February 11, 2014

USA Table Tennis Magazine Going All Digital

Well, they've finally done it. USATT has cancelled the print version of its magazine and is going all online with a PDF version. (Correction: I'm told it's actually Flash.) Here's the new Winter 2014 issue (really the Jan/Feb issue), which will also be printed as the last print edition. And here's the home page for USATT Magazine. (Addendum - when you go to the new issue, just below it is a listing for "Related publications." USATT Magazine is the second one listed, sandwiched between two magazines with nude cover pictures. Great.) 

It's good that they now have an online version. But have they really thought through this decision to cancel the print version? It's impossible to tell, since no explanation is given on the USATT web page or the magazine page. If you go to page 8 of the new issue, there's a short explanation from the editor, but it doesn't really give any reasons, just basically tells us it's going all digital without explanation. This is one of the biggest decisions in USATT history, and it's been made without explanation, and without advance notice to the membership so they could give input on the matter. (We are a public organization.)

Presumably they are doing this to save money. They might. But I'm guessing that if they do, they'll save a lot less than they think. They'll save money on printing and postage. But they'll lose money on advertising and membership. (Isn't increasing membership a primary purpose of why USATT needs more revenue? It defeats the purpose when they increase revenue in ways that decrease membership.)

I did discuss this with one insider, and heard some things that I found a bit scary. I'm told they are budgeting advertising to stay the same, which of course won't happen. This reminds me of the group-think that took place a number of years ago when USATT increased the membership fee from $25 to $40 in one year. I was in the room as the 13 board members voted unanimously to do this, and unanimously budgeted membership to stay the same. That was crazy, and I told them so. Membership had just reached 9000, the most ever. I predicted they'd lose 2000 members; I was told by all 13 that I was wrong. One year later they were down to 7200 members. I was in the room one year later, alternating between anger and laughter, as the USATT board had to painstakingly cut about $60,000 from the budget. (It would have been more but with fewer members they saved on printing and postage costs.)

So the question is, do they really believe advertising revenue will stay the same? I was told two of the major advertisers have already committed to paying the same amount this next year. But I spoke with one of the two, and he/she disagreed with that statement.

I was told they are going in the direction of sports like volleyball, which apparently have gone all digital. When that discussion came up, did anyone point out that the demographics are very different? I looked into this once before, and volleyball has a much younger average age than table tennis, with a medium age probably under 20. (I don't have current figures.)  The average and medium age for USATT members is more in the range of 45-50, according to stats from a few years ago, with a lot of much older players, who are more likely to be interested in print issues. We're more like tennis and USTA - which has two monthly print magazines that go to their 700,000 members. (And note that in Europe, the table tennis membership is greater than the tennis membership in nearly every country. USA, where tennis greatly outdoes table tennis, is the exception. We just don't like learning from others.) 

Our current membership is something like 8000-9000, and only about half play tournaments. The only tangible benefit the other half gets is the magazine. Many of them, especially older ones, far prefer the print version; to them, the membership fee is just a subscription fee to the magazine. We're going to lose some of them. How many? I don't know.

So USATT is going to lose advertising and membership revenue. Will this be offset by the savings in printing and mailing? Perhaps. We're a public organization, but no financial figures have been made public on this. The decision was made about a month ago, so there's been plenty of time for a public explanation, giving the reasons and the savings projected. Presumably they had all the facts and projections a month ago when the decision was made, so there's no reason these facts aren't public already. (The alternative was the decision was made, with the facts and projections to rationalize this to be found later. I sure hope not!) So where are these facts and projections?

Did they speak to someone with real journalism experience before making this decision? Or was it made without their input? I don't know, and they aren't saying. Perhaps we'll learn more when the minutes of the meeting go online. Perhaps there is something they're not telling us, but we don't know until they tell us.

I was editor for 12 years in two tenures. When I left we were within $15,000 of "breaking even." I put that in quotes because, since the magazine is a tangible benefit for members, part of the membership fee goes toward the magazine. At $15,000 for an organization of 7500 members, that's a $2 annual fee for six issues, or 33 cents per issue. Think about that - $2 out of your $49 annual adult membership! Even if they are losing $30,000/year, that's only about $4 out of the $49 membership fee. When's the last time you bought six issues of a color glossy magazine for $2 to $4?

If, of course, they are "losing" much more than $15,000/year, then presumably advertising revenue has dropped. If so, then focus on increasing it. It's not just a matter of salesmanship; it's a matter of having a timely magazine with good content so readers will actually read it, and see the ads. I know how this works; in both of my tenures, I increased advertising over 250%. If advertising is down, get feedback from the advertisers on why, and then address the problem. If advertising is substantially down, then something has gone wrong. If it's not, then there's no reason to drop the print version. 

The other rumor I've heard is they are thinking of moving the magazine in-house. I blogged about that on November 26, 2013 (see second segment). Do we really want to go through that nightmare again? But there's a lack of organizational memory in this organization, and we tend to make the same mistakes over and over and over. At least in canceling the print magazine we might be making a new mistake, if that's any consolation. Time will tell.

I have a new book coming out, "Table Tennis Tips." I was planning on running an ad in USATT Magazine for that and my other TT books. But now I'm not so sure. With a print issue, people see the ads. With a PDF version, they are more likely to just page through it, and zoom in only on the articles that directly interest them. They're going to have to greatly reduce the advertising rates before it'll be worth it for me to advertise. 

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Here's the home page for the event (to be held on March 11), with a link to the teaser preview (44 sec) showing the two about to play as the robot does a few tricks!

Send us your own coaching news!

Larry, I am with you on the whole issue.

Comparing with volleyball is just laughable. Volleyball is played throughout the country in many many (hundreds if not thousands) high schools. My chiropractor is a volleyball coach (and a player and a ref) and from his explanations I can see that their scene is vastly different.

Why do yo think that USATT has such a problem with learning from mistakes ("lack of institutional memory" as you called it)? what is so different at USATT (over many many years, and presumably with very different teams leading USATT) that differentiates it from other similar US sports federations? Would be very helpful to have a discussion at About TT forum on that issue... but I suspect it would simply turn into complaining about problems with the current leadership. I am more interested in finding out why this problem persists; are there problems inherent in table tennis traditions in the US?

In reply to by JimT

If I could figure out and solve the problem of why USATT tends to make the same type of mistakes over and over again while failing to do the obvious stuff, I'd solve the problem. The root of the problem is that when the board makes these decisions, they truly believe they are fully informed on the topic in question. Or perhaps they simply have strong beliefs on what needs to be done, without a solid basis for their beliefs - but they don't see that. Often it only takes one or two Type A personalities who look good in suits and speak well to convince a group of others with little experience that they know what they are talking about, and to get the group to do what they say. This happens all the time, such as at several of the "Strategic Meetings" I've been to, which turned them all into disasters. Very few of the board have any real experience in running major leagues or junior programs, or real journalism experience in regard to USATT Magazine, and so they don't have any understanding of what they don't know. To paraphrase a famous quote, it's the stuff they don't know they don't know that kills us.