WhirlyBall is a silly sport that sticks players in goofy little vehicles and whose rules combine polo, lacrosse, and basketball. It is fun, but also ambitious.
Photo by Hillary Higgins
Flush against the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood there is an imposing edifice of fun. This building is the spiritual home—and literal future—of an idiosyncratic sport called WhirlyBall.
The interior is slick and warm and recognizably contemporary: dark cement floors, reclaimed wood furniture, a bar. It is also rather shockingly busy at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday. The crowd is well-heeled and polished, transparently professionals on corporate outings and the like. Men step out of their WhirlyBugs, the bumper car-like vehicles used to play the game, in button-up shirts. The inside of WhirlyBall—the sport and business share the same name; this will become important—has the feel of a high-end sports bar.
Three WhirlyBall courts—Webster, Elston, and Damen, named after the Chicago streets their windows look out upon—serve as the centers of attention; groups congregate outside the Webster and Elston floors, looking on as their friends/coworkers/fellow WhirlyBall players do their things; an announcer/referee provides the soundtrack. People are enjoying themselves, clearly, but also what the hell even is this?
WhirlyBall is equal parts basketball, lacrosse, and polo, and is touted by Flo-Tron Enterprises, the OEM and sole manufacturer of WhirlyBall equipment, as "the world's only totally mechanized team sport." Two teams of five take to the WhirlyBall court—a roughly 4,000 square-foot box with electrified floor panels, bumper rails along the walls, and backboards, hung like hoops, with a target in their center—on motorized WhirlyBugs. They use plastic, cesta-esque scoops (jai alai seems the preferred analogue, but in reality they are more closely related to the scoop-ball implements you played with as a child) to fling a softball-sized wiffle ball at the targets.
The catching, passing, and availing-to of the scoops for defense echoes lacrosse; the five-on-five play, backboards, and scoring system—two points per hit, three from half court—resemble basketball. But it is WhirlyBall's polo-like aspects, most notably the maneuvering of the WhirlyBug, that make it unique. The Bug itself is proprietary, having little in common with bumper cars but a passing resemblance; a steering crank operates the WhirlyBug, with a tilt to the left causing it to turn right and vice versa, something like a rudder on a boat. Spin the crank all the way around, and the WhirlyBug flips gears and drives in reverse; crank it again and you're going forward.
Game play is decidedly fast, although the WhirlyBugs themselves are not. The vehicles top out around four miles per hour, but the scoops allow for full-court passes and shots; their lack of brakes guarantee constant movement and jockeying, and the opportunity to crank it in reverse on defense or for a fast break incentivize it. More than that, the rules encourage it: players are allowed to run opponents off the ball, and only hitting from behind is illegal, and fouls are tallied by the announcers-cum-officials watching the game from sky boxes, who award points to the aggrieved team at contest's end without ever interrupting play.
The courts, seemingly spacious while empty, fill up fast with 10 WhirlyBugs humming about, and the singular speed of the mounts makes properly executed fast breaks impossible to stop, as there's no way to accelerate if you let them get behind. Combine this with the relative ease of scoring and make-it take-it possesion rules—plus the inevitable drops and miscues and ensuing polo-esque, position jockeying scrambles—means games get up and down regularly.
To play WhirlyBug is to have one's head and hand constantly on a swivel, surveying the court while steering the relentless WhirlyBugs, selachian beasts that they are, into advantageous positions and away from, say, corners, walls, or the back bumper of teammates. When the ball hits the ground, it becomes a mad scramble to pull up alongside and pull the ball into the skirt, from there guided by a sharp flick of the wrist to a teammate or as a shot on the target. Passes come short and long, fast and parabolic, bounced off floors, walls, even the windows; the whole thing is underscored by laughter, the announcer, and the ever-present hum of those rinky-dink engines.
"It's a lot of moving parts all at once," said Mark Biery. Biery has been playing WhirlyBall for five years now, having arrived in Chicago from California and desperately seeking some winter activity. Biery is the founder of Live to Support, an adult sport social league wherein teams play for their charities of choice; WhirlyBall Chicago hosted his first charity bowling tournament last winter at is in-house bowling lanes.
The game is surprisingly intuitive, and takes just one or two matches to develop a feel for, but there is the possibility for another level of mastery. Enthusiasts who have taken to the electrified floor as often as Biery can develop complex communication systems to organize strategies and run plays. "Because it's such a small space, it's almost like you don't even have to use verbal cues anymore," Biery said. "It's head cues. And that's where the good teams are the best. They don't actually say 'give me the ball' or 'right here, right here!,' they have non-verbal cues with their heads and with the way they move their opposite hand that they...it's almost like you can't get by them, because they know what they are doing. Normally in most sports you're vocal."
This is at the higher end of the WhirlyBall playing spectrum, admittedly. For the most part, WhirlyBall games are gleefully chaotic, combining the abandon one feels behind the wheel of a mighty machine with the patent ridiculousness, in the best sense, of a sport built to make smiling maelstroms of many participants. In keeping with the singular nature of the game, it divulges from sport in another key way, as well: with the introduction of the truly meritocratic baseline.
The WhirlyBug is the game's great equalizer. An ace athlete's hand-eye coordination and team sport fundamentals will do nothing to aid in steering this goofy thing. Even the unlikely event of having a regular polo player or go-kart driver on the court will do little to tip the scales, and this is by design. The WhirlyBug defies transfer of skills, and makes rank beginners out of everyone. This hugely democratizing aspect of the game—important enough to key a Wall Street Journal feature—helps to make WhirlyBall unique.
"That's really the sweet spot about WhirlyBall," said Adam Elias. "It really levels the playing field, from triathlete to those that only occasionally, if ever, go to the gym. Everybody is going the same speed, and it can really bring a whole group of people together. Especially from a corporate aspect."
Of course he would say this, because Adam Elias is the Director of Business Development for Chicago's WhirlyBall facilities—aside from Bucktown, there are suburban locations in Lombard and Vernon Hills—and son of Sam Elias, who brought the game to the Chicagoland area after a particularly inspirational birthday party at a WhirlyBall facility in South Florida. Elias grew up in the game, as the son of a true WhirlyBall believer.
"He was in technology," Adam Elias said of his father. "In computer software, ran his own company, and was doing well at it but wanted to change, wanted to do something different."
Attracted by the uniqueness of the business and the lure of geographic licensing, Sam Elias set out to open his own WhirlyBall facility, eventually settling on the Midwest. There was already WhirlyBall in greater Detroit, and Sam visited in the name of reconnaissance and due diligence. "He went up to visit Detroit, looked at their operation, looked at what they were doing, looked at all the various things they were willing to share," Adam said. "And in his hotel room—pre-internet—pulled out his Rand McNally, and looked across the lake and said 'Well, if Detroit can do this, Chicago is a dense market, has a lot of opportunity...'"
The original opened in Lombard in 1993, followed by a Chicago location at Fullerton and Damen and a Vernon Hills iteration. Imminent Domain claimed the Fullerton spot in 2013, which led to the construction of the new 50,000 square foot WhirlyBall palace. This one is visible from the highway, and is now, according to the Elias family, the largest such facility in the world. It's the sport's new standard bearer, which makes Chicago something like the current capital city of WhirlyBall.
WhirlyBall was invented in 1962 in Murray, Utah. As People recounts it, inventor and former auto-shop owner Stan Mangum saw his son Kim playing hockey while riding in a golf cart. "It struck me that hockey had been played on horses, on elephants, on skates—but it had never been played from a machine," Mangum told People. "I decided to invent one."
The electrified floor, which provides power to the WhirlyBugs and allows them a freedom of movement that would be impossible with standard bumper car power plants—and which spares all involved the noise, exhaust, and cost of gasoline engines as well as allowing for the high ceilings crucial to game play—proved the key in the development. The Mangums formed Flo-tron Enterprises, began selling geographic licenses for WhirlyBall equipment. The game's expansion began.
Echoing the game's past, the father and son Elias team will now shepherd WhirlyBall into the future. In 2012, the nascent Elias WhirlyBall empire met with Flo-tron. "They were looking to potentially formally franchise the concept," Adam Elias said. "They said, 'Well, the guys in Chicago have been doing this for 20 solid years at this point, and if anyone is the best operator to do this, it's the team in Chicago.' By 2013 we had created an agreement with the manufacturers to be the franchiser of WhirlyBall. Our goal is to allow those who want open a WhirlyBall, to give them a tool kit and everything they are going to need to do that."
This means that any new WhirlyBall, from this point on, will look something like the flagship in Bucktown. It's a move that could shape the future of the sport. There are already leagues and nationals; WhirlyBall is already being contested as a truly competitive, albeit niche, sport. While Chicago's WhirlyBall has leagues, they are co-ed and predominantly recreational; they are small, and meant to be small. Elias sees WhirlyBall as a game first and foremost, a team building exercise or fun, democratic activity which introduces competition to a uniquely leveled—and therefore more fun and fair—playing field. Elias is not trying to get WhirlyBall a TV deal or an international profile. He just believes he has a game that's great and different and fun, and believes that will be enough. He believes the game's future is already visible in Chicago. You'll see it from the highway.