MEL Magazine

Is Spikeball Too Bro-Tastic for the Big Leagues?

The ‘volleyball for bros’ has a fratty diehard fandom—which might be its greatest liability, too

I’m in a park in Charleston, South Carolina, sweating heavily in front of a bunch of dudes I’ve never met, when a middle-aged man stops pushing his baby stroller to watch us. He wears a salt-and-pepper beard and a tight gray T-shirt that reads “Spikeball Honolulu” across the chest. “Do you guys know Chris Ruder? Spikeball Chris?” he calls out from the path. A dozen heads turn his way. “That’s my cousin. I’ll video you guys playing and tag him,” he says, holding up his phone.

Someone exclaims, “Oh shit!” under their breath. Maybe it was Jordan, or Davis in the pink Vineyard Vines shirt. Either way, Brendan, Trace, Simon and Chris resume their game, serving a ball the size of a grapefruit into the taut black netting of a circular, trampoline-looking platform set up on the grass between them with renewed zeal. Chandler, sitting next to me in the grass, tells them to relax and play normal for the camera.

There we are, dudes aged teen to dad, strangers and friends, huddled intently around a game of Spikeball as the sun goes down.

Later, I struggle to recount to my girlfriend the significance of the coincidence, and the experience generally. I explain Chris Ruder is the revered entrepreneur who plucked Spikeball from obscurity and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business. The players I met up with, I tell her, compete at collegiate and regional Spikeball tournaments across the country. I sheepishly admit that the younger kids — who started a Spikeball club at their high school that already has more than 100 members — completely owned me over the course of many games, but that they were pretty chill about it.

She looks at me funny. “So… it was basically just a bunch of bros playing a game in a park?”

I don’t have a great answer. “Well, yeah, I guess,” I respond. “Sort of.”

Maybe she’s right to be unimpressed. After all, it’s hardly news that bros love Spikeball. “It’s kind of like this generation of bros’ volleyball,” says Brandon Wenerd, a co-founder and longtime editor at BroBible. Go to a beach or college campus on a nice day, and you’ll see what he means. They’re everywhere: Clusters of dudes, some shirtless or with shades on, loosely circling caution-tape yellow and black Spikeball sets on grass, turf, sand or any other flat surface available.

The game — also known by its non-branded name, “roundnet” — is super-simple. It’s often described as a hybrid of, as Wenerd said, volleyball and four square. Teams are 2-on-2, with three touches allowed per team possession, after which the ball must be played off the net to keep the point going. Players move 360 degrees around the net during these rallies, sometimes leaping over it or sprinting away from it to track down a big hit. Games go to 21, gotta win by two. That’s about it. It’s neither difficult, nor particularly expensive. An entry-level set costs $59, and comes with everything needed for a full game (besides a flat surface.) This makes it a bit pricier than soccer or basketball, but much cheaper than sports like baseball, football, or god help your wallet, hockey and lacrosse, which require sport-specific equipment, lots of players and specialized fields of play.

That it’s accessible to a wide range of body types and financial means has obviously helped its appeal. But it’s also undeniably fun, and requires a startling amount of fitness, strategy and coordination to be any good (something I learned the hard way).

For all these reasons, Spikeball’s advocates have aspirations beyond entertaining the boardshort bourgeoisie. “The next great American sport” is how evangelists — chief among them Ruder, whose company, Kankakee Spikeball, Inc., is at the epicenter of the game’s meteoric rise — envision Spikeball’s bright future. (Kankakee Spikeball, Inc. declined multiple requests to interview Ruder for this story. Several tweets to @spikeballchris requesting an interview also went unanswered.)

It might not just be bullish marketing, either. This summer, ESPN televised its marquee tournament at Coney Island. The game has an official apparel partner, Savage Ultimate, and even a beer sponsor in Landshark Lager. And top-ranked players talk not-jokingly about roundnet as a candidate for inclusion in the Olympics — yes, there are national Spikeball rankings, and yes, the Olympics.

If legitimate sporthood is the goal, though, Spikeball’s fratty image may present a cultural liability, the same way some have speculated that it’s hobbled mainstream bids from sports and games as varied as lacrosse, ultimate (Frisbee) and even cornhole. Its “for-bros” vibe may also be creating a more intractable problem, too: It appears to be opening a significant gender gap in the competitive game.

Wenerd, writing for BroBible, has described Spikeball as “bro-tastic,” and a broader review of Spikeball’s image in the media mostly upholds that assessment. Barstool Sports has co-organized roundnet tournaments on Nantucket; its founder Dave Portnoy (once called “The Man Behind the ‘Bible of Bro Culture’” by Entrepreneur Magazine) has tweeted his love of the game. The popular YouTube group Dude Perfect made a video about the game that racked up more than 7 million views. Urban Dictionary even has an entry for “Spikeball bros”; yet “Spikeball” alone earns no such mention.

“Bros are always, always, always some of the very first cultural adapters,” says Wenerd, hypothesizing on why the game is so closely associated with that sometimes mocked cohort of modern masculinity. “It’s a combination of being very tied into the culture, being very self-confident in what they like and don’t like and being able to wave that flag when they have fun doing something.”

Some of its top players, though, wonder if that “bro-tastic”-ness may undermine its athletic credibility. “I know frat guys who talk a big game,” about their Spikeball skills, says Tori Farlow, a 22-year-old player on RazzMatazz, the second-rated women’s team in the country. “They don’t know that it’s like a competitive, tactical sport.” This sobering physicality alone may help it transcend the bro-y image it currently shares with other fringe sports like cornhole. “The Spikeball [game] has not only the competition but the activity piece to it,” says Dr. Brent Walker, a past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, in a phone interview. “You can play Spikeball and get your workout in, whereas cornhole is just something you’re going to do at a BBQ, probably with a beer in your hand.” Wenerd hypothesizes that the fitness demands of a good roundnet match preclude it from some of the “malignant” boozy-layabout connotations that dog other lawn games.

But even though Spikeball tournaments are “just a fun day of sports” that are attracting less bro-y elements (like Mennonites), they’ve struggled to naturally draw more women, says Julie Haselton, who plays on the highly ranked women’s team, MØxie. Half a decade ago, before she’d become one of the game’s elite female players, she encountered competitive roundnet as a student-athlete at San Francisco State University. If anything stood out to her about those early experiences (besides how fun the game was), it was Haselton herself. “I was like the only girl playing at that point,” she recalls in a recent phone interview. “I’d be the only girl out at the tournaments.”

Brendan Ferreira, a highly rated 20-year-old collegiate player who organized the pick-up game that I attended in Charleston, estimates he’s competed in around 20 tournaments. He describes the vibe as a “big bro-out,” and emphasizes the roundnet community’s inclusiveness and welcoming spirit. Still: “If I’m brutally honest with you,” he continues, “when it comes to racial diversity, we really haven’t [seen] a whole lot” of it at roundnet tournaments, he says. “It ends up just being like a bunch of white dudes. I’m not quite sure why.”

At the park, the sun is low and Chris Ruder’s maybe-cousin has decamped when a second carload of players arrives. More dudes, all but one of them white. It’s a worthy puzzle, why this game — hell, most lawn games — has fallen under the cultural jurisdiction of white leisure-seekers, but I’m stuck on why those leisure-seekers always seem to be men. Ferreira tells me that in all the tournaments he’s played in, he’s only seen “like, five” female players. “Which is insane to me,” he concludes.

It is to me, too. So between games, as I catch my breath, I ask one of his friends, Trace Chandler, if he thinks the prospect of being the only girl playing Spikeball with a bunch of dudes all the time might be intimidating or unappealing to potential female players. He concedes with something to the affirmative. I get the vibe that the question has bummed him out, and it’s getting dark anyway, so I don’t bring it up again.

Because Spikeball is still a relatively young game in the broad “outdoor sport” category, major market-research firms like IRiWorldwide and EuroMonitor US couldn’t provide data on the gender makeup of its players. Kankakee Spikeball, Inc., declined to provide any information on its customer demographics. And Spikeballroundnet.com, which administers many of the tournaments, referred inquiries back to Spikeball.com. (Requests to both sites’ contact forms were fielded by a customer service representative with the same name.)

But in the absence of data, there are signs that Spikeball culture overlaps with bro culture. In 2014, Kankakee Spikeball, Inc.’s official handle tweeted a photo of a tank top emblazoned with the slogan “Do you even spike bro?”, asking its followers if they’d buy such a product if it were sold. (The item isn’t currently available on the brand’s webstore. A representative of Kankakee Spikeball didn’t respond to emailed questions about the tank top and tweet.)

In the team directory on the Spikeball Roundnet Association’s website, a recent search for “bros” returned 217 results. “Guys” appeared in 120 names, including a handful in the “2 Guys 1 Ball” convention made infamous by 2007’s Brazilian scat-fetish adult film Hungry Bitches“Dudes” shows up a mere 21 times, which is less than “girls” (49), but more than “chicks” (4) and “babes” (10) combined.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a game being more popular amongst men than women, even if a baffling number of its enthusiasts have chosen to name themselves after a decade-old shock porn in which women literally eat shit. “There’s almost no sport that isn’t gendered in some way,” says Susan Cahn, a historian and women’s sports expert at the University of Buffalo. But, she continues, when a sport is associated with men, that association can preclude would-be female players from enjoying the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

“I hate that crap,” says Farlow with an exasperated laugh when I ask her about the tank top and underlying sentiment. “If that’s the image that a girl sees [of roundnet], I do think that it’s debilitating to her playing, because she’d see it as something that’s not for her.”

“You can’t take it out of context,” says Cahn, who authored Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport, of Spikeball’s apparent popularity amongst young men. “Sports and athleticism have been historically associated with masculinity, male power and male access.” If Spikeball grows into a full-fledged, institutionally backed sport — at the collegiate level, say — its gender dynamic can reinforce itself. “Who will the coaches be? Will there be money for girls’ and women’s teams? Those are the kinds of problems I could see down the line if [Spikeball] becomes commercially viable,” she says.

Spikeball already is commercially viable — if not for players like Farlow, Haselton and Ferreira yet, at least for Ruder and Kankakee Spikeball, Inc. The company’s meteoric rise is the sort of stuff LinkedIn bros write entrepreneurship poetry about. Ruder spent years nurturing the business as an arduous side hustle after grabbing the dormant trademark from the toy company that had originally marketed the product. “Savage” is how some players approvingly describe this maneuver to me.

(Bros love a good power move, but Jeff Knurek, the industrial designer and puzzle creator who invented Spikeball for a Chicago toy studio in 1988, is fairly magnanimous about the whole thing. “These guys have done just an amazing job, that much I can not hold against them,” he says in a phone interview. “They have kicked butt and created a company and the community that I could have only dreamed of this game becoming.”)

In 2013, Ruder claimed the company cleared $1 million in revenue in 2013 with no full-time employees. (He was still working in corporate advertising at that point.) In 2015, the company did a reported $7 million in revenue. In 2016, it made the Inc. 5000, a listing of the country’s fastest-growing firms, on back of a claimed 1,354 percent in three-year growth.

Many observers point to the brand’s 2015 showcase on Shark Tank as a major catalyst for its success. On the company’s website, “As seen on Shark Tank” is inscribed directly below the brand’s logo, and Ruder himself has referred to it as “the gift that keeps on giving” in interviews.

Coincidentally, it also exemplifies how gender gaps can inadvertently tilt the playing field toward men in business, just like it can in sports. During the episode, Damon John offered Kankakee Spikeball, Inc. a deal that would have valued it at $2.5 million. This is 60 percent more than the average valuation for female-founded companies on the show, according to data compiled by Halle Tecco, a superfan of the show and digital health entrepreneur. (It’s also about 20 percent higher than the average for male-founded companies.) Mashable, reporting on Tecco’s trove, characterized it as evidence that “the odds are stacked against women who appear on Shark Tank.

Kankakee Spikeball, Inc., obviously isn’t responsible for closing Shark Tank’s gender gap, but its resources and influence (partly gained from its successful appearance on the show) make it uniquely equipped to attract more women to competitive roundnet. Its record on this front has been mixed. Its preferred social media hashtag is #JoinTheMovement, which is about as inviting as you can get (if slightly cultish), and its Instagram feed is checkered with submissions from a diverse array of Spikeball enthusiasts. And a few years ago, the company produced a handful of informal interview-style videos highlighting various “Lady Ballers of the Week,” and published them to its YouTube channel. They’re positive and genuine, and avoid the pitfall of sexualizing its female players that can be common in marketing for emerging sports.

Still, the brand only published a handful of these clips, all in 2015. “I forgot the ‘Lady Baller of the Week’ was a thing until you said that,” Farlow admits when I mention it. I ask whether she’s seen Kankakee Spikeball, Inc. launch other similar marketing initiatives to attract more women to the game. “Sadly, not a ton,” she replies. “If there’s any, it’s mostly done by us,” she continues, referring to the small cohort of elite female players of which she and Haselton are both a part. “We’re trying to brand ourselves as a women’s sport. It’s not ‘Spikeball the company’ trying to market it or brand it” that way.

Haselton, who serves on the Spikeball Roundnet Association’s governing board, says the demographic mix at tournaments is changing, if slowly. She says that every official tournament this year has had a women’s division (though the same few teams and players tend to dominate it for now). “I definitely think it’s getting more diverse with gender,” she says hopefully. I ask why it’s so important to her to promote the women’s game. “I’m so competitive,” she responds. “I want to know, like, where I fall within my own people, you know?”

“And also, equality and stuff,” she adds with a laugh.

Roundnet may well earn legitimacy as a sport — however that’s measured — even if it doesn’t attract more female players. “I haven’t seen something that’s emerging as a men’s sport ever not ‘happen’ because it was too associated with men,” says Cahn. (If anything, it tends to cut the other way, she adds.)

For now, top female players will settle for grassroots progress, painstaking as it may be. “It would be awesome to have more awesome girls,” Farlow tells me. “I’m willing to like bring anyone, or talk to anybody, house anybody, do anything I need to to get any girl out there.”

In Charleston, the park is dark by the time the last game concludes. Bros pack up their sets; the ones that don’t know each other exchange phone numbers so they can text each other about future games. “Thanks for going easy on me,” I tell Ferreira.

As I head home, I’m reminded of the only other time I’d played the game, at a bachelor party for a childhood friend who had been a two-sport varsity athlete in high school and college. By the time we’d finished, it was dusk, and I was exhausted. I remarked how surprisingly fun, challenging and different Spikeball was from what I’d assumed. “Yeah, bro,” he said, looking at me sort of funny. “Don’t hate on it just because the bros love it.”