About a decade ago, just as the dot-com bubble set to burst, Robert Blackwell Jr. was struggling with how to get attention for his new technology company Electronic Knowledge Interchange.
Instead of trying to make a pricey investment into mainstream sports, Blackwell happened upon the Chicago ping pong festival and made a small investment in the event. As it turned out, he felt his company got more than its money worth in buzz.
“This was our little niche,” Blackwell said.
By 2002, Blackwell had so fallen in love with the sport, he decided that it too was its own business. So he started the table tennis company Killerspin, which he has now built into the largest provider of table tennis broadcast content.
Killerspin has events and players are independent contractors, though the bigger stars are locked into sponsorship contracts with Blackwell to ensure that they’re available when he needs them.
He discovered the much talked about Biba Golic in Croatia in 2002 and signed her to a long-term sponsorship deal.
“I’ve seen 500 guys show up at one of our events just because they wanted to see her in person,” Blackwell said.
While Killerspin event coverage on Fox Sports Net and ESPN has thus far been done in time buys and barter deals, Blackwell says he thinks that there’s potential to command rights fees for table tennis content in the United States as he currently commands with foreign networks. His team is filming next week’s Killerspin SPINvitational Table Tennis Challenge in Chicago, a tournament featuring the world’s top players that will raise money for charity, to one day be able to peddle the evergreen video at a price to the right network.
Don't believe ping pong can be compelling? Check out this rally from a Killerspin event.
Blackwell says his business reached profitability last year and grew 30 percent more in a tough 2009.
Killerspin’s revenues rely more on the participatory nature of the sport than the television value. The company makes table tennis tables, rackets, balls and even shoes and Blackwell admits he hasn’t even tapped the surface of a US market that’s a $200 million business and growing.
About 17 million people play ping pong in the United States, but Blackwell wants to help see it grow.
“This is the perfect sport for the ‘too’ kids,” Blackwell said. “For the kids who are too overweight, too short, too skinny or too scared to play some of the other sports, table tennis is their thing.”
With momentum growing in the US, Blackwell says he’ll make a big international push for the brand in 2010 with increased worldwide distribution of the Killerspin brand. More than 90 percent of those who play the game live outside this country.
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