With team and televised sports fading out over these past four months, determined athletes have sought out new activities. Marla Rice and her husband, Kevin, who live in Wellfleet, decided ping pong would be theirs.
Marla grew up with a table in her Brooklyn home. More recently, the pair had played ping pong while on a road trip. They had already ordered an outdoor table before the novel coronavirus came along, but when staying at home became the new reality, they knew they had the perfect game.
Aside from the fact that the table required eight hours of assembly, Marla Rice said, “The ping pong table saved our winter.” The two played. Then they figured out ways for friends to join in safely.
As they hit the ball over a six-inch-high net, players are inevitably kept about nine feet apart — that’s the length of the table.
“It’s the perfect social distancing game,” said Marla. “It was just so much fun.” She spoke about it recently in the past tense because both her art gallery in Provincetown and Kevin’s work directing the Payomet Performing Arts Center into drive-in mode have heated up for the season.
There is debate in online forums as to the difference between ping pong and table tennis. The difference is essentially one of attitude. Ping pong is the game. It’s played for fun in the basement or the back yard. The game is traditionally played either one-on-one or two-on-two to a score of 21.
Table tennis is the competitive sport, which has reached Olympic status. In this realm, games are played to a score of 11 points.
The term “table tennis” was adopted for the sport simply because the name “ping pong” had been trademarked by Parker Brothers, the manufacturer that later became a brand of Hasbro. That’s according to the sport’s nonprofit governing body, now called USA Table Tennis but founded in 1933 as the United States Association of Table Tennis (USATT).
“It’s an Olympic sport — it’s extremely difficult to play at the top level,” said Ben Nisbet. “The equipment at the top level is equal to professional golf.” Professional equipment is not cheap. Nisbet said a professional table tennis racket can cost up to $600.
Nisbet is a former head of USATT. He now owns an online table tennis equipment store called tabletennisstore.us. Nisbet said that since the coronavirus put a halt on all professional tournaments and competition, his professional equipment sales are down 70 percent, but at the same time recreational sales have gone up fivefold.
The table the Rices ordered is specifically made to withstand the weather. They may have ordered it at just the right time.
Outdoor tables have been especially sought after in the last four months. Nisbet said his outdoor table sales have increased to “20 times the normal volume”; most manufacturers of outdoor tables, he said, are completely out of stock.
“We have received hundreds of orders across the U.S. for outdoor tables in the last four months,” said Kevin Vedder, President of Bestoutdoorpingpongtables.com. “Sales are up 150 percent from last year at this time. Many are on back order as supply can’t keep up with demand.”
Both the game and the sport require solid hand-eye coordination and athleticism to quickly return a shot while keeping the ball on the table.
Skilled players can put a spin on the ball to make it much harder for the opponent to return.
“My husband has a really mean spin; he puts a spin on almost every shot,” Marla Rice said. “I just kind of try to wear him out.”
Nisbet said he hasn’t sold many outdoor tables on Cape Cod this year but sees it as a good fit for homes here.
“An outdoor table is a really nice thing to put on a deck,” he said. “I look at a high-end table tennis table as a piece of furniture.”
Nisbet said he did recently sell a ping pong robot to someone in Truro, whom he declined to name. The robot is a machine that sends ping pong balls at you one after another to help you practice your return technique.
As that anonymous local athlete with the robot must already know, the sport of table tennis has become more popular in recent years. Edmund Suen, who is USATT regional coordinator for the Northeast, said regional tournaments have been growing since before the Covid-19 era, and it was becoming easy to find tournaments on weekends. The association has even started a nonprofit table tennis organization that supports getting table tennis into schools.
Nisbet said his company ran a youth charity in New York City that introduced table tennis as a varsity sport in more than 100 public schools in the area.
Parents like ping pong, Nisbet said, because it can be played at home and outdoors. And “because it’s not a video game.”