INCLUSION Creates Off the Wall Form of Table Tennis
Take the idea of bumpers on a bowling lane and apply it to pingpong.
That’s the essence of INCLUSION Table Tennis, a new sports innovation from the creative mind of Marco Santini, who has combined table tennis and racquetball by inventing a curved, Plexiglas wall that attaches to sides of a pingpong table.
“People have said I’m giving wings to table tennis,” said Santini, 29.
Which is fitting, considering Santini recently had a business meeting with Austrian energy drink company and extreme sports sponsor, Red Bull. Its slogan is “Red Bull gives you wings.”
But Santini’s first set of wings were modest, if not broken. In his parents’ Cresskill, N.J., home in 2007, Santini, a self-described “basement player,” was hitting pingpong balls on — and around — his table with a friend. The non-competitive pair cared more about keeping play alive than keeping score.
After deflecting shots off the basement walls — while attempting to avoid hitting coveted framed posters from the 1972 Munich Olympics and a collectible Coke machine from Atlanta’s ‘96 Games — Santini invested in two large rectangular pieces of plywood.
Despite a splintery beginning, INCLUSION was born.
Santini, who in the same year graduated with a bachelor’s degree in linguistic anthropology from Brown University, has since transformed both the materials of the product and its design. With the help of his father, Martin, a successful architect, Santini altered the play-killing, 90-degree intersection of the chair-supported plywood wall with the table into the more cooperative Plexiglas prototype.
“At first, I started saying this was the future of table tennis,” he said, “but I didn’t want to say it’s a replacement. It’s an attachment.”
In 2008, Santini traveled to Beijing, China, for the Summer Olympics, where he saw another side of the sport he grew up playing recreationally. As a one-year member of NBC’s 50-person Page Program, he turned guiding tours of the 30 Rockefeller Plaza into planning corporate events for high-profile network clients attending the Games with friends and family.
“It showed me a totally new love of sports,” he said. “It was my first time interacting with the professional table tennis community. I started to see what it was like with professional videos, and that it’s more of an art.”
Santini, who is also a contemporary artist whose work hangs throughout the chic, modern home his father completed 25 years ago, needed a professional manufacturer to advance INCLUSION.
While working as a business development manager and strategy coordinator at CBX, a New York City-based branding agency, Santini, through a colleague, got in touch with someone who molds prototypes in Queens, New York.
“It was a one-off, hand-made creation,” Santini said. “He took a rare chance.”
Within a few months, Santini was showcasing the product at the Google office in Chelsea Piers and at SPiN, a table tennis bar and restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
But his first exhibit was — also fittingly — at the Rare Gallery of Fine Art in Jackson Hole in the summer of 2013.
“I saw it as an art piece, where art meets sport,” said Santini, who had bonded with the gallery owner over their shared love of the Olympics. “It was scary — people came in because it was so quiet everywhere else. Here, balls were bouncing.”
The first year of events involved one INCLUSION unit and one Marco hauling it from place to place in the back of a Jeep.
It wasn’t until the following summer that the product first sold. But because of the prominence of Santini’s first customer, the U.S. Open, he agreed to discount the price on an updated version of INCLUSION, which made lining the attachments to the side of tables easier.
The product costs $1,500 retail, meaning little profit for Santini, who wrote the four-page instruction manual included in each package. Each box contains four walls — one for each quadrant of the table — that connect to three tripod legs on each side. It takes one person roughly 15 minutes to set up, and costs $600 for an eight-hour rental with transportation and table included, $300 without the table, and can be shipped to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In addition to the “go-to strategy” of rental agreements, Santini has also brought his innovation to high schools and the Westchester Table Tennis Center, where kids who need the extra assistance can try it out.
Alan Gulick, who owns the North Bay Table Tennis Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., is Santini’s first customer who requires shipping. Gulick, who learned about INCLUSION through USA Table Tennis’ Facebook page, will get his hands on one of a new set of 10 INCLUSION units, which Santini picked up from a manufacturer in Allentown, P.A., on Nov. 17.
“It’s a great addition to the sport, just like the invention of thicker rubber pads to the paddles,” Gulick said. “It helps people with disabilities who aren’t laterally mobile, [and] it blocks the wind outdoors.”
Gulick, who said he expects to keep INCLUSION next to a table “at all times” for kids to use as an aid, said that he believes he is also in a good market for leasing it to others.
“[I’d like to] have INCLUSION tournaments and plan on renting it out to see if it’s something people might want to add on in wine country.”
Santini has recently made the rounds of speaking at alma maters Brown University and Bergen Catholic High School, as well as at Harvard, where he both showcased his invention and sat on a panel discussing innovative start-up businesses. He also spoke before sports journalism students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
But Santini knows more than anyone that just talking about INCLUSION isn’t particularly immersive.
“It’s a lot of education,” he said. “I realize I’m converting many more people who are playing it [saying], ‘Come on, let me pull you over here and do this.’”
After the last bulk order, INCLUSION Table Tennis is relying on its current inventory to grow its audience and drive the business. But its creator always likes to think outside the box.
“I want to create a market demo app where kids could play INCLUSION on smartphones,” he said.
As a long-term goal, Santini envisions INCLUSION without attachments.
“Hopefully I’ll have enough money to create my own tables and connect the walls,” he said.