This is how a game of Muggle Quidditch — a full-contact cross between basketball, handball, rugby, and mayhem — goes down. A lanky 20-something wearing gold clothing materializes out of a crowd that surrounds a small field on New York’s Randall’s Island. For a brief moment, he goes unnoticed, observing the chaos around him. Some members of the two, seven-person teams—five men and two women—pass a deflated volleyball back and forth, while others hurl three gym balls at their opposition. Quickly, a player spots the golden runner, and yells "Snitch" to his teammate, who immediately turns to pursue, targeting the tennis ball in a sock that is affixed to his quarry's waist. He moves in for the kill, only to be thrown to the ground by the Snitch. His opposite number also attempts to grab the tennis ball, but is forced to dismount his broom and return to his starting area after getting drilled with a gym ball. The first player, back on his feet, lunges at the sock and grabs it with his outstretched arm. He raises his arms in triumph while his teammates drop their brooms and pile on top of him to celebrate.
Oh, and each of the 14 participants does every action with one hand while using the other to hold a four-foot broom between his or her legs.
Based on the game of the same name in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, this version of Quidditch came into existence at Middlebury College in 2005. Bored freshman Xander Manshel and some friends adapted the rules, trading flying rings for hula hoops, flying brooms for land-bound ones, and the winged Golden Snitch for a guy or girl dressed in gold. It caught on with students who grew up with the wizard and quickly spread throughout colleges and universities in the Northeast. The rest of the country followed.
The appeal is obvious. The sport is fast-paced, with four balls and the human Snitch for just 14 people. There's constant action, with three "Chasers" passing the "Quaffle" (volleyball) back and forth as they attempt to score on one of three hula hoops defended by the keeper. The "Beaters" attempt to bean the Chasers with one of three "Bludgers." Game strategies are are constantly being refined due to the newness of the sport. "The 2010 World Cup was about fast breaks and scoring. In 2011, it went to a more Beater-oriented game," Brittany Holzherr, captain of the NYU Nundu, says without a trace of irony. "If you didn't have two Bludgers on your team, you were screwed." (For reference, the UCLA team created a nice primer, or there is a beautifully produced 30-minute documentary about the 2010 World Cup.)
Quidditch is also full-contact. Beaters can tackle the Chasers, wresting the Quaffle from their grasp. Referees attempt to enforce rules designed to prevent injuries, but arms, legs, brooms, and tackling inevitably lead to cuts, bruises, and the occasional broken collarbone. A fleet of EMTs volunteered at the World Cup, which, because of the stakes, is more violent than most matches. The organizer of a recent 10-team tournament was pleased that "only" two players needed treatment. Getting hurt can also be a badge of honor. "I got stabbed in the chest [with a broom accidentally], and I think I have a scar," Kyle Sanson, captain of the University of Rochester Thestrals, says of the first time he played.
The Earthbound version of Quidditch is bigger than anyone dreamed. But growing pains have accompanied the sport's success — and now, the future of the game is at stake. International Quidditch Association commissioner Alex Benepe and his cadre of loyal IQA volunteers are attempting to build a sport that didn't exist a decade ago into a sustainable organization. (The IQA has 150 dues-paying teams from around the world.) They need to balance the conflicting desires of the exploding membership body and build revenue streams. They also need to increase awareness beyond college campuses, which will help eliminate the confused laughter or eyerolls players receive when they say they play the sport.
As the game has grown it has begun attracting a more highly-skilled breed of athlete, and though these new players have improved the level of competition, they also come expecting a more professional organization. Allison Gillette, a four-season, four-year varsity letterwinner in high school and outgoing president of the Emerson College Quidditch, represents this growing group. As a member of the 12-person committee that wrote the first rule book and the current Vermont State Representative to the IQA, she feels a sense of pride in having helped build the sport, but she expresses frustrations with some of the organizational priorities. "At the World Cup last year, a lot of time, energy, and money went into creating performances and having memorabilia there and things to sell, but the brackets got all messed up, the scores didn't come in in time, everyone was running around with their heads cut off, the referees made some big mistakes, and all the athletes were angry afterwards," she says.
After the event, Gillette— who was named Gameplay Director for the 2013 World Cup, putting her in charge of regulating competition —wrote a letter to Benepe detailing her concerns. The event, held in one of six cities that submitted bids, will include only 60 teams with the regional championships serving as qualifiers. Gillette wants to focus more on the sporting side of the tournament. "The people who were in the top tier of organizers and players in the IQA were more used to Quidditch as the way it used to be: a whimsical, fun Sunday afternoon thing to do. I don't think they had the resources or the personalities to jump into the switch when it became more of an athletic activity. That's nobody's fault; that's just not what they are used to," she says.
In addition to the potential schism between Quidditch's two constituencies, the sport has another pressing problem: money. "Right now it's run totally by volunteers. You can only make that work for so long," says Benepe, who left his job as a project manager at Phil & Co. in November, 2010 to focus on Quidditch. "Eventually you need people who can work on it full time and who can totally dedicate their lives to it. People want to do it, but they need to eat, you know?"
Generating revenue isn't a simple as saying "accio galleons!" There are membership fees for teams, and the IQA sells merchandise and tickets to events. (Prices for the 2011 World Cup ranged from $4.99 to $99.99, an event that cost upwards of $100,000 to stage.) They are also pursuing advertising, but only in forms that won't tarnish the legacy of the game. Furthermore, while Benepe says Warner Brothers has so far been hands off and J.K. Rowling is "supportive" of the effort, the IQA will likely find itself dealing with copyright issues and cease-and-desist letters if the revenue grows. "To make it into a viable, for-profit business, everybody who has a piece of the Harry Potter franchise will come after them in a heartbeat," sports marketing expert Joe Favorito says. (Warner Brothers did not respond to a request for comment.)
Favorito suggests the only way the IQA can make money is through a partnership. The World Cup is a marketable event, one that could be held at Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter or at Potter festivals around the country. He believes they could team up with a company like AEG or Front Row Marketing, likening Quidditch to jousting or Jedi battles at Comic-Con.
But the sport as currently constructed has limits in terms of spectator interest: It's still just a bunch of people running around with broomstick between their legs. "It's not flying through the air, which would make this an amazing television event," Favorito says. In the end, the group bringing Muggle Quidditch to the world may find the Golden Snitch just out of reach.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer with credits in The Wall Street Journal, SportsIllustrated.com, GQ.com, and many other publications.