Professional leagues. Devoted fans. Product endorsements. Millions of dollars in career earnings. Championships that draw more viewers than the Super Bowl. For much of the world, that’s table tennis.
But here in the United States, the game is usually reduced to mere ping pong—a casual game played in basements and garages. But Richard Lee, president of the Rockville-based Sport Squad, wants to change that.
The company sells a variety of tabletop and backyard games—such as foosball, air hockey and pool tables; cornhole sets; portable soccer nets; iPong training robots and Hit Mit, just to name a few—and this year acquired JOOLA, a German company that’s been producing table-tennis equipment since 1953 and has been a sponsor of the Olympic Games.
“JOOLA was one of the earliest companies whose products we distributed,” Lee said. “When the owner decided to retire, we were grateful for the opportunity to acquire them.”
Lee grew up in Montgomery County, where table tennis is particularly popular in the Chinese-American community, and began playing seriously when he was 12 years old. He soon earned a spot on the junior-level U.S. national team and competed in overseas tournaments.
In the mid-1990s, he launched a table tennis club at Johns Hopkins University, where he was studying and he and some friends wrote software to help them manage a tournament they were organizing. This led to the launch of Lee’s first company, North American Table Tennis, in 1998; that organization still runs several tournaments, including its flagship event, the Annual North American Teams Championships held at National Harbor. The event attracts a thousand players, with teams joining from around the world.
Lee launched Sport Squad in 2006 and began distributing JOOLA equipment and other gaming products. The company received an ExportMD from the Maryland Department of Commerce (then known as the Department of Business and Economic Development) in 2013 to help connect with international clients.
“That helped us open our eyes about entering global markets,” Lee said.
With the acquisition of their former client, the company’s staff has grown from 60 to about 110, Lee said. Much of the JOOLA team is still based in Germany, but a portion of that operation will eventually migrate to the U.S., he said.
But the growth of the company isn’t Lee’s only goal. Eventually, he wants to change the way table tennis is played—and perceived—in America.
“We’re trying to professionalize the sport,” he said. Sport Squad recently became the lead sponsor for several large table tennis clubs across the country—including one in Maryland—and wants to build a league system that will draw professional players from overseas.
Now, the opposite is happening: skilled American players have to go abroad to turn pro, but more and more young people are choosing to put their other plans on hold for a couple of years to try to build a table tennis career, Lee said.
Being able to stream competitions online—eliminating the need for a TV or broadcast deal—may be a crucial part of building a local and national fanbase, Lee said. But it will take bricks and mortar, too.
“We’d like to invest here,” Lee said. “To find or build a real world class table tennis facility—a nice home for the sport in Maryland.”