Why hasn't Table Tennis hasn't taken off in the US?
Quick, Complex and Confusing
For the casual spectator, watching table tennis can be an often bemusing experience: two people hitting a ball across the table from one another very quickly until, after a few seconds, one of them fails to return a shot.
The speed of table tennis points means there is little time to build up tension, such as you'd get in tennis rally for instance. Instead, table tennis points are often over in a blur of action with many points lasting only three hits: of serve, return and then the winning shot.
Too Fast..Too Small For Most Audience
The small size of the playing surface also makes the game notoriously difficult to follow. In tennis, for instance, the size of the court leads to exhilarating points where a player charges to the net in an attempt to meet a drop shot, or in soccer where a well crafted move from defense to attack can amaze even the most casual of viewers. Yet, in table tennis, good technique is focused on the spin of the ball, which to the uninitiated appears to be no more than a slow lazy ball which the opponent finds bizarrely difficult to return.
In reality, such a shot requires incredible levels of skill to execute since the player must perfectly time the spin on the ball, obscuring their intentions from their opponent and thus leaving them unable to effectively stop the ball.
Indeed, this is table tennis's very charm: the intricacies of its play make it a delight to watch for those who understand it. However, for the casual viewer such intricacies go unnoticed and as such it does not, as yet, appeal to a wide audience.
Table Tennis Has an Image Problem in the US
In the US, you are most likely to come across professional table tennis when channel skipping at two in the morning, and perhaps you've played a few shots in a friend's basement or local community centre, but the sport has hardly taken off in the US.
In many ways, the sport has an image problem.
It's unfairly acquired a stereotype as a sport for geeks, and when Conan O'Brien tweeted during the 2012 London Olympics that: "Athletes at the Olympics are being issued 15 condoms each. Or as the men’s table tennis players put it, ‘14 condoms too many'" it perhaps symbolised the wider way in which the sport is perceived in the US.
Indeed, the first image many may have when thinking of table tennis is Forrest Gump!
The Way Forward
Public perceptions are relatively easy to change, and perhaps what most stands in the way of table tennis achieving mainstream appeal in the US is the fact that the nation has no table tennis sporting heroes to name of.
The sport has been included in the summer Olympics since 1988 and yet America has failed to take home a single medal in that time. Instead, the Chinese have dominated the sport; Chairman Mao even declared it a national sport. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, for instance, China took home all available Gold medals.
National sporting heroes generate interest and buzz in sports that many would not have paid any attention to before. Look at Michael Phelps in swimming for instance, or Lance Armstrong in cycling before his legacy was ruined by the doping scandal.
These world-beating athletes brought a new appeal to sports that haven't traditionally attracted huge followings - look at the effect the US three big annual table tennis tournaments recently has had!
Sporting heroes also bring in advertising, which subsequently brings in money, which in turn is spent to generate interest in the sport. Table tennis therefore needs to focus on producing a new generation of talented new players who can take on the Chinese and therefore generate new excitement around the sport.
A Bright Future Ahead
Happily, there appear to be many signs that the sport is attracting more players. There are now three big annual table tennis tournaments in the US: the US Nationals and the US Open each bring in around 800 players a year, whilst the North American Teams Championship attracts thousands of players!
Table Tennis also seems to be growing at a social level, a crucial ladder on the path to national success, with table tennis specific bars such as Spin bringing new people into the game.
More than a Sport - Bringing People Together
However, away from the glitz and the glamour of the Olympic games, prime time television slots and national heroes, table tennis can play a vital role in bringing people together, young and old of all levels of experience.
You can put several tables in a community hall, for instance, and its low-impact, non-contact playing style means that it's a viable sport for the elderly and those with disabilities. By developing table tennis at these grassroots levels, it can not only bring people together, but also keep people of all ages and abilities fit and healthy.
In many ways, table tennis is a paradoxical sport. Its simplicity makes it easy to pick up and play and thus draw in new players and yet its intricacies, complexities and speed of play at the elite level means it is difficult for the casual spectator to fully appreciate the game. However, it is those very qualities that has seen the game grow a dedicated fan base across the world, and particularly in Europe and Asia.
Table tennis will likely never challenge the "big sports" in the US of football, baseball and basketball - but as the sport increases in popularity it will almost certainly bring in new admirers of its fascinating playing style.