Sport

Bad boys wanted?

Ping-pong tries to spice up its image

Trophies aren’t doing it; more tantrums, please

We have written before in WiC about how China has dominated the table tennis world for the past 50 years (see WiC15). Nonetheless, the country’s current ping-pong supremo, Liu Guoliang, is a worried man.

The head coach of the national table tennis team is especially unhappy at how few fans turned up at Beijing airport recently to welcome the men’s team home from a successful defence at the Asian Championships in India.

He has now gone public with his concerns, telling Xinhua that he blames the blandness of the nation’s players for eroding interest in the national sport. Liu says young people want players with “personalities”. He adds: “Gold medals alone don’t feed the fans; you have to show unique characteristics. Our Chinese players are not doing a very good job of that.”

He holds up Chen Qi as a better role model. Chen, the closest thing the Chinese ping-pong world had to a John McEnroe, caused a furore at the 2006 Asian Cup when he hurled his bat and overturned a chair after a defeat. He was punished with two weeks of military service and a stint working in a remote rural area.

If coach Liu is saying Chen Qi is the answer to the sport’s problems, that indicates a pretty major volte face. Last year, there were various complaints that Chinese sports stars were getting too big for their high-performance boots. Individuality was frowned upon; obedience to the state sports system (and its administrators) was demanded.

One company that will have paid attention to coach Liu’s concerns is Double Happiness, the country’s largest maker of table tennis paddles (or bats, as they are also known). It has a vested interest in a billion or so people remaining interested in hitting a small plastic ball back-and-forth across a nine foot table. If Liu is right, an annual sales target of Rmb1 billion within three years could be in jeopardy.

Double Happiness has a storied history. Founded in 1959, it was given its name by the country’s then prime minister, Zhou Enlai. By the mid-nineties the Shanghai-based firm – like most state-owned enterprises – was facing a bleak future. Outdated work practices, woeful sales and marketing, and poor finances became critical issues.

In 1995 the company underwent a huge reorganisation, and was merged with the Shanghai Racket Factory and other state-owned sporting goods firms. Still, in 1998, its paddles were selling for a mere twentieth of foreign bat prices.

The company then came up with a bold plan to turn around its fortunes. The firm’s new president, Huang Yongwu seized on the 1999 decision to increase the size of ping- pong balls from 38mm to 40mm in diameter. According to Global Entrepreneur magazine, Huang “bet big” on a new research and development division specifically tasked with discovering how the new ball would impact on paddles and their manufacture.

It paid off. Double Happiness – thanks to its aptly named ‘Big Ball Project’ – had a first mover advantage when the new standard was embraced. The Chinese-made bat was only used by 5% of national teams in 1998, but that number has since risen to almost 70%. And Huang now estimates that his firm’s global market share is 58%.

The focus on R&D continues. The company’s headquarters houses a table tennis venue where China’s top players come to trial new products and give their feedback. When players sensed problems with the rubber pimples on the ‘Hurricane 2’ paddle, Double Happiness established a project team to remedy their concerns – the result being the development of an exclusive new rubber surface named ‘Tian Ji’.

But while overseas sales account for 25% of revenues, the company’s fate is still very much dictated by the domestic market. And Huang is pinning his expansion hopes on the marketing clout of his new major shareholder, Li Ning – the nation’s equivalent of Adidas or Nike.

Li Ning has 7,000 retail outlets throughout China. “Just think, if the annual sales of Double Happiness in each Li Ning store reach Rmb100,000, the total amount will be quite amazing,” says Huang. To capitalise, he is also expanding his product range to include table tennis clothing and shoes.

The firm’s current sales are almost Rmb500 million but if Huang is to reach his sales goals he will be hoping – like coach Liu – that Chinese players develop the ‘personalities’ to revive sagging interest in the national sport.

The sport’s body is doing what it can to boost viewing figures: it has hired star TV anchor Bai Yansong (see Red Star, WiC13) to coach elite players on their communication skills. And in a classic tactic borrowed from the beach volleyball playbook, it is also looking at tweaking competitors’ costumes. Apparently, it is encouraging the ladies to wear skirts in matches.


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