Dodgeball clubs for adults mix athletics and social interaction
The players were in standard uniforms: gym shorts, knee socks, brightly colored shirts with names stenciled on the back. Two teams stood on opposite sides of the gym touching the lime green walls with one arm outstretched, tense with expectation. Six red and yellow rubber balls lay in a perfect row between the two groups along a faded green line.
Then the whistle blew.
Suddenly there was a flurry of arms and legs, some in ballet-like poses, some less graceful, streaks of yellow and red filling the air. Cries of laughter and of consternation competed with the constant squeaking of sneakers on hardwood. The space echoed with the thunder of the balls smashing into walls, the floor, people.
If this sounds like a typical game of dodgeball, you’re right. But if you thought the players were the juice-box and Fruit Roll-Up set, you’re wrong. Instead, the players were all in their 20s and 30s, competing in a series of playoff games.
Dodgeball is growing exponentially and offering the Generation X and Y crowd a chance to get in shape, meet people and indulge in a healthy dose of nostalgia.
Since the 2004 movie “Dodgeball,” starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller, amateur and professional dodgeball clubs have exploded across the country.
“Dodgeball got such an amazing surge of popularity because of the movie,” said Amy Short, the founder of the New York City Social Sports Club, which is the host of a dodgeball league. “The No. 1 comment I get is, ‘Wow, I haven’t played this game in 15 years.’”
When Short, 33, founded her club in Manhattan in July 2004, she had only about 60 members. She stood outside movie theaters when “Dodgeball” came out to recruit new players. Today, she has a roster of about 800 people.
Outside New York, dodgeball club have been organized in nearly every area of the country. Mark Murphy, 30, is the president of the National Dodgeball Association, a three-year-old organization whose goals include linking local clubs together and getting dodgeball recognized as an Olympic sport.
The association is based in Sacramento, Calif., but its organizers travel to Arizona, Maryland, Oregon and Utah to sponsor tournaments. Then there’s the national tournament in Las Vegas.
Murphy was quick to point out that the sport is not just attracting new players. He said one Arizona tournament he attended took place not in a tiny gym but in a huge stadium, and attracted about 10,000 fans.
In Minneapolis, Niki LaGrano, 24, operations director of the three-year-old National Dodgeball League, also sponsors amateur club tours and tournaments. She has been to events in Dallas; Chicago; St. Louis; Orange County, Calif.; Ohio; and Massachusetts.
But much of her focus is on the local Dodge-It-Centers in Minnesota--warehouses that have been transformed into dodgeball meccas. There, the league works to bring the sport not just to dedicated league players, but also to people who just want to play for fun.
The centers sponsor child and adult dodgeball birthday parties, dodgeball corporate events, dodgeball fundraisers--even dodgeball bachelor parties. “The bachelor parties are not X-rated,” LaGrano said.
Both Murphy and LaGrano acknowledge that dodgeball organizations nationwide are still fragmented, as are the rules and versions of the game. There are even different names for the game itself--is it dodgeball, dodge ball, knee ball, killer ball?
In addition to leagues, there is the Midwest Dodgeball Conference of intramural collegiate clubs, originally based at Michigan State University; the National Amateur Dodgeball Association, based in Illinois; and an International Dodge Ball Federation, based in Mississippi. The founder of the international club, Rusty Walker, is working to link U.S.-based clubs with those as far away as Japan. None are officially connected now.
Murphy hopes that connecting the groups will increase the popularity of the sport. But fragmentation isn’t the only future challenge that dodgeball clubs face. Nearly all current members grew up playing dodgeball on the playground or in school. But there might not be droves of dodgeball-savvy players in a generation or two. In New York, Texas, Utah and Virginia, some public school districts have banned the sport.
One of the most vocal supporters of the ban has been Neil Williams, dean of the health and physical education department at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has argued in academic journals that dodgeball doesn’t offer children much in the way of physical exercise and instead encourages them to look at one another as targets.
For now, adult clubs have dodged the controversy, riding a wave of nostalgia that connects diverse groups of people. During the playoffs in New York, there were teams of accountants and employees of VH1; of whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians; of Manhattanites and out-of-towners; of strangers, friends, lovers and married couples.
Short said that this year, the club’s first predominantly gay team was formed, calling itself The Mariah Careys. Matching gold gym shorts, headbands and knee socks complete their look. All the groups mingle after the games at one of the sponsoring bars.
Many dodgeball clubs, like the three in New York City, emphasize the social side of game as much, if not more, than the athletics. The playground sport is taken seriously by some, but most are there for the fun of it.
“Everyone comes out here to have fun,” said Nick Judge, 26, captain of the MTV Networks team, Saved By The Balls. “We’re all hard-nosed on the court, but after the game, we can all shake hands.”
Short said the simplicity of the game is among the reasons the game stays friendly and the sport continues to grow.
And what about the violence of the sport? “When I see a guy getting too rough, I tell him, ‘Listen, no one’s clocking your fastball,” Short said. “And if you hurt her, you’re not going to get her phone number.’ It always works.”