During the late 1980s, Kim Gilbert was one of the top athletes in her field. Her winning streak included top prizes at the California State Open and Pacific Coast Open, U.S. Closed, as well as several gold, silver and bronze medals at the U.S. Olympic Festival. But then in 1992, she shattered her right arm in an accident and retired while still in her prime. Eighteen years later, she’s made what she calls a “miraculous comeback” to the sport that made her semi-famous. Gilbert, 46, is busier than ever, with a full schedule of headlining exhibitions and special events across Los Angeles, and coaching amateur athletes with dreams of following in her footsteps.
Gilbert couldn’t have picked a better time to return to the spotlight. After all, the game she’s devoted her life to playing just so happens to be ping pong.
The cult of ping pong isn’t a new phenomenon. Two years ago, the U.K.’s Independent newspaper was hesitantly proclaiming “Whisper it: ping-pong is cool.” Ping-pong social clubs have opened in cities across the country, attracting celebrity ping pong fans like actor Ed Norton, author Salman Rushdie, and rapper 50 Cent. The mainstream obsession with ping-pong hasn’t faded, and if anything it’s only gotten stronger. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimates that there are currently 19,446,000 recreational players in the United States, a 53% increase in the last decade. But what has changed is that ping-pong, that former staple of mildewy basement rec-rooms turned recreational sport du jour, has slowly evolved into its own industry, and several enterprising ping-pong enthusiasts are hoping that paddles just might equal profits.
Gilbert may not be getting rich on table tennis just yet, but she’s certainly earning more as a teacher and ping pong guru than she did playing competitively in her youth. At places like the Gilbert Table Tennis Center (not named for her) and SPiN, the much-hyped ping-pong social club co-founded by actress Susan Sarandon, she regularly instructs amateur pongheads with ambitions bigger than their talents. And her services don’t come cheap — she charges up to $100 per hour for private lessons, and $1,000 per day for out-of-town events — so her students often come from the corporate world, who have the deep pockets to afford her. Just last weekend, she says, she got a call from Mike Carmone, an Inspector at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, an advanced technology company in Palmdale, California. He was preparing for an office doubles tournament and needed some pointers. “Let me tell you, he was pretty bad,” Gilbert laughs. “He didn’t have much coordination.” But after just three lessons with Gilbert, Carmone went on to beat the office bragger, and now he’s “experiencing a newfound camaraderie with his coworkers.” In a business environment where table tennis has become the social activity of choice, Gilbert has no shortage of eager students.
Los Angeles isn’t the only city where ping pong is a thriving business. New York City has an increasing number of events designed for the white collar ponghead, from this April’s inaugural “Clash of the Hedge Fund Titans” at SPiN New York, a tournament featuring 36 teams composed solely of hedge fund managers, to last December’s TopSpin, an annual ping pong tournament created for and by local executives. Both events were not-for-profit, with all proceeds donated to charity. But at least with TopSpin, it’s a fundraising juggernaut that’s grown more influential and powerful every year. “It’s like a real life version of LinkedIn,” says Peter Farnsworth, a Senior VP of Business Development for the NBA who cofounded TopSpin in 2009. “We’re bringing the business community together through ping-pong.” The last tournament attracted 800 participants, and Farnsworth hopes that 2011 will be even bigger, with plans to expand to cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, and a projected 2000-plus players representing businesses like Coca-Cola, Delta, Hilton Worldwide, Lexus, Motorola Foundation, and American Express, among others. For a two-year old charity, TopSpin already has more advertising muscle behind it than the Super Bowl.
“Table tennis is the fifth fast growing sport in the country,” says Alan Williams, the marketing director for North American Table Tennis in Rockville, Maryland sports management company. “Everyone should play table tennis. They’ll live longer, they’ll be smarter, they’ll be more attractive to the opposite sex.” If it seems like Williams is a little too enthusiastic about ping-pong, there’s a good reason. NATT — who, by their own estimation, are the only company of its kind “operating exclusively within table tennis” — have recently established themselves as a one-stop shopping source for pong-centric corporate events and activities. For team building workshops, NATT instructors will bring hundreds of tables directly to your office and orchestrate a company-wide tournament. For consumer trade shows, they’ll show up with professional ping pong players to dazzle the crowd and lure in traffic. “I’m talking about Olympians,” says 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.”
Williams doesn’t just believe in the entertainment value of ping-pong. He also believes that it can serve as a conduit for international business connections. “The world is getting smaller,” says Williams. And if you want to do business on a global level, he says, you have to demonstrate an interest in what the rest of the world enjoys. As evidence, he points to the “Ping Pong Diplomacy” of 1971, where an American table tennis athlete Glen Cowan befriended his ping ping rival, Zhuang Zedong of the People’s Republic of China. The friendship led to the American table tennis team being formally invited to China, the first time U.S. Citizens had crossed that border since 1949. Williams believes table tennis can continue to forge unexpected connections in 2011, and the new frontier is business. “I keep saying to people, if you’re interested in the people in China knowing your name and being familiar with your company, you can do it with table tennis,” he says. For the NATT’s upcoming flagship event, the North American Ping Pong Teams Championships in Baltimore, Maryland — which attracts players from Mexico to Taiwan to Yugoslavia — Williams has offered local businesses the chance to advertise in videos of championship highlights. “We’ll embed their logo in video clips and upload it to Chinese social media sites,” he says. So far, he’s had no takers, which clearly frustrates Williams. “There are Chinese businesspeople who want to make connections to the United States,” he says. “And table tennis is the way to make that connection. They don’t understand why we don’t get it.”
It’s a valid point echoed by Donn Olsen, a coach at the Werner Schlager Academy in Schwechat, Austria. Most of the countries in which corporations not only openly encourage but sponsor table tennis, he says — countries like Japan, Korea, Germany, and Brazil — are also the countries with the strongest and most competitive economies. “Since the transformation of a previously Mao-led China into a much more capitalistic-based economic system,” Olsen says, “the participation of that country’s corporations in table tennis has skyrocketed.” The United States, however, has lagged behind, not just in terms of economic growth but interest and enthusiasm in table tennis. Olsen believes the two things are related. Of course, it can sometimes be difficult to take Olsen seriously, especially when he brings up books like Chemistry Principles of the 21st Century when discussing ping-pong, and say things like “Those that thrive in the corporate challenge of intricacy relate well, emotionally and intellectually, to the similar demands of table tennis” and “Corporate leaders, those that confront the greatest of responsibilities, are particularly suited here.”
But the most difficult hurdles in selling ping-pong in the United States aren’t the eccentric Austrian instructors who sound like Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s the social stigma. While ping pong may be a revered sport in the rest of the world, in America it’s still widely associated with summer camps and drunken frat parties. But it’s low socioeconomic reputation may actually be to its advantage, especially to ping pong customers with something to prove. “In the current financial climate, and especially given the cloud of suspicion and resentment hovering around our business bigwigs, what CEO wants to be seen sauntering around a golf course during business hours?” says Eli Horowitz, the co-author of Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World (published this past November) Ping pong may be most marketable to the people whose lives and careers need a little humanizing. “Bill Gates and Warren Buffett don’t have to feel emasculated when they’re whupped by a 14-year-old girl,” Horowitz says. “Instead, it’s a sign of humility and good cheer.”
Ping-pong might very well turn out to be just another passing fad, like darts or hula-hoops. But don’t tell that to the people who have their futures wrapped up in the sport. “My aspirations are through the roof,” Gilbert gushes when talking about her ping-pong plans for the coming year. “I am geared right now for corporate workshops and events so that everyone I meet can enjoy table tennis as much as I do. I am very serious about this because I have everything in place for this to happen and a group of amazing and dedicated people to work with. My goal is to be able to have a sustainable business doing this full-time.” She might actually pull it off, if ping pong has the staying power she predicts. But just as likely she could end up like she did back in 1992, with a career that never quite took off and broken ping pong dreams.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 9, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)