof with six other sports. If you want to have an Olympic experience and you come to ExCeL you have the opportunity to watch say three sports today and maybe another four sports tomorrow. And we are part of that. Which
means we won't get only table tennis fans but those people who want to have a general Olympics experience and want to see judo or weightlifting or wrestling and also table tennis.
We also start from
a virgin stadium and we are doing it in a very specific way. We will have a horseshoe set-up with the TV in the open part and the spectators will fill the other parts. It will be very intimate like a theatre atmosphere. We have never had the possibility to do this from scratch [because the ExCeL arena is so big]. Also, the organizing committee wants each sport to be shown in the best possible way so they are helping us with this. It will be very, very good.
What are the challenges for the federation in the build-up to London 2012?
We are trying to present something from an equipment point of view that is completely different. My vision was very difficult to fulfill and I have to accept some lower expectations. For example, one of our ideas was to have a floating table that has no undercarriage. That's a secret [how it will work]. That's why we have the horseshoe. If we can't have a floating table, we can still have a very attractive table.
Table tennis signage in Rotterdam. (ATR)
We push all the manufacturers to come up with very creative ways of presenting the table. For the world championships and Olympic Games we always have a feature. Also there will be different color coordinations, many things we are doing different to the presentation is very nice for participants. Other than that we don't have any problems. [LOCOG] has no problem with us and we have no problems with them and everything is running very smoothly.
What are you hoping for from the Olympics?
My fear is the spectators because the sport in England is not as it used to be 15 years ago when it was very popular. We cannot promote our sport during or before the Olympics. This is the role of the organizing committee to promote all sports equally. So what I hope is that at least in the beginning word-of-mouth... people say "Oh, we went to table tennis and it was very exciting, the equipment is different" so more people come.
We will have 6,000 seats, so I think over 10 days means 60,000 spectators at full capacity but anywhere around 50,000 I would be very happy.
What are the challenges ahead for table tennis?
The biggest one is to get sufficient spectators in the hall. I am not talking about world championships and World Cups because they are usually held in countries where people like table tennis where we get good spectator response. But we are developing the sport in other areas - Qatar, UAE, Venezuela, Colombia and so on. And there the sport is still new and we are not equipped yet to bring in an event and at the same time fill the space with spectators.
It's very difficult because each market is different, so we would need to get a partner for Colombia, partner for Egypt, etc., so it is quite complicated.
How busy are you promoting the sport in the Middle East?
Peace and Sport founder Joel Bouzou alongside Sharara at the annoucement of the Peace and Sport Table Tennis Cup. (ITTF)
The Middle East is probably the fastest growing area for our sport. Al-Jazeera covers all our events for the last five years now, so this is very good. To give you an example, this year we have had the Morocco Open and Egypt Open, both part of the Pro Tour, and two junior circuit events in the Middle East and we will have the Peace and Sport Table Tennis Cup in Doha. Also, we have the UAE Open, Qatar Open and Kuwait Open as part of the Pro Tour. There are 16 events out of which four are in the Middle East.
Interview conducted by Mark Bisson
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