Brands, Athletes, Charities Put Their Cards On The (Ping-Pong) Table

When Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers this month became the first National League player since Bob Gibson in 1968 to be named both the Cy Young and MVP winner in the same season, one of the ways he celebrated was to play Ping-Pong with his friends.

That did not come out of the (Dodger) blue: As part of Kershaw's Challenge, a foundation that aids underprivileged kids in Los Angeles, Kershaw's hometown of Dallas and in Africa, Kershaw oversees an annal event, "Ping-Pong 4 Purpose," which involves other athletes who compete not just to raise money and awareness but for table tennis bragging rights.

For the past two years, Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers has hosted an NBA Charity Ping-Pong tournament, under the auspices of non-profit group TopSpin and in conjunction with his Chris Paul Foundation, to raise funds to enhance and promote education, health, sports and social responsibility for youth and families.

Not just the host, Paul has claimed the table tennis tournament championship title both years.

Table tennis has been a competitive sport in the Olympics since 1988, with China the defending men's and women's team champions going into the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. There are more than 17 million table tennis participants in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

These facts have not been lost on Madison Avenue. The sport has been featured this year in commercials including Bud Light starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kraft's Lunchables and Fitbit’s Full Body Activity Trackers. Last year, tennis star sisters Venus and Serena Williams got competitive during a game of table tennis in a spot for the Apple iPhone 5 

"Once you mention Ping-Pong, people's faces light up. They have very fond feelings toward the sport from playing as a kid against family and friends," said Peter Farnsworth, founder and CEO for New York-based brand and business consultancy FoxRock Partners. Since 2009, TopSpin, a subsidiary of FoxRock, has used table tennis to raise millions to support education via a network of non-profit groups nationwide.

In addition to Las Vegas, TopSpin organizes events in Chicago and San Francisco. But the longest-running one is held in New York, where on Dec. 10 the sixth annual TopSpin Charity Ping-Pong Tournament will take place (in Manhattan's Metropolitan Pavilion). 

From 2001 to 2010, Farnsworth was SVP-Global Business Development for the NBA, working on NBA, WNBA, NBA Development League and USA Basketball partnerships with such companies as Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Haier, BBVA Group, Taco Bell, Right Guard, Adidas, T-Mobile and Bacardi.

As such, Farnsworth understands the importance of having brands, sports leagues, executives and high-profile athletes involved with your cause.

Among others, TopSpin support has come from the NBA, MLB, NFL, WWE, Turner Sports, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, Madison Square Garden, Excel Sports Management (which represents the likes of Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and Taylor Swift); and such NBA teams as the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. 

“There are so many people and companies with whom I've had business relationships who want to get involved with TopSpin,” said Farnsworth, who spent ten years as an executive with sports management firm ProServ/SFX before joining the NBA. “People want to do business with people they've worked with before and had a good experience.” 

According to Farnsworth, Chris Paul puts in extensive practice time before his table tennis appearances, and Deron Williams of the Nets, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle and Mavs all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki are among the most competitive, in a friendly way. "When you get into it as I have, you find out who some of the great table tennis players are," said Farnsworth.

For clarification purposes, table tennis is the name of the sport, Ping-Pong is a federally registered trademark developed by Parker Brothers and now owned by Escalade Sports indicating a brand of equipment used to play the sport of table tennis.

Farnsworth has that and other things in mind when putting the TopSpin event into motion.

"The marketing challenge is to ensure in the mind's eye of people that they see it as a fun, competitive, industry-driven Ping-Pong tournament, but to also get the message across about what we are doing," said Farnsworth. "We don't attract people from just the business community. We get current pro athletes, former pro athletes, who see the give-back part of what we are doing and also look at the fun side and the bragging rights side of a charity-driven event."

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