Beer pong a brewing success story
LAS VEGAS -- Billy Gaines has become the Dana White or David Stern of beer pong.
The 29-year-old former patent attorney -- along with a couple of college buddies -- started a website in 2001 called BPong.com. A couple of years later he hosted the first World Series of Beer Pong, giving away a $10,000 prize to the winning team.
In the first tournament, less than 200 teams showed up. This year, from Jan. 1-5 at the Flamingo on the Las Vegas Strip, 507 squads from nine countries and 48 states competed for a $50,000 prize at the sixth annual WSOBP. Bruce Buffer announced the event and the finalists did UFC-style walkouts.
It's a massive undertaking, something akin to organizing a worldwide kegger. And Gaines, in his suit and tie, is responsible for it all.
There's fathers and sons, a pair of Las Vegas teachers, a Japanese team, a recovering alcoholic, a former college baseball pitcher, and hundreds of colleges kids on an adventure to Sin City. They name teams like fantasy football squads: You SUCK Shut Up, Vandelay Industries, We Party Like Charlie Sheen, Chuggernauts and dozens of names that are hilarious, although utterly NSFW.
None of them won. That honor went to a pair of guys from the Midwest who call themselves Standing Ovation.
But, perhaps more importantly than determining winners, the WSOBP shows Gaines has created a beer pong industry, complete with a wide range of merchandise, including $120 custom tables, $25 T-shirts and $15 racks -- similar to a billiards rack, only for plastic cups. There's even a documentary: "Last Cup: The Road to the World Series of Beer Pong."
Competition -- along with the debate if beer pong is a sport -- has been a big part of Gaines' life. He swam at Carnegie Mellon, a Division III college in Pittsburgh, where he picked up the game one night at a party at the swim team's house.
"I did terrible," he recalls. "I think I hit like one cup." Still, he was hooked.
He went from Carnegie Mellon to law school at Dayton, never giving up his passion for beer pong. He moved to Richmond, Va., and worked in patent law, which doesn't sound fun. "Nope, not compared to this," Gaines said with a smile. Along the road he met former University of Richmond swimmer Kate Hibbard, 26.
This year was her first experience at the WSOBP. "It's all he's been talking about for weeks," she said. "I thought if would be a frat party. But everyone is so nice. Yes, they are drunk. But they are so friendly and respectful."
The two swim more than they play beer pong these days. Gaines swims the 100-meter fly in 52 seconds, an impressive time for a man seven years removed from his college heyday. "For my age, I'm a better swimmer than beer pong player," he acknowledged.
In part, that's because these days the commissioner of the beer pong world doesn't do much drinking. "I'm so busy," he said. "If I'm drinking, I'm wasting time." On Tuesday, with the finals in progress, Gaines sipped from a liter of water.
Beer or no beer, he's the king of beer pong. Young men continually stop him to get a photo and to tell him in slurred words exactly how awesome his website and tournament are, similar to reaction the Godfather gets in "Old School."
Now he desperately wants to make beer pong legit. Search for Billy Gaines stories and you'll see a plethora of quotes defending beer pong and fighting back against the obvious allegations that the "sport" is nothing more than an excuse for people to binge drink.
Yes, the World Series of Beer Pong allows competitors to use water instead of beer in the cups. And sport or not, they are in it to win. That is true.
"It's fierce competition," said Buffer, the man famous for introducing UFC fighters. "It's almost to the level of a fight, only with nobody throwing a punch."
But it's also true that one half of this year's championship squad, 30-year-old Dan Range of Columbia, Ill., fell down as he walked toward the final table. Moments before, he noted casually, "The finals have to start soon, I'm getting hammered."
A security guard and Buffer share a chuckle. "It's unreal, the drunker they get, the better they play," the guard marvels.
If nothing else, beer pong is probably here to stay. Stop at any college bar in any town and you'll see that the "sport" has replaced darts or Foosball, even traditional billiards, as the game of choice for imbibing with your pals.
For that, we have Billy Gaines to thank.
Mike Trask is a freelance writer in Las Vegas.