Pingpong Comes Back With Partners From Sarandon to Hedge Funds

Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett lost 2-1 to 15-year-old U.S. champ Ariel Hsing last year. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Kim Gilbert was once among the most promising pingpong players in the U.S.

During a run in the late 1980s, she earned the top prize at the California State Open, the Pacific Coast Open and even the U.S. Closed tournament, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its May 9 issue.

Then in 1992, an accident involving a broken shoe heel shattered the radius in her right arm. In the prime of her career, she was forced to put down the paddle.

Now 46, Gilbert recently completed what she calls a “miraculous comeback” in the sport that once made her almost semi-famous.

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. She charges as much as $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 pingpong renaissance.

The Silver Spring, Maryland-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimates there are 19.5 million recreational players in the U.S., a 53 percent increase over the past decade.

According to a 2009 poll by the association, more than half the players have annual household incomes exceeding $75,000. As a result, the sport is going corporate.

Hedge Funds

Last month, SPiN New York hosted its inaugural “Clash of the Hedge Fund Titans” tournament, a prelude to a July meeting between private-equity competitors.

A New York-based charity tournament, Top Spin, is planning events in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, and aiming to attract 2,000 players from companies such as Delta Air Lines Inc., American Express Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus division.

“It’s like a real-life version of LinkedIn,” says founder Peter Farnsworth. “We’re bringing the business community together through pingpong.”

A Rockville, Maryland-based sports management firm, North American Table Tennis or NATT, has become a source for corporate events in the sport. For up to $15,000, the company’s instructors will bring hundreds of tables to an office and orchestrate tournaments or team-building workshops. They’ll even show up with real players.

Olympic Walk-Ons

“I’m talking about Olympians,” said Alan Williams, NATT’s marketing director. “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 pingpong team in, like, five minutes.”

Business has been good for NATT, which, according to Williams, is the only company of its kind “operating exclusively within table tennis.” He says its partners have included Crain Communications Inc., equipment maker Sportcraft Ltd., and Lagardere group’s Elle magazine.

Pingpong, Williams says, 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.”

Williams also says pingpong can be a conduit for international business relations. If companies want to work on a global level, he says, they’ll have to demonstrate an interest in what the rest of the world enjoys. And that, Williams says, is pingpong.

Chinese Link

He points to 1971, when U.S. table-tennis player Glenn Cowan befriended his rival from China, Zhuang Zedong, and helped thaw relations between the two governments. Williams says the sport can continue to forge unexpected connections today.

“If you’re interested in people in China being familiar with your company, you can do it with table tennis,” he says.

Donn Olsen, a coach at the sport’s Werner Schlager Academy in Schwechat, Austria, said nations in which corporations sponsor table tennis programs, such as China, South 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, the participation of that country’s corporations in table tennis has skyrocketed,” Olsen said. “Those who thrive in the corporate challenge of intricacy relate well, emotionally and intellectually, to the similar demands of table tennis.”

The movement to promote corporate involvement in table tennis in the U.S. hasn’t been free of setbacks. Williams said there haven’t been any takers for NATT’s offer of advertisements on Internet highlight videos from the upcoming North American Ping Pong Teams Championships.

“There are Chinese businesspeople who want to make connections to the United States,” he said. “And table tennis is the way to make that connection.”

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