Kim Gilbert was once among America's most promising Ping-Pong stars. During a memorable run in the late 1980s, the phenom earned the top prize at the California State Open, the Pacific Coast Open, and even the U.S. Closed. Yet in 1992, Gilbert was involved in a broken shoe heel accident—it's a long story—that shattered the radius in her right arm. In the prime of her career, she was forced to put down the paddle.
Nearly two decades later, Gilbert, 46, recently completed what she calls a "miraculous comeback" in the sport that once made her almost semi-famous. While she bides her days as an executive at the Los Angeles marketing firm Dial800, Gilbert spends her evenings coaching white-collar workers with their own dreams of table tennis immortality. And her services don't come cheap—she charges up to $100 an hour for private lessons and $1,000 for out-of-town events. "My goal is to one day have a sustainable business doing this full-time," she says. "I am very serious about this."
Gilbert has picked the perfect moment to reprise her glory. The emergence of upscale table tennis clubs—including Susan Sarandon's SPiN franchise—has spawned a Ping-Pong renaissance. The Silver Spring (Md.)-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. estimates there are 19.45 million recreational players in the U.S., a 53 percent increase over the past decade. And according to a 2009 SGMA poll, more than half have annual household incomes exceeding $75,000. As a result, the sport—which most people don't really consider a sport—is going corporate. Last month, SPiN New York hosted its inaugural Clash of the Hedge Fund Titans tournament, a prelude to a July battle between private equity competitors. New York-based charity tournament Top Spin is currently planning events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago and hoping to attract 2,000 players from companies such as Delta Air Lines (DAL), Lexus (TM), and American Express (AXP). "It's like a real-life version of LinkedIn," says founder Peter Farnsworth. "We're bringing the business community together through Ping-Pong."
Such corporate enthusiasm has led to the unlikely rise of businesses that many people did not realize were actual businesses. Rockville (Md.) sports management firm North American Table Tennis (NATT) recently established itself as a one-stop shopping source for Pong-centric corporate events. For up to $15,000, NATT instructors will bring hundreds of tables directly to an office and orchestrate tournaments or team-building workshops. Sometimes they'll even show up with real players. "I'm talking about Olympians," says NATT's marketing director, Alan Williams. "How often do you get to meet Andre Agassi? You can't do it. Pete Sampras? Not going to happen. But I can have you in front of a national Ping-Pong team in, like, five minutes."
So far business has been good for NATT, which, according to Williams, is the only company of its kind "operating exclusively within table tennis." As its reputation has grown, so has its roster of partners, which has included Crain Communications, equipment maker Sportcraft, and Elle magazine. Ping-Pong, Williams believes, offers lasting benefits for these companies—even if they aren't obviously financial, and even if he has no proof they're real. "Everyone should play table tennis," he says. "They'll live longer, they'll be smarter, they'll be more attractive."
More important, Williams believes Ping-Pong can serve as a conduit for international business relations. If companies want to do business on a global level, he claims, they'll have to demonstrate an interest in what the rest of the world enjoys. And that, Williams says, is Ping-Pong. As evidence, he points to the events of 1971, when American table tennis athlete Glenn Cowan befriended his rival, Zhuang Zedong of the People's Republic of China, and helped thaw relations between the two governments. Williams believes Ping-Pong can continue to forge unexpected connections today. "If you're interested in people in China being familiar with your company," he says, "you can do it with table tennis."
Donn Olsen also sees the global significance. As a coach at the Werner Schlager Academy in Schwechat, Austria—the MIT of table tennis— Olsen has observed that countries in which corporations sponsor table tennis programs (namely China, Korea, Germany, and Brazil) also have extremely competitive economies. "Since the transformation of a previously Mao-led China into a much more capitalistic-based economic system," Olsen explains, "the participation of that country's corporations in table tennis has skyrocketed." Olsen, who brings up obscure chemistry principles when discussing Ping-Pong, is not surprised. "Those who thrive in the corporate challenge of intricacy relate well, emotionally and intellectually," he says, "to the similar demands of table tennis."
While Kim Gilbert, Alan Williams, and others try to forge this relationship in the U.S., the movement has not been without setbacks. For NATT's upcoming North American Ping Pong Teams Championships, Williams has offered local businesses the chance to advertise in highlight Web videos. ("We'll embed their logo in video clips and upload it to Chinese social media sites," he says.) So far, though, there haven't been any takers. "There are Chinese businesspeople who want to make connections to the United States," he says with obvious frustration. "And table tennis is the way to make that connection!"