Excerpted from WSJ, “Anheiser Gets Set to Play a Whole New Game,” By Matthew Futterman, Apr 27, 2009
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A group of sports and entertainment marketers is betting ping pong will be the next game to sweep the nation, and Anheuser-Busch InBev’s U.S. unit is getting into the action.
Anheuser-Busch … has signed on as the lead sponsor of the Bud Light Hard Bat Ping Pong Tournament, which started last month.
The big brewer is backing Robert Friedman, president of media and entertainment for New York commercial-production company @Radical Media, and several major partners, who think ping pong could be the next Texas Hold ‘Em, the card game featured in the highly successful World Series of Poker.
The nostalgia factor, made keener by the recession, is one reason they are confident of ping pong’s appeal. “This is about the residual goodwill we all feel for the better times we grew up with,” says Mr. Friedman. “This conjures up family.”
As the idea for the new tourney began to jell, Anheuser-Busch was re-evaluating, and even shedding, several longtime deals with athletes and major sports teams … In came ping pong. With exclusive sponsorships for mainstream teams and sports becoming ever more expensive, Anheuser-Busch needed to strike a balance …
The organizers know they have to come up with an innovative approach to televising a game that in the past has been hard to follow because of the speed and the size of the ball. Even if they can, could this really be the next poker?
Poker already had a long-established mystique, built on images of high rollers in deluxe Las Vegas hotel suites, before Internet gambling and the World Series of Poker inspired a wider appreciation of the mental calculations taking place around the table behind low-brimmed caps and sunglasses.
Ping pong, by contrast, is more closely associated with suburban basements and harsh fluorescent lights. Even so, the International Olympic Committee says table tennis is the world’s leading participation sport, with 40 million competitive players world-wide and tens of millions more playing for fun …
Competition started in March, with local Anheuser-Busch distributors supplying Bud Light-branded ping pong tables to some 4,600 bars where regional competitions are under way. Winners can land an invitation to the tournament finals and play for the $100,000 prize in Las Vegas in late June …
That event, which will also include professionals, will be the focus of a two-hour television special that the organizers plan to air on Walt Disney’s ESPN in September.
Mr. Friedman and Jordan Wynn, executive of Mark Gordon Co., say they noticed ping pong re-emerging in popular culture over the past year. The posse on the HBO series “Entourage” played during an episode, for example, and hip-hop star 50 Cent had a ping-pong theme at his birthday party.
“The question was could we take this game out of the basement and the cluttered garages,” says Mr. Friedman. “We think the timing is just right.”
Mr. Wynn goes so far as to suggest ping pong has sex appeal. “It’s taking on this cool cultural space of short-shorts and retro headbands, and it’s kind of goofy, but it’s also got people who take it very seriously,” Mr. Wynn says. “It’s poker eight years ago.”
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