Table Tennis in the Schools

March 26, 2007

By Masaaki Tajima, Certified National Level Coach


In last year’s table tennis magazine, the editor asked some coaches in the U.S., what priorities and things need to take place for U.S. to become competitive in the world arena, and I gave my answer. I also mentioned, there is another big problem we have to address but I did not have the time and space to elaborate on this subject; the nature of our sport. I will cover it here along with the reprint of the question to coaches.


When I first started playing this sport some 37 years ago, I never really looked at the “medium” of table tennis and realized how difficult it is to market it in this country. With all the mainstream and diverse sports available to the public, why would anybody get interested in table tennis as a sport? Here is a sport, where two people are hitting a small ball back and forth on a 5’x9’ table, even at higher levels, doesn’t seem like an activity that will enthrall the public interest to the point of a national rage. And it hasn’t. It is only at the highest levels the public notices, usually by chance encounter, the dynamics and drama associated with all sports. But these exposures are far too small and inadequate to get the public moving to find their ping pong rackets and head to a nearest local club, if they can find it. 


I mentioned our “product” is a hard sell and sustainable world-class status will not come in my lifetime. So when and what will it take to get us to world-class status? Is it with management of our association? If so, if we didn’t make a breakthrough in the last 60 years with all levels of management, what are the chances it will happen in the next twenty years? Good management would certainly help but the big picture is, even if we have competent professional leaders with no ax to grind, no conflict of interest, with integrity and real management skill, passion for the sport, plus with unimaginable string of luck culminated by a native (It must be home grown) Olympic or World Champion, we will get our market share for the moment as we did during the Ping-Pong Diplomacy of 1971, but not sustainable and to the level of marquee status.


The Big Problem: Nature of Our Sport


The growth that we seek that will give us the stature and legitimacy, the sense of pride and not stigma associating with the sport, will not happen anytime soon even with good management and a World Champion. There are too many historical, cultural and current intangibles that we may never be able to overcome. This sounds like a negative outlook but I believe this is a realistic assessment. With realistic assessment, we know where we are at and have clarity of direction to pursue realistic achievable goals within our niche and reach respectable world-class standing. 


Image Problem


Our sport started as a pastime, a game to be played recreationally and socially and grew in the early 1920-40’s when major suppliers like Sears Department Stores marketed it ostensibly as a game. But as with other games, out of millions of weekend garage hackers, a handful saw it as a sport to be taken seriously but the stigma that table tennis is merely a game or a toy, (Marketed also by Parker Brother’s Toy Company), that can be disregarded as less than recreational sport, was already ingrained in the publics and therefore in the markets mind.   


Geography and Size


This perception and our geography further exacerbates our problem; the size of our country in comparison to other countries. The major American sports, where nearly all-talented athletes gravitate to are all big in nature; football, basketball, baseball, and even individual glamour sports like golf and tennis are larger in nature. We take it for granted and perhaps arrogantly, that size equals prominence, stature and prestige. Our houses, roads, buildings, cars and even our desired image as a people are bigger than others. A sport that is small in nature is relegated as a game even thought all major American sports in essence are also a game. Because these major American sports are primarily spectator sports with historical school and community grassroots infrastructure dating back similarly back in the 1900th century, it became good business and grown to glamour status that appeals to sponsors and marketers becoming part of our daily culture. As an example, in some mid-western United States, football is not just big business; it is life.




Furthermore, the largeness of our country is a major logistical and cost problem for table tennis, for both players ability to train seriously with others who are talented and like-minded, and organizers who needs to get them together in leagues, tournaments and training sessions, to have any chance of producing world-class players that will have positive influence for the image of table tennis in this country.


In comparison, both Europe and in Asia, the countries are smaller and in close proximity with each other requiring less travel time and more accessible to top players, coaches, facilities and events. The close proximity of these countries also promotes healthy club, city and nationalistic rivalries that promote major companies to compete to sponsor them. Sports such as soccer, basketball, hockey, golf and tennis which require far larger amounts of space, is less available to the European and Asian masses, which are owned primarily by private companies and available mostly to upper income classes who can afford it, making table tennis more attractive.




The solution for us is to regionalize and form similar rivalries among our regions, to make us smaller, because our country is too big and too spread out. We were on the right track as some regional programs was tried in the early 90’s to plant the seeds for regionalization but could not develop the concept to fruit because of constant revolving door of directors and Board Members with conflict of interest, bad contracts, reinventing the wheel wasting resources and losing key personnel, never got the concept into building blocks.


In the meantime, we are constantly losing talent share. Talented kids, who are not big physically, who cannot compete in major American sports, are attracted to more exciting countless new games and sports that have exploded into national and international scene. This is a major problem we must address. Even if we substantially increase our membership, if we don’t have talented kids to work with, having the best coaches, facilities and programs, all will be in vain. The reality is, we are stuck with what we have to work with and only by accident, luck, or by immigration, a few talented kids are introduced to the sport.  This is not a business plan. It is merely an open store with a sign and hope that customers will walk in.  Moreover, relying on Olympic funding and other charitable endowments will only keep us in this quandary and subject to their rule and dictum and may not be in our overall interest. Like the U.S. railroads and municipal transportation systems, it is waiting to collapse if not for government subsidies. Sooner or later, these subsidies will disappear as they see us as a liability and an irrelevant product.


The realities of the nature of our sport, doesn’t mean we are forever stuck in the cellar and belong there.  It only dictates that for the foreseeable future, table tennis will not grow to a marquee status in this country and we should approach it as a developable niche- attaining 80,000 or more membership is realistic. With this kind of numbers to work with, the first step towards building an infrastructure to sustainable world-class status is possible. But with less than 8.000 memberships after so many decades of existence, we are not even at the beginning of building an infrastructure. To overcome the problem of the nature of our sport is to increase the talent share and membership, like the development of all major American sports from the beginning, to get the sport into the schools where the kids are first introduced to variety of sport activities, and history and tradition becoming part of the community. For decades, why the Boards have not made this a national program and policy is a mystery to me.