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Making Up a Sport Helps Folks Regain Their Mojo
* SEPTEMBER 23, 2009
Making Up a Sport Helps Folks Regain Their Mojo - WSJ.com
A Riff on Kickball Adds the 'Mayhem Zone'; Hurling, With a Touch of Whiffle
By ANJALI ATHAVALEY
Eric Heiberg wasn't a fan of traditional sports. So three years ago, the 37-year-old computer programmer and comedian decided to invent his own.
The result was Mojo Kickball, a fast-paced game with elements of tag, dodgeball and touch football. Its official rules are complicated: The pitcher is on the kicker's team, and runners score at third base. At a recent game in Austin, Texas, Mr. Heiberg, dressed in a Mojo T-shirt, shouted calls like "Yellow ball live" and "You were in the mayhem zone," referring to an area behind home plate that the fielding team can't enter for most of the game.
Mojo is catching on. About 500 people have joined Mr. Heiberg's email list. It used to be that only his fellow comedic improvisers would show up to play, but these days, 20 to 40 players ranging from children to college graduates attend weekly games. Mojo is about having fun, camaraderie and "all that mushy hippie stuff," said Mr. Heiberg, who refers to players as Mojonauts.
Mojo Kickball is one of a number of recently invented -- and sometimes bizarre -- sports gaining a loyal following. The economy is one reason cited for the increased interest. An annual survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in Silver Spring, Md., found that, last year, casual pickup games in several sports, such as volleyball and basketball, were more popular than organized league games costing money to play. "The stopping of spending opened up time not dedicated or committed to things," said Rich Luker, president of the Luker Co., a consulting firm on American social life and free time in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Other new sports that have grown in popularity in recent years include whiffle hurling -- a twist on the brutal Irish sport but with whiffle bats and balls -- and Circle Rules Football, a game played with an exercise ball that adds elements of basketball, soccer and rugby. Matt Archambault, marketing manager at the NYC Social Sports Club, which offers offbeat sports such as broomball and inner-tube water polo, said he gets calls about once a month from people who say they have invented a new sport and want the club to offer it. The New York club is currently looking into offering office-chair polo but hasn't found a gym willing to store the chairs.
The appeal of such games is simple. "By creating games, we are able to start again with doing something for the love of play," Mr. Luker said. "Your goal is not to create something that is going to have a Super Bowl."
Yet some creators of new games have higher ambitions. Mark Wilmot, the founder of Super Scoreball, a sport that begins with a game of tug of war and progresses into a combination of soccer and basketball, hopes that it will one day be played in high schools and colleges. He has written an instruction book that he sells online. "There's going to be a new world sport created," said Mr. Wilmot, 50, of North Oxford, Mass. "Why wait for someone else to do it?"
Eric Heiberg thought competitive sports were just too competitive, so he decided to invent one of his own. He calls it Mojo Kickball. WSJ's Anjali Athavaley reports.
Of course, one of these games could be the next big thing. Major sports like baseball and football had similar origins, said Benjamin Rader, professor emeritus of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of "American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Spectators." "These sports started out as player-centered activities and have now turned into spectator activities."
Mr. Heiberg the inventor of Mojo Kickball, wanted to create something different from today's popular sports, where he says weak players are often considered a burden on the team and don't get much playing time. He was motivated by personal experience. When it came to sports, "I was pretty much second-string in everything I did," he said.
He invented Mojo Kickball as a sport for athletes and nonathletes. Since the game is casually organized and the concept goofy, it is less competitive than other sports, Mojo fans say. "Because it's always a pickup game, you never really form huge alliances, which helps kind of keep the competition at a pretty healthy level," said Leslie Geller, 39, an assistant to Seth Walker, a blues singer in Austin. Ms. Geller first started playing in 2007.
The setup for Mojo looks similar to regular kickball. A pitcher stands at the "ball corral," a spot at the center of the field marked by a rope or a cord. One team kicks at home plate while the other stands in the field.
Beyond that, the game gets more complicated. Six colorful balls are pitched to the kicking team, one after another. Runners are guarded by "chasers" who try to prevent them from being tagged out. Chasers can also tag players on the fielding team while they are holding balls. There are unlimited outs, strikes and fouls.
About 25 players showed up for the recent game at Austin's Krieg Softball Complex and never stopped moving. As soon as one player kicked the ball, another lined up to do the same. Runners stole bases as soon as they saw the opportunity.
The game appeared to be an intense workout. Players flocked to the water coolers between 12-minute quarters, panting. One even nursed an injury. "One of my tendencies is to slide into base," said Joy Emery, 24, a teacher's assistant. But this time, she worried that she had twisted her ankle.
"I just got to put an ice pack on it and sit out Mojo," she said. So she kept score while resting. The final result: The green team beat the red team 40 to 36.
New players generally find Mojo Kickball confusing. For example, early in the game, Mark Japinga kicked the ball into the outfield as hard as he could. Later, he realized that wasn't the best strategy. "Early on, you just want to play kickball," said the 22-year-old consultant. "You should forget everything you learned about kickball."
Still, many first-time Mojo players end up coming back. "I like the fact that people are making up their own games and that they can just get a group of people together every week to do it," Mr. Japinga said.
As the game expands, Mr. Heiberg has plans for it, some of which he acknowledges may be controversial within the Mojo community. For one thing, he wants to start a league. People would have to pay to play because it costs money to rent the field regularly.
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