Whirly ball is a sport you will probably never see on the TV, but one you will almost surely enjoy playing. It is a mix of bumper cars, basketball, and jai alai or lacrosse. It is a relatively unknown sport because it is a game only played in a small handful of locations across the country. Because the game is played in the air, electricity to the special bumper cars (a.k.a whirlybugs), is conducted through the metal floor. Each team has 5 players in whirlybugs, and the object of the game is to use a scoop to throw a wiffle ball at a backboard with a net in the middle. Hitting the backboard gives one point, while hitting the net gives two. If scoring points proves too difficult, there is always fun to be had by bumping the opposing team. Whirly ball is a game that can be fun and competitive with beginners and advanced players alike. While it may sound like a gimmicky game, whirly ball has a fair amount of history behind it and winning requires strategy.
Whirly ball originated with the whirlybug, when an inventor was trying to build a smaller and more agile bumper car. The controls can be very difficult for beginners because there is no steering wheel or clear cut forward and reverse. The steering and acceleration is controlled by a handle that can be cranked in circles. Occasionally a beginner will spend half of the game stuck against a wall with no idea how to get out of the jam, but the practicality is revealed when you see advanced players flying down the floor in seconds while spinning off of walls and opposing players. A helpful tip from a veteran player and referee to beginners: “I highly recommend that at the start of your first game to drive around in the open and get used to the steering on the car. The cars are not operated by a regular steering wheel but rather by a gyro stick mechanism which can be confusing at first. Understand what it takes to make you go left, and right. And then try stopping and going in reverse. This will make getting out of jams so much easier. Getting stuck in a traffic jam has to be the most stressful part of the game. You are in a corner with a bunch of other bozo cars jammed up against you while everyone else is having fun. Knowing how to operate your car at the very beginning will greatly enhance your whirly ball pleasure.”
Part of what makes whirly ball fun is that it isn’t completely reliant on athletic ability, but rather coordination, teamwork, and strategy. You can have adults and children, boys and girls, and whoever strategizes best will win. One tip is to always wear your seatbelt loosely. You will be able to stretch further for loose balls and rebounds, and you won’t absorb as much contact when your car is bumped. A ball doesn’t need to be whipped on passes or shots; an accurate shot is often more rewarding. Players can also utilize bounce passes or rolls so the receiver has an easier time catching the ball. It is also helpful to avoid traffic jams and walls, as it can be easy to get trapped. Taking an outside route to get around a group of cars fighting for the ball can be best to get into position. For beginners, there are plenty of tricks to work into the strategy.
If you are playing with friends, you can always yell “I’m open!” to the opposing team and hope to get a pass from confusion. If you simply are no good with your scoop, you can spend your time bumping the opposing teams’ best players and minimizing their effectiveness. And finally, if you look up into the referee’s box and see nobody there, you can play by your own rules until they return!
Where can you play whirly ball? There are two locations in Michigan: one in Ann Arbor, and one in Novi. Whirly ball is a great game to play with groups from work, school, church, or family. As mentioned, it doesn’t require a great wealth of athletic ability, the team with better drivers and strategy will have the advantage. Pricing is flexible. It all depends on how many people you bring, how many games you want to play, or how long you want to rent an arena. It is a great deal of fun, and can be a good option in the winter when outdoor activities are limited by snow. Michigan is lucky to have two facilities, so check out whirly ball if you are looking for a classic good time. ~Jack Durham, Regional Director