Take a moment to remember the sports world as it was in March and April of 2020. With almost all leagues shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bettors had few options to wager on. In that vacuum, many gamblers turned to obscure table tennis competitions to scratch that betting itch.
As leagues returned to play, it seemed inevitable that bettors would once again forget about ping pong. And surely, as the pandemic ebbed in 2021 and the sports world returned to normal, table tennis betting would fade into the background. But a surprising number of gamblers have continued to bet on this fast-paced sport.
Table tennis betting big business in Colorado
In some jurisdictions, the amount of money bet on table tennis is staggering. In March, Colorado reported $8.8 million in ping pong bets — more than double the handle on MMA. In January, table tennis betting outpaced gambling on the NHL. As recently as April, it ranked as the fourth-most bet sport in the state.
“I’m probably as shocked as the rest of the gambling community,” Jason Scott, vice president of trading at BetMGM, told Yahoo Sports earlier this month. “Once sports came back, I thought it would disappear off the map. It’s crazy.”
Shady tournaments and accusations of match-fixing haven’t slowed the interest in table tennis. In December, Australian police arrested a former top ping pong pro as part of a major raid related to match-fixing.
Many American sportsbooks stopped taking bets on Ukrainian table tennis events after the Sports Wagering Integrity Monitoring Association sent a match-fixing alert last July. According to the alert, there was no direct evidence of match-fixing, but it raised many questions about the integrity of the constant, live-streamed events coming out of Ukraine.
Most of these events appeared designed specifically to appeal to bettors. They often ran around the clock and held no affiliation with national or international table tennis federations. The Indiana Gaming Commission dealt with this issue by prohibiting betting on events unless the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) or European Table Tennis Union sanctioned them.
Gamblers enjoy ‘rolling the dice’
The questionable events also feature relatively low levels of competition, with none of the world’s top players participating in these tournaments. But according to some bettors, this just makes the action more exciting.
“Sports betting can be a game of skill to a point,” Denver Westword writer Conor McCormick-Cavanagh told BroBible.com. “With table tennis, you can play it like you’re rolling the dice or pulling a slot lever. You’re betting on some random Russian dude.”
American sportsbooks are still offering ping pong betting to this day. FanDuel Sportsbook lists matches from Moscow Liga Pro, including live in-play betting.
For those invested in the sport of table tennis, the ongoing betting interest could represent a major opportunity to promote the sport. ITTF officials believe the world’s familiarity with ping pong should mean big things for their game in the future.
“Our industry is huge, there are hobby players all over the world who follow the scene,” ITTF chief executive Steve Dainton told The Straits Times. “For sure the potential is in the billions of dollars and we are really only scraping at the surface with our current business model.”