Beyond the baseball diamond and the football gridiron, there are fields and gyms where sports you may never have heard of are thriving. Players wearing large plastic bubbles play bubble soccer, kickers in sepak takraw play volleyball without their hands and ballers shoot each other with paintballs.
These unusual sports have found a way to thrive by spreading through social media, generating countless likes and views for the sports. In addition, they help publicize rules and strategies, which develops the game. Online retailers are able to send sporting equipment across the world, meeting the needs of new sports.
Joe Jackiewicz, co-founder of Stratus Bubble Soccer, said that his business would not have survived the competitive entertainment market without digital advertising.
“People buy into their interests,” Jackiewicz said. “Not everyone is interested in football, soccer and baseball and I think the internet allows them to find the perfect hobby for them.”
With social media, unknown sports can go viral in a matter of seconds. Take paintball, a sport where players shoot each other with compressed paint in a mock battlefield. The sport, which started in the 1980s as a survival game, has now developed an international player base, with leagues across the world. According to Statista.com, more than 3 million people played paintball in 2015 in the United States alone.
“Paintball has done a great job of growing,” Jackiewicz said. “It serves as a model to the whole [unusual sports] industry as a whole.”
Like many unusual sports, paintball provides a haven for those not as interested in more common sports. It allows for another way for players to express their competitiveness.
“There is a lot more adrenaline in paintball compared to other sports,” said junior Nigel Chen. “I had a lot of fun playing [paintball].”
But it is hard for a sport to reach the success of paintball. Most sports are bogged down by operating costs, lack of organized leagues and commitments from players. Sports are a business to consumer company, meaning that they sell a product or service directly to their customers. Because of this, the only way a sport can increase their revenue is through buying more equipment and larger fields to accommodate more participants.
“For a business to consumer company, it takes a long time for it to grow,” Jackiewicz said. “The main way that we can grow our business is by buying more customers.”
Another concern for these sports is lack of proper safety protocols due to lack of development of the game, thus increasing the risk of injury. Players who participate in sports like Broomball, a sport played on ice without skates, experience dangerous falls on a normal basis. Even sports like bubble soccer, a sport that seems harmless, could result in numerous lower-body injuries due to lack of protection there.
“When you play any sport, you are always in risk of injury,” Jackiewicz said. “To make sure we reduce the amount of injuries, we make sure to pick the best [soccer] fields. We make sure participants know the danger of the sport and they wear the proper footwear.”
As sports develop, like paintball, they form professional teams and leagues. NXL Paintball, the world’s largest paintball league, has over 250 professional teams that compete for a total pot bonus of more than $45,000. This growth leads to more clear guidelines on safety, developing safer rules and making more protective equipment.
Many unusual sports are still stuck as a form of show business rather than high-intensity competitions. Frequently, participants are inherently hindered in their ability to be the best they can be.
Enforcing physical limitations on each player allows for an egalitarian playing field due to the lowered skill ceiling, which enables each player to participate, thus differing from a typical sport where the best players dominate.
Yet this is not necessarily bad. Drifting away from modern competitiveness and leaning towards a mantra of fun has been beneficial to many sports, including Bubble Soccer. These sports are able to provide an “all can play’’ mentality, a stark contrast to the win-first mentality of mainstream sports today, such as football and basketball.
“The whole point of Bubble Soccer is so that everyone can have fun,” Jackiewicz said. “It’s much easier to play defense against Messi when he’s in a bubble.”