Why Table Tennis is a Horrible Spectator Sport

Thursday, October 29th, 2009
By Arthur Lui

Table Tennis Stadium

Don’t get me wrong, I love table tennis and wish it the best. But there are too many reasons why it doesn’t translate well into a spectator sport for TV or a live audience. It will take a lot to overcome these challenges to eventually thrive in a market like North America where it isn’t already a dominant sport.

The Game is Just Too Fast!

The perfect comparison is regular non-table tennis. In a tennis rally, it takes about 1 full second for the ball to travel from one player’s racket to the other. With so much time between each hit, it’s easy for spectator’s to follow the rally and feel the drama.

In table tennis the ball might have gone back and forth 2-3 times in that same span. For higher level players or people who have been watching professional table tennis for years, it may be easy to follow the action, but for the casual viewer or the couch potato who happened to channel surf to a table tennis match at 2:00am (yes that’s the only time you’ll see table tennis on TV in North America), it all happens in the blink of an eye.

In tennis, when a player wants to perform a drop shot, you can see him running to the net, and you know what he’s going to do long before the stroke is executed. In table tennis, the drop shot is over in a snap. All of that extra time in tennis helps to create the drama as you see the play unfold.

It’s so Complicated

How many spins are there in tennis? Topspin, underspin, and sometimes sidespin. In table tennis? A variety of combinations of topspin, underspin, sidespin, no-spin, and any combination of top- and sidespin or under- and sidespin. And it’s often hard to see what spin it is. This is most prominent during service. The pros will mix all of these spins in their serves, but the untrained eye just sees a slow moving ball, that may or may not curve to a side.

The masses need to be able to know what exactly is happening, and right now that’s not possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love the complexity of the game; it’s every player’s chance to be an individual and create their own styles, but the difficulty in knowing what’s going on takes away from the drama on-screen.

And a lot of the difficult shots look easy. A perfect spinny push deep to the edge that creates a weak return doesn’t look too impressive since it’s a relatively low-speed shot (and not a full-arm kill) so only seasoned players can really appreciate the skill that is on display in a shot like that. Common folk don’t know all of the intricacies of spin and strategies at play and can’t appreciate it on a deep level. I apologize to all you tennis players, but tennis is much simpler and easier to understand.

Short Rallies

With such an offensive game, the rallies have become quite short. A common strategy is the third-ball attack, which simply means give a tricky serve, hope the opponent misreads the spin and pops it up, then kill the next ball. As a player, I can appreciate the strategy behind it and use it often myself, but for spectators it results in rallies that are over far too soon. Attacks these days are too deadly and often unstoppable, so when a ball is open for clear attack, it’s usually game over.

I applaud the ITTF’s attempts to make the sport more spectator-friendly with longer rallies by increasing the ball size from 38mm to 40mm, and banning speed glue, boosters and tuners, though their implementation hasn’t gone as smoothly as planned and may have done more harm than good.

Tennis on the other hand has nice rallies that seem to go on forever, and you often really have to work for your points. One small slip-up from the opponent may open up an attack opportunity, but the point hasn’t been guaranteed. In table tennis, once you pop up a ball close to the net, it’s almost surely lights-out!

The Lack of High-Value Shots

This is a rare characteristic that not many sports have. It would be nice if a point wasn’t always worth just one point.

I’d argue that baseball is the best spectator sport with regards to drama caused by high-value shots. In this year’s MLB playoffs, when the New York Yankees were down by one run in the bottom of the ninth inning against the LA Angels, the suspense was absolutely epic. The masses were glued to their TV sets in anticipation of each pitch. One homerun would totally change the game, and one more strike would end it. It’s hard to create that atmosphere in table tennis. A point is always just a point. Why can’t we have grand slams in table tennis? Are you listening, Adham?

Basketball lies in-between with 2-point and 3-point shots which add some excitement.

China’s Dominance

I guess you can call China the New York Yankees of international table tennis, except that they almost never choke. In any major international tournament, it wouldn’t be unwise to put a bet on a Chinese-vs-Chinese final. With China being the player manufacturer that it is, it’s really hard for any country to compete, unless they want to follow suit and stick a racket in the hand of every newborn. As a Chinese person myself, while I can appreciate China’s strength, it sucks out all the drama from these competitions. Does Jan-Ove Waldner have a son or daughter?

Sex Appeal

In North America, people value athleticism (a hard body) and general sex appeal, both of which are often absent from table tennis players. The current top Chinese players, Ma Lin and Wang Hao, are both quite pudgy. Now I’m not saying that table tennis isn’t an athletic sport, it definitely is, but it doesn’t demand the same physical level that a lot of other sports do, which is why a short and pudgy Chinaman can be the world champion. At least the former world champion is a nice exception:

Wang Liqin

There’s also the issue of short shorts. Usually in North America this increases sex appeal, but not this case.

Anyways, hopefully in 5 years the ITTF will have rectified some of these issues and table tennis will no longer be a basement sport played by drunk college students that have run out of cups for beer pong.

What would make table tennis more marketable in North America?

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Comments

33 Responses to “Why Table Tennis is a Horrible Spectator Sport”

  1. jonathan says:

    probably a stronger argument if you didnt try to bring down tennis….
    perhaps you just need to understand tennis more. heh

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  2. geordie says:

    It’s true. Ping pong needs a revamp in order to survive.

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  3. JimC says:

    I watch alot of tennis-indeed I live a few minutes from one of the top tournaments in the world-the Cincinnati Masters which features all of the top men and now the top women. The game is easy to follow for non-players. The guys are mostly buff and a majority of the women are very cute and wear stuff that accentuates their attractiveness. My wife had never really seen tennis until we married and she became a huge fan. She also went to the 1993 US Open in Indy when I was still playing and watched Batorfi play the world #2 from Taiwan in the ladies event as well as Johnny Huang playing Chen of the USA. She got into it because she had three very good players explaining stuff to her. However, some people in the stands behind us were wondering how good players could miss those “easy serves”. Another problem is television technology. I play squash and while it is easy to follow live, it isn’t all that popular because it too is hard to follow on TV. yet the players are doing everything possible to make squash more spectator friendly. I recently had lunch with two of Australia’s better lady players including Melody Francis. She is quite an attractive young lady and dresses the part and she noted that doing so tends to make her sponsors happy!! Lots of our club (which sponsored the tournament) members-often elder gentlemen who don’t follow squash noted how happy they were we had the event.

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  4. Jeff Plumb says:

    It seems that the one of the biggest problems always mentioned is that Table Tennis is complicated and hard for someone who doesn’t play to appreciate the skill of the players. This makes it kind of a chicken and an egg problem. If Table Tennis was more popular then people would be able to appreciate the skill of the top players and enjoy the game even if it is really fast and has short rallies.

    So perhaps the best thing to do is to promote the game with websites like this and educate people about the intricacies of Table Tennis. It is important to get more people playing but also playing with the correct equipment. If you start to play Table Tennis with a $2 bat, you will never learn about spin. Get people playing and get people educated. Easier said than done I know.

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  5. [...] read the blog “Why Table Tennis Is A Horrible Spectator Sport” the other day. It was a very interesting article and I’ve heard a number of people [...]

  6. Craig Meyer says:

    I think the net height should be raised substantially and the ball weight be increased in table tennis. Players would be forced to put more effort into a stroke to get the ball over the net. Players would have to rely on spin rather than speed to get the ball over the net. That would DEFINITELY slow the game down. And rallies would be longer. I have been playing tab ten for decades and I hate watching it on TV. You just dont get the feel and intensity of a tennis match.

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    • Arthur Lui says:

      I agree raising the net would help. That is guaranteed to slow the game down. If you try to restrict the materials used in the blades and rubbers, the manufacturers will eventually come up with the same effect using legal materials (the way tensors have matched the speed of speed glue). But the net problem cannot be overcome except with new technique, and even then I don’t think it’s possible.

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      • Ola Ågren says:

        The problem with raising the net is that the loop would go from being the *best* weapon to being the *only* weapon available… Increasing the ball size to 40mm have already decreased the relative strength of blocking and chopping to the point of near extinction at the top levels, the few really good players that are not loopers are there partly *despite* of their styles.
        A few years ago they tested using a lowered net in a Pro tournament, and the two players in the finals were the two choppers in the tournament.

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        • Arthur Lui says:

          Hmm, I’m surprised that a lower net would favour choppers more than attackers. I thought a low net means you can blast any shot more easily. Why exactly does a low net help choppers?

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          • Ola Ågren says:

            My take on it is that the choppers could chop more aggressively and still get the ball onto the table… You’re increasing the target for all type of shots, but the effect might be more obvious the less top spin there is to help pull the ball onto the table. Moreover, a faster and flatter chop is something that most players are simply not used to and this might have surprised the other players. So, while a looper could still play the same game as he or she normally would against another looper, it would be another thing completely when the balls are coming with a truckload of backspin but unusually aggressive. Just my 2 öre… Eh, pennies… Oh, cents… Hmm, parts per hundreds of the monetary unit of your choice. :)

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  7. MLMC says:

    Ive been playing table tennis is a league for only half a season but i can already follow the proffesionals’ games with understanding, which considerably increases my enjoyment of it. The nice thing about tt as opposed to t is that emulating the proffesionals genuinely helps your play, whereas I, despite being a good tennis player, have to play with totally different tactics to all the top t players. I also dont really agree that a tt match lack the intensity. “a point is always just a point” is not really a fair assessment. At 9-9, there is no question that a point is more important than at 0-0. I’msure that anyone who plays the game will agree with this. However, the flow ofbalance of advantage in a match which one feels shifting when laying is invisible eve to the most experienced observer.

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  8. MLMC says:

    Good comment about playing with cheap paddles. I find it extraordinarily frustrating to play against those with to view to improve. Whilst sport is recreational, as the standard increases, so does the involvement and therefore the sense of fulfillment.

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  9. Jonan says:

    It’s just too fast…too short. If you want it to be easier to watch, it’d have to be a slightly bigger table or a bigger ball, in other words, make it more like tennis…really, what else can you do? You can make the tables slower, but that can only do too much, but should be a obvious given to slow the game down, regulate how fast and how reactive to spin the tables are, THAT way they cant tune or alter or go around it…maybe not bigger but heavier ball? I dunno…make them fuzzy?

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    • Arthur Lui says:

      Essentially we need to make the table bigger, like the size of a tennis court. And make the ball big and fuzzy, like a tennis ball. So essentially we need to make it exactly like tennis. That would be the easy solution.

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  10. Jackson says:

    I must respectfully disagree with many points made in this post and the comments. Before we go making any drastic changes to the sport, we should examine how table tennis is being perceived by the public. There are many sports that have one or more aspects similar to table tennis that still enjoy high popularity. Poker for example, whilst not a sport, has overcome significant negative social stigmas to become what it is today.
    I made a relevant post on my blog http://primetimepingpong.tumblr.com/post/1487621252/how-we-can-all-increase-the-popularity-of-table-tennis
    Please let me know what you think.

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    • gigantes says:

      @jackson,
      agree with your general sentiment while not finding much purchase in your examples. to wit- poker already had all the mechanisms in place to be a breakout game before the film “rounders.” mostly what it needed was a little star-power and a little exposure. meanwhile, i don’t believe that TT currently has the fundamental mechanisms in place to reach the level of something like texas hold’em or tennis. you can make all the “balls of fury” movies you want, have susan sarandon open a nationwide chain of clubs, etc… it just won’t matter. the current game is incredibly technical while mostly unable to translate the vast depth of that technique to the casual viewer / player. it remains a great game for the basement while far too frustrating to lure most people in to higher-level play. then you have tennis, with its enormous inherent advantages, as arthur lui stated. or poker’s enormous inherant advantages, such as gambling and financial components, far greater luck per hand / point for a noobie to take shelter in, and far greater profile and ’sexiness’ involved. indeed, a huge part of the wildfire success of THE involves the ridiculous ease in which know-nothing players can get involved in full-bore high-stakes games, both online and in casinos… and feel like bigshots, even as they’re losing heavily.

      re: references to the chinese system in your blog,
      IMO there’s a lot more involved in the success of the chinese than i suspect you are aware of. not trying to be condescending because i’m mostly in the same boat, but articles like larry hodges ’secrets of the chinese’ (can’t remember exact title, but it’s at his site) do a very nice job of laying out many of the critical advantages beyond the well-known ones, such as population size, early identification, and so forth…

      in short, i believe that all efforts to grow the game of TT, no matter how clever and sound in basis, are going to be minimally effective until the mechanisms of the game are fundamentally changed. these go back to things mentioned in this article and in other places, such as ball size, net height, quality of the rubbers, etc. (i’d hate to see the table get much bigger, since many of us with tables in our homes are working with limited space to begin with)

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  11. emm says:

    This is a well thought blog. To contribute, we can increase the number of spectator by increasing the number of player. Only those who play table tennis will have a deep understanding of table tennis. We don’t need to implement drastic change on how the game is played. TT is a beautiful sport and has a lot of drama ( for the players ). Imagine having to adjust your technic with different opponent ( pips, anti, inverted, OX ). Imagine the frustration of failing to return every serve or spin reversal for failing to read the spin.

    One way to increase the number of player is to promote TT as a form of keeping yourself healthy. And its a cheap sport! ( minus the EJ ). At our club, people are joining to reap the benefit of improving your health. Its very easy to set up playing venue for table tennis. We just need to promote the sport more.

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  12. Minor says:

    I think that the sport is good as it is if the people keep doing things for do tt more popular its just gonna get this GREAT and if they raise the ball weight or table size its gonna be a big mistake because no much peoeple is not gone note that and its gonna be the same people but a diferent game

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  13. sathyaganesh says:

    arthur you are 100% correct. maybe this game needs some changes to increase the number of rallies and also make the spectators understand the nuances of the game in a much easier way. probably the small playing area demands more tricky skills and then comes consistency i.e..there is no use of being consistent with your shorts after a point of time. you have got to be consistent with your tricks. it would be nice if ittf comes out with beautiful plan so that a lot of amateur players can turn out to be professionals in a short period of time(this game requires a lot of time to at least play at a decent level)

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  14. Tom says:

    Slower rubbers can increase the number of rallies. ITTF should ban rubbers that are faster than a certain limit. Then it will be nice for the spectators to the enjoy the game as more balls could be blocked and top spin to top spin rallies which spectators enjoy most can continue longer than it usually does. Give all the pros slow rubbers. No fast rubbers allowed and see how great this game becomes

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  15. Joe Bobigale says:

    While ma lin and wang hao do look pudgy, they probably have massive quads which are required to move at the speeds they do. If you have ever tried doing multi-ball, you will know what I mean.
    The physical demand required for pingpong is mainly in the training for speed.
    By the way, all members of the Chinese National Team are required to be able to do 100 consecutive double unders with skipping rope. Only Chuck Norris would think that is not “physically demanding”. Also, the members of the Chinese National Team, to build leg strength ascended the 100 flights of stairs of a 440 metre building. They did this in less than 30 minutes.

    Source for the information on the skipping and stair ascending thing (in Chinese):
    http://sports.qq.com/a/20120403/000024_4.htm

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  16. rudai says:

    To promote TT on TV, I think we need some elements of marketing, making the game looks dramatic for the watchers. For example, prompt on the screen information of ball speed when players make point, or ball rotation speed when player doing serve. But this of course need high technology implementation. The principle is almost the same with motoGP or Formula 1. By putting small camera on the vehicle and prompt on the screen some valuable information, tv watchers can feel how intense the racing is. So, no need to make TT to be looks like tennis.

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  17. praveen raj says:

    Chess, table tennis and similar games have very less drama on the court. The humor, emotions, anger, frustration and the drama are all very much present in high profile sport like Tennis, Football, Cricket and Basket ball. I do not know much about other sports, but in Indian sub-continent, the game of cricket is no longer played for skill display (an open secret) but to create drama like reality shows. Here the team is not asked to WIN but to perform to the galleries (Huge money in betting and sponsorship). This way it attracts maximum viewership that not only swells the stadium but create huge TRP ratings on TV. Indian cricket board has successfully converted a sporting competition into a viable commercial venture.

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  18. Neal Griffin says:

    The (1 camera) over-head camera work used in most TV coverage is boreing. It displays the quickness of the players but not much of anything else. What’s needed is two side angle shots slightly higher than the table to show the projectory of the ball. Slow motion replays on critical points would help also. Anybody with two cheap camcorders can do it. Why can’t these professionals figure that out.

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  19. Dan says:

    I feel that people tend to watch, or follow sports they play, or played in the past. When you play the sport, you are interested in it. Obviously there are fans who have never played the sport they love to watch. I hated watching golf, until I started to play it, and in turn understand the difficulty of it. People can’t appreciate a skill that they don’t understand. A sport can be fast, and still be a great spectator sport. Hockey for example, is extremely fast, but it is a widely watched sport. People love team sports, there something about them that makes them much more entertaining. People can relate to the dynamic of a team. As much as I would love TT to be a main sport in North America, I just don’t think it will ever happen! But I am a realist.

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  20. Tamara says:

    Why change something that’s already great simply to please the masses? Most people aren’t going to be able to appreciate “intricacies” of any kind unless their minds are altready wired for that. Part of the charm of table tennis is that it’s different, and very much a brain sport that requires a cunning and creative mind. Enjoy and revel in being part of a unique “tribe.” Who cares if people want to watch it on tv or not! Table Tennis will always be the coolest sport

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  21. Ganesh KM says:

    TT is not a game for watching, it is a game to be played. I love playing TT, I never liked to watch it on TV. I mostly browse the ytube for learning techniques. Of course, i get awed by the speed of the game, and the spins the pros generate, but this is not enough to make my kids enjoy it. TT is very much a mind oriented game too. It needs extremely fast reflex, very good eyesight, mental stamina more than physical stamina, eye-hand co-ordination. A spectator who don’t know much of this would never be able to appreciate it.

    I now-and-then take Citrizine tablet for my allergy problem, and next day i would never be able to win watches as i lose eye-hand co-ordination. By the time i try to touch a ball, it would have already surpassed me. All in fractions of seconds. It needs extreme precision than lawn tennis. If lawn tennis needs precision in centimeters, TT needs in microns. How can a spectator view the micron-level precision and appreciate it?

    Overall, i liked this topic a lot and came to know that there are many who feel like me ;)

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  22. Krishna says:

    Table Tennis is a game of absolute concentration and quick reflexes. If a game needs to be compared then lets compare it with Baseball. For most of the Asians, baseball is a “Dont know what they are doing” game. Unless you play a sport u cant enjoy watching it. Ask any North American or South American to watch a Cricket match.
    Ask the same people to watch a Football / Soccer, they would love it. It is not because it has spectacular shots or anything, its just because u know the game and you enjoy playing or watching it.
    Start playing it regularly and you will love it. Accepted that it is not a high profile (wrt money) game like cricket, golf, baseball or football, but it needs qualities that other sports cant give / dont need. :)

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  23. Eduardo says:

    For a player it is fascinating to watch. The game is horrible only for a non-player spectator. TV is not the solution but the result of making our sport popular. Looking at the cons will never get us anywhere. I have been playing TT for over 50 years and for me the rewards are more than enough to make me wish to die playing it. Too fast? too complicated? When you start discovering table tennis you start discovering and developing aptitudes within you for handling speed and intricacies of movements that you never thought you had. People need to know that. What situation in life will make you solve a “complicated” move so “fast”? The rallies too short? You will find new ways to land the ball one more time and you will have escalated one more step in your own physical development otherwise unknown in your regular life. What we need is to be more friendly towards those who are afraid to learn it assuming it is “impossible” for them. Yes, it is good for your your physical and mental health and it is entertaining and it is easier to find a space for a TT board than a Tennis court.

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  24. roger lee says:

    It’s not that hard to make table tennis better. Just increase table size and height by like 50%. Make the ball heavier too so that the game is not so fast and has more rallies.

    The double’s play in table tennis is simple a joke with the current table size.

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  25. Mo says:

    As a club player I don’t think any more changes are needed to the game. Changing net height, ball/ table size or equipment will put off most players as it will make the game unrecognisable and take away the pure skill required to be a good player. As a 31 year old who plays twice a week I have been beaten by an 83 year old who used tactics and a pimpled rubber. The game also has a mental and tactical aspect which experienced players can use to control their opponents. The speed of the game has shown positive effects on the brain which reduces degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and the number of players who are 80+ suggest that the sport is fine the way it is. How many 80 years olds can play a competitive game of tennis?

    Coaching younger players is the best way to improve the sports appeal as it teaches kids from a young age to play the game with the technical ability of the pros. There are many videos on YouTube showing how young kids are playing the game to a very high technical standard. To argue that the ITTF need to slow or change the game fundamentally to accommodate those with no coaching or years of playing the game is therefore laughable after watching these kids play. There is a five year old kid at my club who can hardly see over the table and plays such a nice game that make many of the previous comments embarrassing.

    It is a sign of the times that so many people are calling for a sport to change to meet the inadequacies of an incompetent uninformed population. Should we make chess easier so more people can play or watch it on tv? Of course not. We may have to accept that not all sport may meet the 1000 tv stations world we live in today and I’m fine with that. I would much rather have a small audience that understands the game and it’s intricacies, than a large audience who don’t have clue about a dumbed down version of the game.

    Please watch ittf tv online and see the pros playing, watch instructional videos such as pingskills online, go down to your local club, pay for some coaching and see your game improve. Take your kids with you and see their game and confidence improve leaps and bounds and keep the bar high for the sport.

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  26. nitrolooper says:

    No question, Table Tennis is loved by all the people above (just like me, who loves this sport). The spins, loops, chops, service, CHOs… etc. To quickly go to the point, any sport becomes big when it connects with status symbols and therefore sells lots of goods such as athletic equipment (shoes, shirts, etc). This is what pays professional athletes and makes a sport visible. Before anyone starts to talk about side spins, pendulum serves and chiquita returns, have you thought about GOLF !?! Watching golf may be discussed in another topic, but for sure what makes it SO HUGE is the fact that the sport has a connection with an ELITE society, therefore everyone wants to look like those (as it makes them feel important), in turn, large corporations such as ADIDAS and NIKE just to name a couple, will cash in on “US” people that want to make others believe that we (anyone) ARE ALSO THE ELITE !! We do this all the time when we buy the so called BRAND names. It is all about selling the goods. Table Tennis has never been associated (at least lately) with an elite society, hence, big companies will not invest on it that much and the game looses visibility …. unlike GOLF !! (BTW I do not take anything away from the game of golf, you need to practice just as much as you do in TT to be good at it and it’s also extremely technically complicated).

    If these large corporations would invest on Table Tennis for real, this would make professional players richer and attract other people, just like in a snowball effect. The poor would strive to become the super stars of today and play table tennis, to become the next Samsonov, or whatever name you want to use. Just like Neymar, who he is now playing for the Brazilian soccer (football) team and Barcelona FC and making a wealthy living, but he was not part of the rich and famous he just loved a sport that associates itself with grandiosity through time.
    I would thank Susan Sarandon (top actress) who loves and believes in Table Tennis who tries very hard with other very well known superstars to make this sport more visible and make it attractive to everyone and get media attention. Then, of course, the ITTF tries as best as they can with PRO Tours to make it a marketable sport, this can with time bring more investors and consequently more TV time ! In the meantime, promote this sport with anyone you know.
    PS I love this game !

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  27. ed says:

    I know a few guys who only watch women’s tennis. Why? Sex sells. China is trying to improve things by getting the women to wear skirts. I think it’s a move in the right direction. Of course, the number one attraction, Kasumi Ishikawa, is still dressing the same as the men. Also, a few more characters are needed, like Michal Maze, who smash an occassional racket and kick the table. I like Arthur’s comment about the action being too fast. When I watch, I often concentrate on just one of the players, as otherwise it’s too quick to take things in.

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