Shaun Boyer [pink shirt, left] and Skyler Boles [pink shirt, right] during a semifinal match in Santa Barbara this year. Photo by: Robert Austin
Skyler Boles and Shaun Boyer are used to being stared at by strangers. It’s not uncommon for crowds of curious onlookers to gather as they dive and swat a little yellow ball onto what looks like miniature trampoline. In fact, they count on the inquisitive looks of passersby as the pair hone their skills on the sands of Alamitos Beach, hoping to spread the gospel of the obscure but growing sport of Spikeball.
The duo, who moved to Long Beach from Chico earlier this year, are the de facto national champions of the sport, having not lost a tournament in over a year. Their Chico Spikeball team has taken down opponents in the muddy, frozen confines of Harvard University, blew over the competition in the Windy City and reigned victorious at a tournament held last year in New York where 90 plus teams helped set the world record for competitors in a Spikeball tournament.
“It’s not as huge in other countries so it’s pretty safe to say we’re the best team in the world,” the 24-year-old Boles said jokingly.
Though taking the sport global isn’t outside the realm of possibilities, but first the Northern California natives want to conquer Long Beach and the surrounding cities. Their first mission is to answer the question that everyone inevitably asks: what is Spikeball?
The game made its debut as a failed 1980s era toy that enjoyed only a brief stint on the shelves of Toys R Us. However, Chris Ruder, the current CEO of Spikeball Inc., was one of the people to purchase the set while it was available in stores. His decision to buy the rights and resuscitate the product came to fruition when Spikeball sold its first set in 2008. Six years have passed and the weird trampoline game is making its way onto campuses, classrooms and beaches nationwide.
Essentially, it’s a hybrid sport that joins the rules of volleyball, the physics of four-square and the social aspect of Hacky Sack. Four players gather around the circular net and play on a 360-degree field, where return hits don’t necessarily have to be directed toward your opponents. Like volleyball, a typical game goes to 21 or until somebody wins by two, but the chaos introduced by the utter lack of sides has the potential to lead to brawls according to the official rule book. But in all seriousness, or lack thereof, the game brings fun to the beach, lawn or whichever surface you choose to play it on.
“Win or lose a point, everyone is always smiling, laughing and having a good time even at a really competitive level,” Boles said. “That’s something that I don’t see in other sports.”
It’s a playful game, even if you’re perennially finishing in second place behind Chico Spikeball. Bryce Clifford, one half of the SoCal-based Handsome Beavers, knows the frustration of coming meeting Boles and Boyer in the finals of national tournaments. Clifford joked about possibly having to revert to tactics employed by Tanya Harding in order to finally unseat the champs, but even in bitter defeat they’ve forged a friendship. Clifford has helped the duo introduce Long Beach natives to the sport and he agrees that the sport is primed to explode.
“Every year less people are asking us if it’s a trampoline and now they’re saying,' Hey, it’s Spikeball,’” Clifford said. “So, I think SoCal is a prime place for Spikeball given that we have sun and beaches.”
Chico Spikeball and Clifford recently spent time at the World Series of Beach Volleyball event trying to bring people into the fold of the Spikeball movement with quick tutorials on how to play the quirky game. They both admit that the game really sells itself, with a simple equation of curiosity plus participation equaling converts.
“It’s much easier to convince someone once they’ve started playing because they realize how much fun they’re having,” Boyer said. “We try and put a lot of effort into getting people to play instead of just watching.”
When Chico Spikeball hosts its first tournament outside the shadows of the almond trees and the famed brewery of their home town, they’re hopeful that the city of Long Beach will come out to play, too. The first Spikeball tournament in the city is slated for August 16 where upward of 40 teams will take part in the Long Beach Classic. The tournament is open to all skill levels with both a casual and competitive bracket. Registration for the tournament is $40 per team.
Boles is hopeful that the sport will follow the same arc of success that the fictional sport chronicled in the late 1990s comedy BASEketball, starring Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in which the South Park creators took a sport from the driveway to the big league. Boles recognizes the similarities between BASEketball-as-an-actual-sport, which he played growing up in Chico, and the sport of Spikeball. Both are homegrown movements with a style of play that falls outside the realm of the mainstream.
Although Spikeball doesn’t involve the use of grotesque, over-the-top “psyche-outs,” it does require athleticism and coordination, especially when trying to maneuver through the sand. The physical demands are an added benefit to the game that can be both recreational and competitive, something that Boles thinks will resonate in this city. Spikeball, like the film's invented sport, is unique and whacky but, at the same time, competitive and requires skill. Both sets of qualities are what drew him to the sport and what he believes will carry it into the mainstream.
“You get inspired by that movie because you know, it may be some crazy thing but if you get a cult following and people take it seriously and sponsors start putting money into it, it can turn into a real thing and can be a lot bigger than something people think of as some fun beach game,” Boles said.
Whether it be on the beach, the hardwood floors of a gymnasium or in the physical education classes that the company has infiltrated with their game, the sport has grown immensely over the past few years. Boles noted that when they attended a tournament in Manhattan Beach two years ago, there were 21 teams registered for competition. When the sport returned to the same venue just six months later, the field of teams had doubled.
It’s estimated that there are over 125,000 spikeballers by USA Spikeball, something that is hard to imagine coming from a once defunct toy which hails from an era where big hair and acid washed jeans were in vogue. But Spikeball is taking hold in cities across the country and Boles is hopeful that the wave of popularity will follow the bouncing yellow ball to Long Beach.
“It’s absolutely blown up in the last two years,” Boles said. “Everyone’s starting to catch on and it’s getting more organized and more intense and more fun and more people are jumping on the bandwagon.”