By Barry Janoff
December 8, 2014: Table tennis is not just an activity played on a 9 x 5 foot surface found in basements, recreational halls and retirement homes.
Yes, that was Arnold Schwarzenegger playing table tennis in a Super Bowl "Epic Night" commercial for Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light, and Rob Lowe's scrawny arms counterpart watching table tennis for DirecTV and Venus and Serena Williams duking it out in a spot over a game of table tennis for the Apple iPhone 5.
Table tennis has been a competitive sport in the Olympics since 1988, with China the defending men's and women's team champions going into the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In the U.S. alone, there are more than 17 million table tennis participants, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. (For the record, table tennis is the name of the sport, and Ping-Pong is a federally registered trademark developed by Parker Brothers and now owned by Escalade Sports indicating a brand of equipment used to play the sport of table tennis.)
Over the past year, table tennis has been featured in several high-profile marketing campaigns, including Bud Light's "Up for Whatever," DirecTV with Rob Lowe, Kraft's Lunchables, KR Agilus's KUKA Robot versus table tennis master Timo Boli and Fitbit’s Full Body Activity Trackers.
Last year, in addition to the Williams Sisters' spot, a regular guy became a table tennis master after using 5-Hour Energy and Nike showed that playing table tennis was among the "Possibilities" along with running a marathon, playing soccer and entering a MMA event in a "Just Do It" campaign.
Table tennis has also become a key part of the world of professional athletes.
Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who last month became the first National League player since Bob Gibson in 1968 to be named both the Cy Young and MVP winner in the same season, oversees Kershaw's Challenge, a foundation that aids underprivileged kids. Included is an annual event, "Ping-Pong 4 Purpose," which invovles other athletes who compete not just to raise money and awareness but for table tennis bragging rights.
For the past two years, Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers has hosted an NBA Charity Ping-Pong Tournament (pictured above) to raise funds to enhance and promote education, health, sports and social responsibility for youth and families. That event is run under the auspices of the Chris Paul Foundation and non-profit group TopSpin.
Since 2009, TopSpin, a subsidiary of brand and business consultancy FoxRock Partners, has used table tennis to raise millions to support education and sports programs via a network of non-profit groups nationwide.
From 2001-2010, Peter Farnsworth, founder and CEO of New York-based FoxRock, was svp-global business development for the NBA, working on NBA, WNBA, NBA Development League and USA Basketball partnerships with such companies as Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Haier, BBVA Group, Taco Bell, Right Guard, adidas, T-Mobile and Bacardi. Prior to that, he spent ten years as an executive with sports management firm ProServ/SFX.
In addition to Las Vegas, TopSpin organizes events in Chicago and San Francisco. But the longest-running one is held in New York, where on Dec. 10 the sixth annual TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong Tournament will take place (in Manhattan's Metropolitan Pavilion). Among others who have participated are Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle and Mavs all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki.
TopSpin support has come from the NBA, MLB, NFL, WWE, Turner Sports, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, Madison Square Garden, Excel Sports Management (which represents the likes of Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and Taylor Swift); and such NBA teams as the New York Knicks, Nets and Philadelphia 76ers.
Among the sports legends invited to this year's event: Carl Banks, Larry Johnson, John Starks, Pearl Washington and current WNBA star Elena Delle Donne.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Farnsworth about the influence that pro athletes have in cause marketing, the pros and challenges facing the NBA in its global growth and using table tennis to help bring education and sports to underprivileged kids.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What were the challenges in getting the TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong Tournament started?
Peter Farnsworth: Ping-Pong itself wasn't the challenge. Once you mention Ping-Pong, people's faces light up. They have very fond feelings toward the sport, which goes back to the days when they were kids and would play the game against family and friends and have a great time.
NYSJ: Does that feeling still hold true?
PF: With TopSpin, certainly there is that fun factor and casual competition to see who is better now that they are adults. But there are other levels, with athletes and others coming in who either have or want to compete at a higher level.
The goal is two-fold: One is to bring together people from across the sports community and industry,. But most important, we want to do some good things to support education and non-profit groups that are working to support underserved communities. So the marketing challenge is to ensure in the mind's eye of people that they see it as a fun, competitive, industry-driven Ping-Pong tournament but to also break through that and to get the message across about why we are doing what we are doing.
NYSJ: Are you finding more doors opening and more companies, executives and athletes coming to you to be part of a TopSpin event, and people who were there wanting to come back?
PF: We are. Our rate of return is very high. People who have been involved want to continue to be involved. This is the result of a lot of people coming together to build a strong event that has specific goals and objectives. It is a different type of a fund-raiser. You're not sitting at a table in a big room listening to people asking you for donations. People enjoy what we have put together, but they also enjoy the competitiveness of it. Sports people by nature are competitive, and they get a real kick out of being competitive in this activity. It has been getting a little easier each year, which has a lot to do with how the event itself is growing and the word-of-mouth people are getting from those who have participated.
"People who have been involved want to continue to be involved. This is a reflection of a lot of people coming together to build a strong event."
NYSJ: What is the most important way that the TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong Tournament has grown since you started it?
PF: This began back during my time in the NBA when Emilio Collins (now evp-global marketing partnerships for the NBA), Mark Tatum (now NBA deputy commissioner and COO) and I were joking about who was the better Ping-Pong player. I was the one who was maybe a bit reckless and said, 'Let's get our friends together and have a tournament.' So it started with some friendly banter. Now we are looking at our sixth event in New York, and events in Chicago, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Now it is people getting other people and sponsors involved. What's most gratifying is how the people across the industry come together to give back. No one needs to be a sponsor of TopSpin. But for so many others, they are very quick to say yes. They want to give back. They get the broader purpose behind all of it.
NYSJ: It sounds as if when you moved on from the NBA to start FoxRock Partners that you took your Rolodex with you and still have some contacts.
PF: (Laughs.) A couple. There is a whole network of people such as Emilio Collins, Mark Tatum, Tandy O'Donoghue (evp-strategy & analytics for the WWE). I'll get e-mails from then every few days about new sponsors who want to become involved. Scott O'Neil (CEO for the Philadelphia 76ers), Jim O'Connell (chief sales officer) at Nascar, David Wright (svp-global sponsorship) at MLS and Kathy Carter (president) at Soccer United Marketing. Brett Yormark (CEO for the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center) says yes every year. to marketing partnerships. Dori Silverman (area vice president of field execution for Coca-Cola). Jon Diament (evp-Turner Sports). Jeff Schwartz (president and founder for Excel Sports Management). This is not about Peter Farnsworth's charity event. This is about a community coming together. There are so many key people who are really involved in getting the message out.
NYSJ: Are you finding that athletes are also taking it to another level, wanting to defend their title, showing they are the best Ping-Pong player in their respective sport or among their group of athletes and friends?
PF: Absolutely. We don't just attract people from the business community. We get current pro athletes, former pro athletes, who see the give-back part of what we are doing but also look at the competitive side, the fun side and the bragging rights sides of a charity-driven event. TopSpin partnered with Chris Paul for the event in Las Vegas and brought in a group of NBA guys. He loves the fact that he has won it two years in a row. He is so competitive that he boasted both years that he practiced to get ready not just to compete but win the event. Deron Williams came out, and he's a competitive guy. Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki are both great players. When you get into it as I have, you find out who some of the great players are. Andre Drummond (of the Detroit Pistons) and his agent were in town this past summer for a USA Basketball event and he was talking to me about the TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong tournament and expressed interest. So it's gratifying for me to see the momentum building, the brand building.
NYSJ: At FoxRock Partners, are your relationships domestic, international, or both?
PF: Both. We are advising the buyers and working on their behalf to build their marketing partnerships, strategies, business development. Once you've been a seller, you enjoy being a buyer. (Laughs.) You know where the sellers are coming from and we do a good job of advising the buyers.
NYSJ: With more American companies getting involved with international sports, soccer and the English Premier League, for example, will we see more of this importing of sports into the U.S.?
PF: Not just soccer. Formula 1. The rugby game (in Chicago) in November between the U.S.A. Rugby and New Zealand's All-Black was sold out with more than 61,000, and it was broadcast by NBC Sports. Everywhere you look you see the importing of sports, You see that with brands, too. International brands building their businesses here and vice versa. When I was at the NBA, we were actively partnering with brands looking at what we could do not just in the local market, but also how we could work with endemic brands and partner with them in other geographic locations. Those multi-national partnerships, nobody does it better than the NBA. The structure is well set-up for that, from the top down, especially with them build and expanding offices around the world.
NYSJ: And as far as the 2014 TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong Tournament, do you expect to see a lot of competitive action among the players?
PF: I've been told that they are ready to have fun and claim the crown! (Registration details here.)
TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong Tournament Photos courtesy FoxRock Partners/TopSpin