What's a gigantic beer company to do when the recession makes it too expensive to keep sponsoring some of the teams and athletes that they've been backing for years? They look to the basement and replace the baseball diamond with the ping pong table.
Budweiser has signed on as the lead sponsor of a ping pong tournament that started last week in bars around the country. The Bud Light Hard Bat Ping Pong Tournament will run through June, when the winners of regional events will meet in Las Vegas for a $100,000 prize. Bud and the other organizers are planning to craft a two-hour television special out of the event and plan to air it on ESPN in September.
Bud isn't the only big backer of the tournament. The Mark Gordon Co., which produces "Grey's Anatomy," and FremantleMedia Enterprises, which produces "American Idol," are also involved, which gives you an idea of where people think ping pong could be heading in the near future. As the Wall Street Journal points out, there are similarities between ping pong and poker, which went from a Wednesday night escape from wives and kids to a television phenomenon overnight.
Ping pong doesn't have quite so much intellectual appeal, but it has the same draw as an event that you can watch one day and then play the next. Organizers also feel that they've selected a format that could make people try their own luck in future tournaments. They're using the wood and dimpled rubber paddles instead of the ones used in the Olympic and professional ranks, which lessens the edge held by elite players.
The idea that it will become the next big thing may be misguided, however. Bowling may be a better guide than poker. Despite being a popular participatory sport, it doesn't grab huge numbers on television or, "The Big Lebowski" aside, popular culture. It's still worth a bet, especially in this economic climate, but deams of big success may remain unfulfilled.