LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- "Beer pong," anyone?
To make sure Americans answer with a resounding yes, Anheuser-Busch InBev partnered with global media and entertainment companies Radical Media and FremantleMedia and TV producer Mark Gordon in March to launch the Hardbat Classic, a (nonalcoholic) table-tennis tournament spanning 3,000 bars nationwide designed to both move the sport from under the fluorescent light and, naturally, sell more Bud Light.
It may be hard to recall, but table tennis, or pingpong, was once so popular, comedian George Carlin joked the game of tennis was actually "pingpong played while standing on the table." Some 20 million Americans played the sport regularly in the late 1970s, but the emergence of the "spongy" paddle increased the pace of the game to a blurry whirl, with rallies lasting moments, not minutes. By 2003, the number had dropped to 11 million, according to Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association's data.
Now, thanks to the return of the "hardbat," or non-spongy table-tennis paddle, the sport of suburban basements has been slowed down enough to experience a renaissance: Pingpong had spun back to 17.2 million players as of last year, said Robert Blackwell, CEO of Killerspin, one of the nation's largest table-tennis equipment manufacturers and a co-sponsor of the Hardbat Classic.
That bounce wasn't lost on Radical Media.
"The big stars of table tennis are people I've never heard of and you've never heard of," said Justin Wilkes, VP-media and entertainment at Radical Media. "But while it hasn't really lived on TV before, everyone's picked up a paddle at some point."
Mr. Wilkes figured that the sport's populist patina could be turned into an asset for a consumer brand, especially if it had appealing characters like on, say, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and it were given the "American Idol" treatment. So, he recruited Mark Gordon, the producer of "Grey's," and Fremantle, which owns "Idol," to help produce the Classic.
After being approached by Radical Media, Keith Hindle, CEO for the Americas at FremantleMedia Enterprises, agreed to help "reinvent the sport" by "building an ongoing brand, not just a TV show." "We don't see networks as our primary customers," he said.
Still, equipment, apparel and merchandising aside (sneaker company K-Swiss is also a sponsor, along with A-B and Killerspin), the Hardbat Classic will be a TV show, both here and abroad. After it culminates in Las Vegas at the Venetian Hotel this June, its highlights and most compelling final matches will be cut down into a two-hour special that will air on ESPN in mid-September. Fremantle will sell that special globally to other broadcasters in a variety of sliced-and-diced formats.
Mr. Hindle said the idea is to make the Hardbat Classic an "entertainment-led competition," by identifying and highlighting compelling characters and their stories.
"It's critical that it not be a static camera showing a ball going back and forth," Mr. Hindle said. "This is going to have a story line, tension and excitement. It's going to be a spectacle they'd want to watch even if they knew the outcome."
To make sure that's actually the case, "we're already treating the tournament as a casting session," Mr. Wilkes said. A diverse array of top-notch players has already emerged as fodder: a 76-year-old retiree from Manhattan's Lower East Side with a lethal topspin; a 46-year-old housewife who's a former Olympic athlete; a 20-year-old African-American from inner-city Brooklyn with dangerous backspin.
To prevent such interesting folks from getting blown out early by professionals, the Hardbat Classic's finalists will be drawn from four sub-groups: basement players, bar players, semi-pros and a hand-picked "gladiator" team of professionals, with the top player in each sub-group ultimately facing off against the others to compete for $100,000 in prize money.
While the Hardbat Classic will be open to anyone, 300 of the 1,000 player slots have been reserved by A-B for "ordinary" bar players. The local, experiential component of the Hardbat is crucial to keeping up sales of Bud Light, America's best-selling beer, said Dan McHugh, VP-media sponsorship and activation at A-B. He said 42 millions barrels of Bud Light were sold last year, a year-on-year increase of 1.5%.
"These lifestyle opportunities at the grass-roots level make a whole lot of sense, because 25% to 30% of our business is on-premises [at bars]," he said. "We really try to build the image of Bud Light to mean party, social and fun, so hopefully that translates into off-premises sales as well."