World Series, Super Bowl and… WhirlyBall?


Like many kids, my little cousins spend most of their time on a baseball diamond or a… Like many kids, my little cousins spend most of their time on a baseball diamond or a basketball court with the hopes of one day making it to the big leagues. They have aspirations of being a future MVP of the World Series and the Super Bowl and competing in a WhirlyBall championship – wait, what championship?

Apparently, there exists some quasi-sport/game called WhirlyBall, which is rapidly growing in popularity and being billed as the “X Games” of recreational activities. Having never heard of such a thing, I took it upon myself to discover what the WhirlyBall hype was all about.

WhirlyBall is what you get when you combine elements of basketball, jai alai, lacrosse and bumper cars together. It is a team game played in only a handful of locations throughout the United States and Canada because it requires a specialized court for the “Whirlybugs,” small electric vehicles akin to bumper cars.

Unlike most bumper cars, however, Whirlybugs are much more complex because their power is not provided by an overhead grid but rather by alternating conducting plates that make up the floor of the court. The “Bug” is steered by a handle that looks like a crank, which allows players to steer side-to-side and backward.

Each team can only have four or five players maximum, who are then divided into red and yellow Whirlybugs. Players are then handed a lacrosse-like stick to scoop up and toss the game ball – a softball-sized wiffle ball. The game is played on a 50-by-80-foot court with a 10-foot-high goal attached to each end. The goal consists of a circular hole 16 inches in diameter. Players attempt to shoot the wiffle ball through the hole in order to score points, or “Whirlics,” which score like basketball – two or three depending on where you shoot.

Some of the few rules that exist prohibit players from leaving their cars or touching the ball with their hands. The floor itself acts as a deterrent from people leaving their cars because electric currents run through the court during the match, which could give a person quite a shock.

Players are also prohibited from driving full-speed into the wall or ramming people from behind. If this is done, a four-point penalty is administered. Other than that, almost anything is allowed. The game is fast-paced and, because of a lack of many restrictions, can be physical, humiliating and at times a little vicious. That is why players must be at least 12 years old to participate.

WhirlyBall could not be played in a battery-powered system like the kind used in amusement park bumper cars because of the cables and grids. Therefore, it only became possible with the invention of the low-voltage open-circuit electrified floor. Taking advantage of that opportunity, Stan Mangum, a Salt Lake City entrepreneur/inventor went to work on developing the Whirlybug and had it patented in 1960.

Soon after, he conceived WhirlyBall, though the credit for its recent climb in popularity is because of the work of Mangum’s son Kim, the founder of Flo-Tron Enterprises.

Flo-Tron distributes the franchise rights and equipment for WhirlyBall, which today is played as a competitive sport with organized leagues. In fact, each year an international tournament is held at differing locations throughout the United States and Canada. Even though more and more WhirlyBall leagues are created each year, the game is still more commonly played for entertainment.

Most WhirlyBall locations have a Dave and Buster’s-type atmosphere, offering food, pool and other games to play between matches. Currently, there are WhirlyBall locations in Dallas and other parts of Texas, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas, Seattle, Atlanta, Toronto, Connecticut, New Jersey and Detroit.

According to one of the Chicago locations, as long as there is no league, anyone can walk in without reservations and play a 30-minute pickup game for $10 per person. Many groups reserve a one-hour block for a $180 flat rate as well.

So while it still may be many years before you hear all of the local kids shouting, “I want to be the next WhirlyBall champion,” don’t rule it out, either. Sure, WhirlyBall isn’t exactly a traditional sport. But don’t forget that some people are currently making large sums of money in “sports” such as pool, ballroom dancing and NASCAR.

Yet, even if WhirlyBall never makes it in the prime time, rest assured it will eventually find its place on Sunday mornings on ESPN2, probably nestled in between professional bowling and bass fishing.