by Mike Seonia
The game is simple; four players, one ball, one net. Match-point is 21. The game is not pickup basketball, nor is it ping pong, or beach volleyball. The game is fairly new and fairly unknown. It shares attributes with all of the aforementioned sports, but is still simple enough to be played by participants of all different skill-sets. The game is Spikeball.
Originally invented in 1989 by Jeff Knurek, Spikeball can be described as 2v2 volleyball with a twist. Instead of the objective being to hit the ball over the net to the other team, like regular volleyball; the net used in Spikeball is a trampoline on the ground. In short, each team gets three hits to get the miniature volleyball (spikeball) to bounce off the trampoline to the other team, thus creating a volley. The easiest way to understand the game is to simply watch a volley. While the game may date back to the late ‘80s, it was not until founder and CEO of USA Spikeball Chris Ruder bought the rights and re-launched the game in 2008 that it saw interest from the general public.
USA Spikeball General Manager Thomas Summers was happy to share his take on the game’s growing popularity: “We have all seen an incredible growth in Spikeball® over the past few years. Besides knowing the sales numbers and the new retailers who now carry Spikeball®; we are able to see the growth in a more visceral way when we see Spikeball® sets up in every park, and the need to explain what Spikeball® is goes down exponentially.”
Summers had gotten involved with Spikeball after being contacted by CEO Chris Ruder via Twitter. Ruder had seen social media content that Summers helped create, and wanted him to promote the game in the Nashville area. That resulted in Summers doing contract work for the company; and after just three years of working with USA Spikeball, he finds himself in the position of General Manager.
Summers puts Spikeball’s growth into perspective:
“I remember working trade shows in 2014 and having to explain the game/sport to almost every person that came by. Now, almost everyone has either seen it being played, or knows someone that plays… the number of USA Spikeball events has grown drastically. Last year we had 157 sanctioned tournaments and over 300 total events, and already this year we have seen over 2x growth in January, February, and March tournaments compared to last year and are expecting to see that trend continue.” One of those sanctioned tournaments is being held right here in South Jersey.
The Wildwood Classic Spikeball tournament has taken place the last two years on the beaches of Wildwood. Identical twins Ryan and Kyle Alpaugh are the two men responsible for the tournament’s inception.
Kyle shares the story of how the two became involved in the game:
“Our sister gave us Spikeball as a graduation gift after she saw it being played on-campus at her school. The reason we liked it right away was because we played volleyball throughout high school and there are similarities between that and Spikeball.”
The Alpaughs and their friends began to play the game regularly. Backyards, beaches, and tennis courts were common backdrops for their matches. As interest in the game grew, so did curiosities.
“Once we really started to get into it, we looked up videos of people playing and saw that there were tournaments held around the US. We tried to find one around here but there were none.” This inquiry led the men to an idea of their own.
“It wasn’t anything official,” Ryan explains. “We made a page on Facebook called South Jersey Spikeball’ (which was then changed to “South Jersey Roundnet”) and posted that we were trying to hold a tournament in the area. We weren’t expecting much going in and we definitely didn’t know if enough teams would sign up.”
A collection of 14 teams signed up for the August 16th Wildwood Classic; a modest turnout, but a turnout nonetheless. They had enough players for the tournament, which meant that the brothers had to address the final step in preparation.
“We only had one set and we knew that wasn’t going to be enough,” Kyle explains, “so we emailed USA Spikeball to see if they could maybe help us out with that. That’s how we got in touch with Tom Summers.”
Summers contributed six sets for the tournament, enough to make the event a success. When talking about his support of South Jersey Roundnet, Summers was especially passionate with his message.
“Helping out groups like South Jersey Roundnet host USA Spikeball tournaments is what USASpikeball.com is all about. We’ve seen so many groups of players form together and start hosting great events through our site.”
The success of the first tournament led the Alpaugh brothers to throw a second one the following August. Word must have spread about both Spikeball and South Jersey Roundnet, as the amount of teams nearly tripled to 40.
According to Ryan Alpaugh, “…the reason people are starting to notice and enjoy Spikeball is because you don’t have to be super athletic to play.” Kyle adds to his brother’s comments: “It’s more about hand-eye coordination. Another reason I think people are starting pick it up is because you can play it anywhere as long as you have a set. Recently, we played on a racquetball court, which was cool because we could play off the walls.”
It’s no surprise that with Spikeball’s versatility, it is gaining steam in the sports world. Spikeball even made its national broadcast debut with an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a show in which powerful investors (such as Mark Cuban) listen to entrepreneurs pitch their product. If the “sharks” like what they hear from the pitch, they may choose to invest in the product.
On whether he thought one of the investors would choose to back Spikeball, Summers had this to say: “I was very hopeful! I wasn’t 100% sure though. That show can go from a sure thing, to nothing in a split second and the other way around.”
Chris Ruder ended up striking a deal with investor Daymond John. In return for a $500,000 investment to license, manufacture, and ship the product to stores, John received a twenty percent stake in the company. The arrangement will certainly help with the marketing and selling of Spikeball, but it is clear that the main focus of the company is on those who are already playing the sport.
When talking about USA Spikeball tournaments Summers explained that, “Some do it to just have a good time with friends, some to raise money so their club teams can travel, others do it to raise money for charities, and other tournament directors host tournaments as a side job.”
His commitment to even the smallest events, such as the 14-team first annual Wildwood Classic, is what communicates Summer’s commitment to the sport.
“South Jersey Roundnet is one of the more well known groups who host tournaments with USA Spikeball. Their Wildwood Classic tournament has done really well, and is a must for all East Coast roundnet players. I’m looking forward to seeing how the 3rd Annual Wildwood Classic goes this year!”
There is no set date for the tournament yet, but according to Kyle Alpaugh it will take place, “..somewhere around early August.” The growing popularity of both the Wildwood Classic and the USA Spikeball company are clear indicators of which way the game is trending. With help from passionate members of the Spikeball team like Thomas Summers, and passionate fans of the game like the Alpaugh brothers, people of all skill-sets can get together to play.
It is safe to say that this game is not a fad. The game is here to stay.