In the late ’90s, you couldn’t find an open patch of grass in Montreal without at least one circle of guys kicking a small woven beanbag in the air.
“Used to be, you’d see 10 to 20 regulars hacky sackin’ at any given time,” says James, a 35-year-old who’s been a regular footbagger since 1997. “Now it’s maybe one to three active players, which is myself, my old kicking buddy and another player who started a few years after I did.”
As far as James knows, “there has been no new blood in the MTL scene for years.”
That’s a common sentiment among many longtime hacky sackers in America and Canada, whose parks and playgrounds were once filled with kids using their shoes, knees and heads to keep the sack in the air.
Like paintball, beezin’ and rollerblading, hacky sack is nowhere near as popular as it once was, but it was never forgotten. Dead as it may seem, hacky sack lives on as a small but active niche sport. It’s referred to as “footbag” outside the U.S. (technically, hacky sack is a brand name, like the Frisbee of flying discs) — and it’s evolving, too. Footbag pros play skilled solo competitions called “freestyle” and a team sport called “footbag net.”
I reached out to a few remaining hacky sackers to see where the game stands today, and if there’s any hope in it making a comeback.
Ilkka Malin, a board member of the International Footbag Players Association, says the late-’90s hacky sack craze came to Finland as well. “So many people played footbag, or at least kicked in school yards 15 or 20 years ago, but I have no idea why it was so big back then,” he tells MEL.
Growing up, Malin saw footbag as an alternative to more organized sports. “Footbag was free from scheduled regular trainings, plus it included hanging out with friends, and it was a good exercise,” he says. “Just perfect at that time.”
Similarly, James began playing hacky sack back in 1997, and while his friends and everyone else in his high school eventually grew tired of the sport by 2001, James continued on. “Once I went to college, I was fully into the sport,” he says, “training one to two hours daily for tournaments.”
James’ and Malin’s similar journeys with hacky sack — from a social game played in the park with a bunch of friends, to a skilled solo competition — is a reflection of where the sport overall has gone. Hacky sack is now a game of elite professional skills.
As guys like James continued to hone their hacky sack abilities while everyone else moved on to Yo-Yos, hacky sack tournaments began to sprout up. “Tournaments were all grassroots, organized by the footbag clubs in whichever city they were in,” he explains. “Players would host other players from all over the world that they’ve never met.”
Today, Malin and the IFPA are preparing for the Footbag World Championships on July 29th. “It is quite a big task for IFPA and the organizing club,” he tells MEL. “It’s the main event of the year for footbaggers, as it gathers somewhere between 100 and 150 people in one place for a week to play footbag.”
At the world championship, Malin explains that the freestyle event is “judged as professionally as possible, but as we are talking about a small sport, it’s quite likely that competitors also need to judge.” Competitors are scored by “certain technical elements, and creativity as well.”
And while that sounds very serious and very competitive, the seeds of the sport’s community vibe is still there. “Most of them compete,” Malin says, while “others come to hang out and have a good time.”
“You see circle kicking quite often, and many people have footbags in pocket for some casual kicking. It’s somewhat common that people start footbag with a group of friends, just like I did.”
James has competed in the world championships twice when it was hosted in Montreal. “The community was and is still super-chill,” he says, “and the partying is epic.”
“As you keep playing, you meet new people and make new friends,” Malin says. “After a few years in the game, you can go to any event, and you know most of the people around. So the social aspect is really important, and I really like our footbag community.”
Kicking and Screaming
Although hacky sack is kept alive by a few stray hippies in their 40s — and 150 highly skilled competitors — is there any chance it can reach the popularity it once had?
James isn’t optimistic. It’s an easy sport to pick up and play with your friends, he says, but the stigma around hacky sack is unredeemable: Hacky sack was a fad, played by stoners and outcasts.
“The general public doesn’t have much respect for hacky sack and does not know what freestyle footbag or footbag net is,” James laments. “It’s hard to draw in people to an individual sport with a sharp learning curve.
In James’ eyes, the sport finally had a chance to break into the mainstream back in the ’90s, but it didn’t. “It never gained any traction, and now that the player base is smaller than ever, I don’t see how it could come back,” he says. “Many players are now in their 30s, and the next generation of players never came.”
“I’m getting closer to 40, and I still play footbag because I enjoy it,” Malin tells MEL. He and his friends play every week, “and as some of them are world class,” he adds, “there is no slacking so it’s a great exercise.”
A New Hope: The Sackurai
And while the two aging footbaggers accept the fate that their favorite sport will forever be a niche, they both trust the game will never totally die. It’s simple, it’s social, and people will always be drawn to the challenge of honing their skills. And from that very basic foundation, the next generation is discovering — and reinventing — the game.
I spoke with a 19-year-old University of Colorado Boulder footbagger who insisted I call him by his nom de sack: The Sackurai. Everyone in his circle has been bestowed with a hacky sack nickname, he tells me. The group even has personalized bracelets.
“I started playing hacky sack the summer before my junior year when I found an old one at my friend’s place,” The Sackurai says. “We eventually started playing every day, during lunch and before class, and all throughout the summer. I went on to found the ‘Sack It Up 2018’ hacky sack club my senior year [of high school].”
The Sackurai says the best thing about hacky sack is that it’s so portable. “You only need one person, though I tend to prefer playing it with a group, and you can bring it anywhere,” he tells MEL. “So my friends and I would play if we were waiting in line or waiting for food somewhere. That way, we were always active and connecting. I think it’s a great way to get people off their phones.”
When The Sackurai was entering his freshman year, he needed to find new friends. So he turned to the social powers of hacky sack and posted on the school’s subreddit:
After that fateful post and the following hacky sack circle session, The Sackurai was saved from falling into the depths of solitude that many college freshmen suffer through.
“Playing hacky sack is how I made most of my friends at the beginning of my freshman year,” he says. After organizing the circle on Reddit, he went on to meet more people eager to join up, and now he has a solid group of friends.
“But what’s great about the sport is that most circles want random people to join,” he explains. “And if they truly like the game, they won’t care if you aren’t great at it. It’s an amazing way to make friends.”
Across various cities and campuses, you’ll see more people following The Sackurai’s wisdom. They’ll post on a city or campus subreddit to expand the ancient hacky sack circle:
The Sackurai admits not knowing much about the professional game, but he admits it does interest him a bit. Otherwise, the seedlings of the old game are what matters most.
The Sackurai leaves me with some parting wisdom as he talks about the game that changed his life. “Just join any circle you see playing,” he says.