From straddles to paddles

Table tennis is one of the fastest growing activities in America and Robert Blackwell, Jr., a Chicagoan, former options trader and entrepreneur is capitalizing on its growth.

“It’s a sport and a game,” says Blackwell founder of Killerspin, a high-end table tennis equipment manufacturer. After stints as an options trader, working at IBM and in the diamond business, Blackwell seems to have found his niche in, of all things, table tennis (or Ping-Pong).

Blackwell, an options trader during the 1980s who focused on technical analysis, says he developed an ability to spot market tops. He  was on the trading floor during the crash of 1987, and in  2000, Blackwell was concerned the stock market could be nearing another significant turning point. While it is an often repeated cliché,  his fears of a market top were confirmed  when a taxi driver gave him some stock advice.

Thinking the market had peaked; Blackwell decided to diversify his business portfolio into the public sector and sponsored the Chicago Ping Pong Festival. Chicago put out 300 table tennis tables across Chicago and wherever the tables were, there were lines of people waiting to play.

Table tennis has clearly moved beyond the fun game you may have played in your neighbors’ basement, into a cultural trend among young millennials who are joining leagues and turning it into a social experience.

“People need natural experiences and table tennis is an accessible sport that is a part of American culture as an activity,” says Blackwell. “Table tennis is trending because it bonds people together.”

“There are two big trends in the world, the digitization of everything and the rebellion against the digitization of everything,” says Blackwell, who believes people need to “unplug” themselves and do something fun, something physical.

Last year the company had its first annual World “UnPlugNPlay Day,” presenting a luxury Killerspin Revolution SVR Bianco table ($4,500) to Pope Francis with his insignia on it at the Vatican.

Killerspin plays a major role in promoting table tennis on mainstream platforms like ESPN, Fox Sports and the Tennis channel, and works with professional athletes, like baseball and hockey players, to improve their hand-eye coordination.

Obviously you don’t have to be a world class athlete to be good at table tennis, but Killerspin welcomes the exposure.

Perhaps an even bigger factor, and opportunity, is that table tennis is the national sport of the world’s faster growing economic behemoth, China.

China has been the most successful nation in Olympic table tennis, winning 53 medals. Since 1992, Chinese players have won at least one medal in every event. According to the global market research company Technavio, table tennis is most popular in the Asia-Pacific region with more than 350 million players in 2015. The sport is growing as a recreational pastime in the United States, with 17 million players in 2015, as compared to less than 15 million in 2006. Even in the UK, more than two million people had played recreational table tennis in 2015.

The increasing popularity of table tennis as a recreational sport in many developed countries like the United States portends a boost in sales of the equipment market, which is expected to reach $649.6 million by 2020,  a compound annual growth rate of more than 2%.

Killerspin luxury products have been featured in high-profile TV programs and professional table tennis player BiBa Golic is the product developer for Killerspin. She’s appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.

Killerspin has been manufacturing table tennis equipment since 2002. Its signature table, the Killerspin Revolution SVR ($2,700) is self-titled as the No. 1 selling table tennis table in the world, and has been featured in numerous movies, magazines and television commercials including a spot during Super Bowl XLIX.

The company recreated all the imagery around table tennis; from the way its events are staged, the clothes people wear and equipment to create the luxury category and media space for table tennis. Killerspin is branded to promote the entire lifestyle package surrounding this emerging trend, not just as a seller of equipment.

The company has hosted some of the largest table tennis events ever held in the United States, including the Chicago International Table Tennis Festival, Extreme Table Tennis Championship and others. Killerspin’s goal is to have a Killerspin paddle in every hand.