During the first seven months of legal sports betting in Colorado, table tennis has continually landed on the list of the top five most popular sports to bet on each month. In November alone, the sport generated $12.4 million in bets, falling behind only professional and college football in betting popularity.
Back in May, when sports betting started and few other sports were being played, the success of table tennis wasn't that surprising. But why does it remain such a hit?
Angelo Gandullia, who played table tennis professionally in Germany and now runs the Denver Table Tennis Alliance, can answer that question.
"When people see for the first time in their life how this sport is really played and what it takes to play it at a competitive level, I think people get hooked," says Gandullia, whose Curtis Park neighborhood club is open six days a week during non-COVID times. "Most of the time, they just get fascinated with the pace of it. Table tennis is the Olympic sport where a ball travels the fastest, and it requires some serious training to keep up with such pace. It’s a sport that requires a lot of hand-eye coordination that is really the whole body. And a lot of footwork. You have to be very strong to be squatting low the whole time."
The intensity of table tennis often catches newcomers by surprise. "They never saw it coming," Gandullia says. "They usually picture basement ping-pong, a kid hitting back and forth with Grandpa, passing the ball nice and easy. But that’s not what the sport is about."
Maybe not for Gandullia. But you don't have to approach the sport with intensity, according to Evan Frankel, a Boulder resident who admits to betting on table tennis.
"Sports gambling can be a game of chance or a game of skill. For me, Russian table tennis was a game of chance," says Frankel. "The first legal Colorado sports bet I placed was on table tennis. It was just about opportunity, since nothing else was on."
Frankel typically likes to gamble on soccer, and admits he doesn't find watching table tennis invigorating.
"I don’t really care if my 50 cent bet on a ping-pong match is lost. When that 50 cents can turn into $6.70, I’m not retiring on that, but I’m laughing," he explains. "I'm having fun during a pandemic, and that’s worth it for me."
And since table tennis takes place halfway around the world, there are usually games to bet on when few games are being played in this hemisphere.
When legal sports betting kicked off in May, bettors were able to gamble on Ukrainian table tennis for a few weeks, until regulators in numerous states removed it from betting portfolios following concerns about game integrity. The Moscow Liga Pro is now the main table tennis betting option for gamblers in Colorado, but while it's remained on the right side of regulators in the state, some outlets are still wary. For example, Monarch Casino in Black Hawk doesn't offer bets on Moscow Liga Pro because of match-fixing concerns.
"Am I concerned about it?" Frankel asks, then answers: "No, I find it more humorous than anything else."
In November, sports betting in Colorado totaled $231 million in bets, most of them made on one of the dozen-plus mobile betting apps rather than at casinos. the state collected about $794,000 in taxes, and most of that money will go to the Colorado Water Plan under the terms of Proposition DD, which voters approved in 2019.