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.
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.
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?
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:
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.