Some say the Murdochization of the Wall Street Journal has begun. I say this is an informative story that needs to be told. This isn't the first drinking game story this summer either. As the journal ran a story on cornhole back in June.
Thwock, Gulp, Kaching! Beer Pong
August 29, 2007; Page A1
CHICAGO -- Sick of cleaning sticky floors after bouts of beer pong, a popular campus drinking game, recent Northwestern University graduates Andy Wright and Mike Johnson put their engineering degrees to use. They devised a triangular rubber mat that helps keep plastic cups of beer from toppling over.
Then they started marketing the mats through their online company, Bottle Cap Technologies, for $9.99. They say they have sold more than 100 since April and are negotiating to sell 1,000 in one swoop to an online store called drinkingstuff.com. "Now, you don't have to clean up the mess and you don't waste beer," says Mr. Johnson.
These guys aren't exactly Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. But Messrs. Wright and Johnson, both 22 years old, are part of a new wave of young people trying to make money tapping into their peers' devotion to beer pong, a cross between ping-pong and beer chugging. As beer-pong season hits a peak with the start of the school year, these beer-pong entrepreneurs are running tournaments and peddling customized beer-pong tables, balls and apparel.
In 2004, brothers Ben and Jesse Spiegel took a leave from the University of Denver, pooled more than $50,000 in savings and borrowed money, and started BJ's Beer Pong. Following a business plan he wrote after taking a business course, Jesse spent seven months traveling around China looking for a factory to produce their portable beer-proof, sun-resistant tables with built-in rubber mats.
They say they have sold about 8,000 tables for prices ranging from $110 to $250 and have registered domain names in Australia, England and Ireland with hopes of international expansion. "By reading a lot of business and success books, we knew we could work hard and will it to happen," Jesse says.
Rules vary by region and campus, but beer pong -- a game some call "Beirut" -- typically is played on a 6- to 8-foot-long table where partly filled cups of beer are arranged in triangles of six or 10 at each end. Two-person teams take turns trying to toss a ping-pong ball into one of their opponents' cups. When a ball lands in the suds, the opponents must chug the beer and remove the cup. The first team to eliminate all of the other team's cups is the winner.
The game has been gaining fans on campus for more than a decade. But only in the past few years have entrepreneurs begun zeroing in on devotees who spend freely on beer, cups, balls and tournaments. The market appears to be expanding as beer-pong fans go on playing the game after they get out of college.
Adam Wasserman, 25, left his job with a mortgage company and sank a big chunk of his savings into a Los Angeles warehouse where he builds portable beer-pong tables that start at $99 apiece. Many of his customers are recent graduates. "When you move into a new place, you need the basics: a TV, fridge and a beer-pong table," he says.
Juan Aycart, a 27-year-old South Orange, N.J., graphic designer, recently paid $150 for a portable beer-pong table from Bing Bong Inc. of Philadelphia. "I'm not invited to parties anymore, my beer-pong table is," says Mr. Aycart.
In 2005, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Cos. sponsored tournaments across the country in a promotion called Bud Pong. But the company abandoned the game after media reports suggested it promoted binge drinking.
Stepping into the breach were Billy Gaines and Duncan Carroll, Carnegie Mellon University grads who in 2004 developed Web site bpong.com and a multiplayer online beer-pong game. Last year they played host to the first World Series of Beer Pong. "Those who dislike parties, pong, music, girls, trash-talking, and gambling need not apply," the tournament's official Web site says. The tournament this year attracted nearly 500 pongers to Mesquite, Nev., for a four-day tournament and $20,000 in prize money raised by charging $550 entry fees. Mr. Gaines, a 26-year-old Chicago lawyer, says he and Mr. Carroll, a 26-year-old graphic designer, haven't taken profits from the tournament yet. For now, they say they are building their brand by buying tables, balls and cups and reselling them emblazoned with their tournament logo.
The World Series and local leagues and tournaments have helped increase the market for beer-pong gear. Since Penn State University grads Tom Schmidt, 29, and Matt Brady, 30, started Bing Bong three years ago, they estimate they have sold more than 10,000 beer-pong tables. The 7- or 8-foot aluminum tables are collapsible, folding up into a briefcase. They say they expect $1 million in revenue this year. They sell to college students, recent grads and bars, which "are now accepting the game," Mr. Schmidt says, as something that increases sales.
This week, Georgetown University joined at least a dozen colleges in banning alcohol paraphernalia, specifically including beer-pong tables. Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, says beer pong and other drinking games contribute to excessive drinking associated with drunk driving, sexual assault and other social problems. When Mr. Wright, co-inventor of the beer-pong rubber mats, asked his parents to invest in his venture, they refused on similar grounds, he says. "They didn't want to advocate anything that involves binge drinking."
The entrepreneurs defend beer pong as a game of skill like darts. "People take beer pong seriously," says Mr. Carroll, the World Series co-founder. "If they just wanted to get drunk, they would chug beers from the corner store."
Jon "J.T." Terracciano, a 21-year-old Syracuse University law student, is a top-ranked ponger in a traveling tournament in New York state. "In this sport," he says, "you don't have to be tall or athletic. If you can shoot a ball into a cup you will get respect."
He and a buddy, Brandon Best, also 21, recently spent $3,000 of their college graduation money to launch Upong Outfitters, a line of what they call "classy" beer-pong polo shirts to sell online and at tournaments. Meantime, Mr. Best is studying for a December Law School Admission Test to prepare for what he calls his "backup career" as a lawyer.
Write to Shelly Banjo at email@example.com