Over the next three years leading to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, the Chinese National Team of Table Tennis will become the leading target of sports sponsorships in China. But its charismatic head coach may eye for other priorities.
As of this 2021 Thanksgiving week in Houston, Texas, a new squad of Chinese table tennis players competed in the World Championships matches. They are the hopefuls for China to win and defend its Ping Pong dominance three years later in the Paris Olympics. At the same time, they are being used to play as diplomats to ease the political standoffs between China and the host country USA.
The primary reason for predicting the table tennis team’s commercial success is its unstoppably rising profile after the successful 2020/21 Olympics. In Tokyo, China won four of the five gold medals, only missing the mixed doubles. At the end of November 2021, a brand-new group of athletes appeared at the World Table Tennis Championships in Houston, Texas. The Chinese and USA players jointly trained and competed for the mixed doubles matches to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ping Pong Diplomacy. The diplomatic stunt has excited the public in and outside China even more than the World Championships.
The other reason is the lack of competitions, especially after the defeat suffered by the Chinese Women’s Volleyball Team in Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Before the Tokyo Olympics, the women’s volleyball team was the country’s most popular sports property. The shrewd head coach Lang Ping was able to sign up 30 partners, sponsors, and suppliers. The Table Tennis Team only had seven. Unfortunately, the women’s volleyball team failed to defend its Olympic title in Tokyo. Worse still, it did not even make it through the group stage. Lang Ping swiftly resigned amid the rumours that her team’s morale imploded because of her lack of fairness and transparency in rewarding the players with the money the team bagged. After the fall of the volleyball team, Chinese sports sponsors have to look for a new target.
No easy money
But there is no easy money. Although the Chinese National Table Tennis Team will become the sponsors’ favourite before 2024, Liu Guoliang’s hands are tied. He is unlikely to monetise the team as aggressively as Lang Ping did to her volleyball team.
The first factor of concern for Mr Liu is politics. Ping Pong enjoys the status of the national sport in China. Liu, therefore, manages an iconic property. His job is glamorous as well as risky and even dangerous. The biggest problem with his career is that he has not yet wholly reconciled with China’s sports top boss Gou Zhongwen. In 2016, Gou Zhongwen became the director of the State General Administration of Sports. In June 2017, he removed Liu Guoliang from the head coach chair of the Chinese National Table Tennis Team, making Liu collateral damage of the sports administration’s infights. Liu’s supporters in the team revolted against the decision. They won massive support from the media and the public. Eventually, Director Gou had to reinstate Liu 15 months later as the head coach. In addition, he compensated Liu with a higher title, appointing him the chairman of the Chinese Table Tennis Association. Since all Chinese sports associations are de facto governments, Liu Guoliang officially started his political career.
The replay of the Ping Pong Diplomacy in Houston 2021 put Liu Guoliang again in the limelight on the stage of politics. He dealt with the event and talked about it to the media with a poise of leadership. However, considering his future development, Liu would have to prioritise the success of his team and his own political merits over money, especially under a scrutinising boss.
Another factor that limits the commercial potentials of the Chinese National Table Tennis Team is the lack of personality. The team is not short of world champions but is losing its character. The rigid state-run Chinese sports system tend to produce athletes who are poorly educated. The athletes only have had training, but no development. They are often compared to conveyer-belt robots with the superb mechanic but little people skills. Some are photogenic, but few can adequately deal with the media, PR, and promotional representations. The Chinese Women’s Volleyball Team had the same problem. Other than the head coach Lang Ping, no athletes had true stardom.
Towards the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Liu Guoliang is training a new team. The goal is to win the five Olympic titles. That means the squad itself will be a super success, but there will be no individual star players. Instead, it is a faceless superpower leaving the would-be sponsors with trim options to pull off athlete endorsement deals.