Beach volleyball players might be the most iconic athletes on Chicago’s lakefront, but at a late-July tournament at Oak Street Beach, 30 teens and young adults were attracting attention with a different kind of ball and net. The sport is Spikeball. Played with a rubber ball the size of an orange and a net resembling a mini trampoline, it’s quietly earning a passionate following among teens in the Chicago area and spreading across the country.
“If volleyball and four square had a kid, it would be named Spikeball,” says Chris Ruder, president of Spikeball. He and the company’s cofounders (a mix of relatives and boyhood friends, mostly from Kankakee) started playing the obscure sport circa 1990 as teens. The company that originally made the game sets went out of business, but the guys continued to play over the years.
In 2006, some of them were vacationing in Hawaii together and attracted so much attention playing Spikeball on the beach that they decided to try to acquire the game’s rights and relaunch it. Today, they’re a four-year-old, Wicker Park–based start-up reviving the sport, with a branded website that sells thousands of game sets online to fans in countries as far away as Norway and Brazil. Plus, they’re earning legions of Facebook fans who are starting their own Spikeball clubs around the U.S.
One devoted contingent developed several years ago at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, when a friend of Ruder’s brought some Spikeball sets home and the neighborhood kids took notice. Eighteen-year-old Tom Cortesi, a recent Prospect High grad, says he started playing Spikeball as a freshman. “Some of the older students taught us how to play, and we’ve been going to tournaments for four years now.” His friend and former schoolmate Mike Zagone, 17, says he loves the endurance and agility the sport demands. “It’s a fast-thinking game. It uses everything [you have].”
When Ruder learned that Naperville’s Neuqua Valley High School had an accomplished Ultimate Frisbee team, he donated a few sets to its coach on a hunch the team members would love it. They did. Today, students from both schools get together to compete, and Ruder is seeing Spikeball spread nationwide as kids graduate and bring their sets to college.
It’s not just a kids’ game (Spikeball’s target audience is 13 to 35 years old), but it’s a no-brainer why it polls high with the younger set. It requires just four players, it’s self-officiated, and the equipment (which retails for $50) is portable. There are also two styles of play: anything goes (serve as hard as you want) or family friendly (just get the ball in play). Ruder also says it’s a killer workout—especially on sand—but you can play it anywhere. “The vast majority of people don’t live within 100 miles of a beach. You can play it in backyards, at tailgates, basketball courts or parks.”
The thing he loves most, though, is how social the sport is. “I can’t tell you how many good friends of mine I’ve met from random people coming up and asking, ‘What is this game?’ It’s [about] bringing strangers together and having some fun.”
To order a Spikeball set or see videos of the sport, visit spikeball.com.
1. The game is played two-on-two, with each team on opposite sides of the circular net. Team one serves the ball by bouncing it off the net, toward its opponent.
2. Like volleyball, the opposing players have three hits between the two of them before they must spike it on the net.
3. Once the ball is served, there are no sides—the game is played 360 degrees around the net.
4. Scores tally in traditional “sideout” rules, meaning if the team that serves makes a mistake, the ball goes to the other team.
5. Games are played to 21; win by 2 points.