Ping Pong Goes From Basement to Big Business With Hipster Help

Jessica Alba and Susan Sarandon
Actors Jessica Alba and Susan Sarandon at SPiN in New York. Photographer: Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

Ping pong is going upscale.

Long a mainstay of garages, basements and dives, the game is springing up at high-end bars, restaurants and hotels around the world.

The trend in the U.S. got a jumpstart six years ago with the opening of SPiN in New York with its 17 courts, restaurant, bar and VIP room. Co-founded by actress Susan Sarandon, it now has clubs in Los Angeles, Toronto and Dubai offering a “farm-to-table” kitchen with menus that include $8 hot dogs and $13 “Rated R” milkshakes spiked with alcohol. New sites are coming to Chicago and Belgium.

This summer, people who buy a $5,899 package of Killerspin LLC’s high-end Revolution ping-pong table and accessories can get special deals on a stay in Sardinia, Italy, at Forte Village, which bills itself as the world’s only luxury table-tennis resort. Killerspin will run a table-tennis academy with classes and exhibitions by professional players.

“It’s become a hip thing,” said artist Wing Young Huie, whose Third Place Photography Gallery in Minneapolis features a ping-pong table and karaoke lounge. In 2011, he projected a slideshow of his photographs onto a wall by an empty lot where locals played through the night using glow-in-the-dark balls. “I know other artists in the Twin Cities doing ping pong.”

Ping pong is one of the world’s most popular sports, played by some 300 million people, according to the International Table Tennis Federation in Lausanne, Switzerland. A record 330 million TV viewers watched the world championship in China that ended May 3, up a third from the previous year, the ITTF said.

“More people are playing, more people are taking interest; there’s the trend of all these table-tennis bars,” said Matthew Pound, promotion and media manager in Singapore for the federation.

Sales at Chicago-based Killerspin, which offers tables on its website priced from $269 to $4,999, have doubled annually the past three years, said founder Robert Blackwell Jr., a former professional player.

Opened late last year, the Pips & Bounce bar in Portland, Oregon, has more than 50 hand-blown light fixtures shaped like ping-pong balls hanging from the ceiling. Among its 10 tables is a $20,000 Stiga Showcort model with neon lighting incorporated into its stand. Baskets filled with balls hang by every table and employees scurry around picking them up with nets. The club replaces as many as 300 smashed orbs a week.

“Having a lot of balls at your disposal, you don’t have to take as many breaks,” said Andrew Mattheisen, 28, who plays at the club every other week with his father. He praised the equipment, saying good paddles make all the difference.

Pips & Bounce

Pips & Bounce co-owner Michael Jung, 40, worked in energy policy before he and his brother became self-proclaimed pongtrepreneurs. They grew up playing in their parents’ basement in Kentucky and volleyed at SPiN in New York before venturing out on their own. The Jungs raised more than $50,000 last summer through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

“People really wanted this,” Jung said. The club draws 300-600 people a week and is already profitable, he said.

Players pay $8 to $10 per table for 30 minutes, with half-priced rates for seniors, veterans and students. The club is looking into family programs, including summer camps and senior socials.

The ITTF reached a milestone earlier this month as the sports federation with the most -- 222 -- affiliated countries, overtaking the International Volleyball Federation’s 220. The sport is growing in Asia, Europe and Africa, said the ITTF’s Pound.

It’s also surging in the U.S. The National Collegiate Table Tennis Association has ballooned to more than 200 institutions from 18 in 1999, said Willy Leparulo, its president.

“Most of the growth was within the last five-six years,” he said. “We are moving out of the basement.”

Part of the resurgence may be due to celebrity ping-pong advocates like Sarandon, Leparulo said. Crossword puzzle creator Will Shortz frequently talks about his passion for the sport on National Public Radio. Billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are also fans, and together faced off against Olympian Ariel Hsing in 2012 and 2013.

“This gives us a huge boost,” Leparulo said. “Then you have all these bars that have opened up. Everyone wants to get together and socialize, and billiards, bowling, they are a little bit older.”

Berlin-Style Parties

Berlin-style ping-pong parties -- where multiple players circle a table and take turns hitting a ball -- are the rage in San Francisco. Playing is free at Washington’s Comet Ping Pong, where the pizza is made with sustainably farmed ingredients. Comet was featured on an episode of the Food Network.

Ping-pong festivals have taken place in cities including Chicago and San Francisco and more than a dozen venues in the U.K., some with hundreds of tables set up on streets.

Some credit the rise of ping pong to technology burnout. You can’t text or check your e-mail when you’re playing.

“Ping pong is about connecting people,” said Shawn Topp, the Toronto-based chief marketing officer of the SPiN clubs. “You are doing something in the real world, you put your phone down.”

SPiN is working with architect David Rockwell, known for designing Imagination Playground in New York and the restaurant Nobu Dubai, to redesign its New York location. The new look might feature graffiti-inspired art from local artists and vintage-inspired furniture, Topp said.

“Our inspiration is this underground, basement feeling but in an upscale way,” Topp said. “It’s still going to feel clean while touching on the nostalgia of the basement.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE