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Pandemic Ping Pong: Pa. sports fans double down on table tennis during shutdown

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Matthew Nelson watches Russian table tennis in the lobby of his apartment building after placing a bet. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Matthew Nelson watches Russian table tennis in the lobby of his apartment building after placing a bet. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For Matthew Nelson, March 12 will always be the day that sports died.

The night before, the NBA suspended its season. The MLB followed suit the next day. So did the NCAA, scrapping March Madness. Sports were now canceled: another victim of the coronavirus outbreak.

“It was like D-Day or something,” said the 29-year-old, who lives in South Philadelphia with his fiance.

Nelson, who played baseball at Drexel University, has always been a massive sports fan; when Pennsylvania launched online sports betting last year he started dabbling in that as well. He slid $200 he won playing fantasy football into a sports betting app account, and since then has been making a few bets a week, only wagering his winnings. Putting $15 on a college basketball game amped up the stakes, he said, and was a good way to stay connected with his buddies.

“All my friends were doing it. They text in the group text about who they got,” Nelson said. “It makes it more interesting.”

When sports shut down, Nelson moved on. But one night, unable to stomach more videogames and unsure what else to do, he decided to pull up his FanDuel app, just to see what was there. He found a professional table tennis match, broadcast live from Russia. Two players, one in red and the other in blue, swatting the ball back and forth, alone in the room except for a scorekeeper working an old-fashioned, mechanical flipboard.

Nelson didn’t have much experience with the game besides playing in his basement growing up, but that didn’t matter. It was a sport, it wasn’t cancelled, and he and his friends could bet on it.

“Table tennis is a distraction from the boredom of the pandemic,” Nelson said. “[But the players] have some serious skill. They hold the paddle upside down in their hands, they do trick shots, they’re diving across the floor. It’s really entertaining, honestly.”

Nelson is one of thousands of sports fans across Pennsylvania who have begun placing bets on table tennis, darts, and the other obscure competitions that have soldiered on while the rest of the world is on pause.

“I think there are people that are interested in sports betting, and are interested in whatever content they can get,” said Melanie Gross, vice president of online casino and sportsbook at Caesars Entertainment, which runs Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino.

“It’s a learning lesson for all of us.”

‘Like tennis, but smaller’

Pennsylvania betting operators have watched in astonishment as ‘fringe’ games have rocketed to the top of their sportsbook listings over the last month.

“One hundred percent of the betting action we are taking is on eastern european soccer and table tennis,” said Matthew Cullen, senior vice president of interactive gaming and sports at Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pa.

“When you lose all the major core sports…you have to do something different,” said Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations at DraftKings. “You can get used to it, you can handicap it.”

State regulators have also been scrambling to react to the shutdown of mainstream sports: the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission Control Board has rushed to verify sporting leagues like Belarussian soccer and Russian table tennis over the last few weeks, said spokesperson Richard McGarvey. The PGCB has to confirm leagues are organized and have rules before Pennsylvania gamblers are allowed to bet on them.

For Rush Street Interactive, which runs the online platforms for Rivers Casino (formerly Sugarhouse) in Philadelphia and Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, more than 75% of April’s betting volume was on ping-pong. President Richard Schwartz said his company has been running ads on the radio and social media to get the word out there are still some sports left to bet on.

Its ping-pong pitch? “Like tennis, only smaller.”

The company has also been livestreaming the matches. “That’s been a big part of the success,” Schwartz said. “it gives [people] a lot more comfort, and confidence, and enjoyment, to be betting on something they are watching in real time.”

Some sports bettors say the livestream is a big part of why they keep placing bets — though not for the reason Schwartz gave.

“My friends were talking about [table tennis] and we thought it was hilarious that it was even a thing you could bet on,” 21-year-old Temple student Alex Zelger wrote via Instagram. “But then we found out you can actually watch the matches through the FanDuel app. And the production quality is so bad, it’s just comical.”

A sport of last resort

While table tennis and a few other lesser-known sports are enjoying a turn in the spotlight during the pandemic, most Pennsylvania sports betters aren’t partaking.

The total amount of money wagered on sports online in Pennsylvania fell by about 60% from February to March.

Those losses are particularly painful for state government, which raises more tax revenue from commercial gambling than any other state in the country.

“[Table tennis’] ‘popularity’ doesn’t rival any US sports that it is replacing,” said FanDuel spokesperson Kevin Hennessy.

Experts expect ping-pong’s newfound fans to turn fairweather when mainstream sports resume.

“This is just something to try to keep some level of interest going with customers until they can reopen major league sports,” said Clyde Barrow, a gaming industry consultant.

The most lasting legacy of the pandemic ping-pong peak in interest may end up being more people playing.

Ken Weinstein is the founder of the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club in Northwest Philadelphia, which he claims is the only full-time table tennis club in the region. There’s a big difference between batting around a ping-pong ball, he said, and what happens at the club.

“When you play in your basement, it’s a game,” said Weinstein, 56. “When you train five, six, seven days a week, and play in tournaments on a regular basis… it’s a sport.”

Weinstein said interest in table tennis has been trending up in the last few years in the area. But with only fifty full time members at the club, it has plenty of room to grow. He’s hopeful that attention from starved sports fans will help with that.

“Betting on table tennis might be a great way to let people know there is another level to this game,” Weinstein said.

Matthew Nelson said he may place an occasional bet on table tennis once major sports re-open, but he expects his viewing habits will return to normal.

He does, however, plan to play more table tennis. “Betting on it has reminded me of how much fun it can be,” Nelson said.

That will have to wait, though, until Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order is lifted: Nelson’s ping-pong table is in his parent’s basement.

Those seeking help with gambling addiction can call the 24-hour hotline 1-800-GAMBLER, or click here for an online chat service.

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