Hipsters have had their hands in dozens of comeback business trends: vinyl records, food trucks, boxing clubs, boutique cupcakes, arcade bars. The latest, it seems, is table tennis. Given a major lift when actress Susan Sarandon opened the ping pong bar and venue SPiN in New York, the Olympic sport is the new cool thing to do on Friday or Saturday night, whether you live in Los Angeles, Austin, or Dubai.
As a social pastime, the sport has come a long way over the past two decades. Back in the early 1990s, when I was sixteen or seventeen, ping pong was far from the height of big city nightlife. On any given weekend at my friend’s house we’d get together for a few rounds. We were loose with the rules. Shots off walls were in play. Serves of any kind, so long as they made it over the net, were fair game. The loser might have to spring for pizza. I don’t remember much about the table, except that it was green and the net sagged.
The value proposition for ping pong has gotten quite a bit more serious since then. According to a 2015 article in Fortune magazine, sales of tables at Killerspin, based in Chicago, have doubled annually over the past three years. They range from $269 to $4,999. Bloomberg notes that players who spend close to $6,000 on a top-of-the-line Killerspin model can get a discount on a stay at a high-end Italian tennis resort, where they can brush up on their stroke.
SPiN now has seven indoor social clubs across the country. At their Chicago location, you can reserve a table on the weekend for $59 an hour, join a weekly league with prize money, become a member for $1,099 per year, or book a fully catered private party with a DJ booth for up to 600 guests. There are Sweedish-made Stiga tables, Chesterfield sofas, dazzling wall murals. The catering menu is no joke: risotto balls, braised short ribs, a soba noodle salad. You can even hire former Olympians and celebrity ping pong entertainers for special events and lessons.
Check out this bio of one of the company’s professional ambassadors, who goes exclusively by her first name, Malin.
“A 14-time Swedish National Champion and the youngest Swede to ever qualify for the Senior World Championships, Malin is quite possibly the most decorated player to ever grace SPiN’s tables.
As a house pro at SPiN New York, she regularly makes her opponents look foolish with her offensive style and effective attacking game. Featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Timeout New York, Malin is SPiN’s go-to celebrity trainer, teaching the likes of Rafael Nadal, Justin Bieber, Oscar Isaac and Andy Murray how the game is played (and won).”
Looks like I’ll be springing for pizza.
Of all the indoor ping pong clubs that have cropped up across the country and overseas, SPiN is undoubtedly the franchise with the highest hipness quotient and strongest marketing muscle (Jimmy Fallon recently went tet-a-tet with Prince in a widely publicized trip to SPiN). But others like Pips & Bounce, AceBounce, PIPs, Wang Chen Table Tennis Club, Paddle Room, and KillerspinHouse are beginning to give SPiN a run for its money. And the craze isn’t limited to social clubs. High school leagues are starting to take off. A 2014 Super Bowl commercial even featured Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing with a paddle in hand.
But for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding ping pong’s rising popularity, the sport’s appeal goes back to many of the same aspects I appreciated when I first took up a paddle in high school: its low bar of entry, its chatty social quality, and its focus on hand-eye coordination.
In an interview for the website Livability, Judy Hoarfrost, CEO of Paddle Palace Table Tennis, a large North American distributor for sport’s brands, says, “It is a great sport for people to play at any level, from novice to neighborhood champ; to workplace lunchtime play; to local clubs; to organized local, regional, national and international tournaments; all the way to the Olympics. Table tennis builds bridges, creating a way for people to come together over the love of sport.”
Still, when it comes to the explosion of new ping pong clubs opening across the country, these social bridges tend to be narrowly focused on adults with disposable income, singles 21 and over looking to meet and mingle.
And that’s hardly to disparage the trend. At Goric, we are proud to support any recreational outlet that is helping people become more physically active, make friends, and set aside time to play. But we’d also like to invite kids into the act. One of our goals for the year is to take ping pong to the playground. In the spring, we’ll divulge more details about the specific ways we will do this. For now, here’s a sneak peek at some of our innovative new tables. Stay tuned for more to come.