The Business of Sport: Polishing diamond that is ping pong

Chinese businessman Frank Ji is a man who is passionate about table tennis, and has poured much of his wealth into the sport. His company has taken up title sponsorship of the ITTF Women's World Cup, the ongoing year-end season finale in Qatar and al
Chinese businessman Frank Ji is a man who is passionate about table tennis, and has poured much of his wealth into the sport. His company has taken up title sponsorship of the ITTF Women's World Cup, the ongoing year-end season finale in Qatar and also the federation's annual awards.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Frank Ji putting in funds to help popular sport fulfil its potential and boost commercial value

To understand why Frank Ji has poured most of his time in the last two years - on top of a small fortune - into table tennis, one need only look at the tagline that accompanies T2, the professional league the Chinese businessman founded recently.

It reads: The diamond within. It is simple, yet it aptly sums up the significance of the sport to him.

The 49-year-old, whose association with the sport began only five years ago as a form of exercise, sees table tennis as a rare and valuable gem - but still a diamond in the rough.

"I spent two to three years going to almost every major table tennis event around the world, observing, meeting officials and really studying the sport," said the Shanghainese. "Through that, I got a deeper understanding of the sport."

Ji, who runs shipping firm Seamaster, gathered that table tennis is not "fashionable" and in particular is struggling to appeal to the young.

He said: "It was as if the table tennis I knew from when I was a child had not changed one bit, while the world around it had already transformed so much.

NOT KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES

It was as if the table tennis I knew from when I was a child had not changed one bit, while the world around it had already transformed so much.

FRANK JI, on the sport being stuck in the past seemingly.

GIVING IT HIS BEST SHOT

If we succeed, maybe there will be commercial prospects for table tennis. If we don't make it, at least it's a learning experience for others and that makes what I'm doing meaningful to me.

JI, on what he hopes to achieve with his innovative moves. 

"I saw that the commercial value of this sport is not being realised, despite the fact that it's played by so many people."

Table tennis has one of the world's highest participation rates among all sports, with over 300 million playing it regularly. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has 222 member associations, surpassing even that of football and basketball.

Yet compare it with these same counterparts, and it becomes evident that the popularity of the sport has not translated into dollars and cents - not even in China, where it is considered the national sport.

The 2015 Chinese Table Tennis Super League season, for instance, garnered just 10 million yuan (S$2.1 million) in sponsorship revenue, far below its operating cost of 30 million yuan. Comparatively, the Chinese Basketball Association in the same season saw its total sponsorship worth well over 2.5 billion yuan.

State-owned broadcaster CCTV has also reported that ratings for the World Championships - an event that has consistently been one of the most-watched in the sport - have also slipped over the years.

The men's team final in the 2010 edition, for example, hit 1.4667 per cent, a figure that exceeded even that for the final of that year's football World Cup. But in 2012, when the next team edition of the World Championships were contested, that number had fallen to 1.35 per cent.

Ji believes that the cultural values linked historically with table tennis differ greatly from other professional sports and are a big reason why it has not been able to market itself as successfully.

  • 222 

    Table tennis has more member associations than even football and basketball.

  • 0.4%

    Sponsorship for the 2015 Chinese Table Tennis Super League season (10 million yuan, or S$2.1 million) as a percentage of that of the Chinese Basketball Association's (over 2.5 billion yuan).

He said: "Table tennis has a socialist history - it is more about participation while other sports are more about entertainment and the market."

He estimates that table tennis relies on sponsorship for about 70 to 80 per cent of its revenue with the rest coming from media potential, while other sports have it the other way round.

Pointing to the example of the World Championships, which sees participation from close to 100 teams, Ji noted: "It's great to have such participation, but if you look at it from the commercial side of things, it then becomes an event that's extremely hard to market. So many matches are going on at the same time - how do you know which to broadcast?

"The gap between the top few countries and the rest is also too wide. It's an event that goes on for more than a week but for the first five to six days, it has little commercial value."

It is this lacuna that Ji sees and wants to help fill, in order to help a sport he has come to love fulfil what he thinks is its true potential.

From 2014, he took his involvement from what was largely silent observation to a far larger scale.

His company Seamaster became the title sponsor of some of the ITTF's most high-profile events, including the Women's World Cup in October, the ongoing lucrative World Tour Grand Finals in Doha and the tour's year-end awards.

But it is not simply about securing naming rights. Ji is also taking a multi-pronged approach in his involvement, starting T2 as a league in the Asia-Pacific for professionals, partnering the ITTF to pioneer TTX - an alternative form of table tennis which features new rules and equipment - to attract the young.

He also plans to promote Monday Club - the name of the club that got him involved in table tennis in the first place - expanding it for recreational players to engage in club activities.

"Table tennis is not just one competition, nor is it just about the players. It's an entire system that's been the way it is for many years, so I'm taking a multi-pronged approach in trying to make some adjustments to the system," said Ji, who has poured about US$4 million (S$5.7 million) into his passion projects so far but says it is more than just monetary involvement.

"I don't treat my involvement in table tennis as an investment, because you can't see what the road ahead is like anyway. But if I continue working at it like this, perhaps success is not far ahead.

"If we succeed, maybe there will be commercial prospects for table tennis. If we don't make it, at least it's a learning experience for others and that makes what I'm doing meaningful to me.

"I don't have anything against the way things are being done in the sport now, nor do I want to compete with the sport's authorities. I'm just an enthusiast coming from the outside experimenting with something new.

"I can see a big diamond within, but how do we get to it? I'm not sure - but we have to all try and see what is it that will help us get to that core."

•The Business of Sport is a monthly series that explores the current trends and talking points of Singapore's emerging sport industry

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline 'Polishing diamond that is ping pong'. Print Edition | Subscribe