USA Table Tennis: An Interview with Michael D. Cavanaugh | Sports Destination Management

USA Table Tennis: An Interview with Michael D. Cavanaugh


Michael D. Cavanaugh, CEO, USA Table Tennis
USA Table Tennis (USATT) is the national organizing body for table tennis in the United States. It sanctions tournaments and oversees the national teams and other areas including rules of the game. USATT is affiliated with the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF, the world governing body) and the USOC. USATT also oversees the USA National and the annual National Team Trials/selections.

Sports Destination Management: How many people play table tennis in the U.S.?

Michael Cavanaugh: Our organization has about 9,000 members, but that there are a lot more people with tables in their basement, who are just playing recreationally. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association has research that indicated there are 17.2 million people in the U.S. who play.

SDM: What surprises casual and recreational players when they see professional table tennis, either at the Olympics or anywhere it’s played at a very high level? Is it the speed at which it’s being played?

Photos courtesy of 2013 - ITTF/Thor
Cavanaugh: Yes, but more than that, very few people understand the physical strength and conditioning the top players have. I worked with another sport for about 30 years prior to joining USA Table Tennis and the first time I saw competitive players, I was amazed. The leg development of these players is incredible. Often, people are looking at players from the level of the table up, so they don’t appreciate the speed and footwork these athletes are capable of.

SDM: Are there other misconceptions about the sport?

Cavanaugh: This is not just a sport for young people; it’s a sport for life. We have divisions for players 80 years of age and up. It’s a good cardiovascular workout. It’s very social. There is evidence that table tennis mitigates the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease and we’re also hearing the doctors are recommending patients with diabetes use it to help control their blood sugar. There are incidents of soccer players in South America who are recovering from injuries, and they’re using table tennis as a way to get back their hand-eye coordination. What’s really a delight is that there are very no real physical risks to this sport. We see the occasional sprained ankle or, of course, the overuse injuries.

SDM: Many sports, including table tennis, are popular in ‘pockets’ or population centers around the country.

Cavanaugh: The sport is popular where there are clubs to promote it. For example, there is heavy club activity in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Chicago and North Carolina. That activity can range from people playing one night a week in the Presbyterian church basement all the way up to training with Olympic coaches on staff.  Also, there are schools that offer table tennis. The Portland, Oregon, area and the New York City area, for example, have pockets of school activity. Then we have the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association, which has about 130 clubs. There are also high-end table tennis clubs, like Spin NYC (owned by actress Susan Sarandon) that have a bar and restaurant built around table tennis activities. It makes table tennis very hip.

SDM: What is USATT doing to spread the word about what a great sport it is, and to attract players to tournaments?

Cavanaugh: Our board is very attuned to the importance of penetrating the recreational market. We’re working with social media to help players meet each other. One of our slogans is “Friends don’t let friends play in the basement.” The goal is to get enough people playing who then want to get together and compete with one another regularly, so they form a club or join a club and ultimately come out to a tournament. You can play at any skill level and have fun doing it.

USATT sanctions different tournaments (they’re rated from zero stars to five stars) around the country and we also offer our U.S. Nationals in December and our U.S. Open in July. In 2013, the U.S. Open was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. We had 88 tables set up, and there were times when they were all in use at once.