The Surprisingly Serious Quest to Make Muggle Quidditch a Real Sport

At this weekend's Quidditch World Cup VI, more than 1,500 players will unite to play the semi-ridiculous Harry Potter-inspired game and support its effort to be recognized.
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University of Ottawa Quidditch scrimmages against the Silicon Valley Skrewts in Kissimmee, Florida, on April 12. (AP / Phelan M. Ebenhack)

"I've had my shoulder thrown out from an illegal tackle. I've had my lips busted open more times than I can count. I had a concussion earlier this year and I spent my first week of senior year with a black eye from a broomstick... It's certainly not for the faint of heart."

Amanda Dallas, a student at New York University, isn't talking about rugby or dodgeball or even high-risk housekeeping. She's talking about Quidditch, the sport of choice for wizards and witches in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Dallas recounted her history of Quidditch-related injuries on the way to Kissimmee, Florida, where she'll compete this weekend with her college intramural team, the NYU Nundu, in the Muggle Quidditch World Cup VI, the highlight of the Muggle Quidditch year. She, like an estimated 1,500 other college-age players along with 12,000 spectators from around the world, will descend upon Kissimmee with broomsticks and gusto, ready for the sixth installment of the magical athletic tournament.

In the fictional boy-wizard bildungsroman, Quidditch is described as "an extremely rough but very popular semi-contact sport, played by wizards and witches around the world." In the muggle (or non-magical) realm, Quidditch has strived to stay close to its fictional conception. Athletes play the game with one hand firmly gripping a broomstick, itself comfortably nested between the player's legs.

Most of the novelized characteristics of the game have stayed intact: There are seven people per team, three elevated hoops that act as goalposts, quaffles (volleyball-like balls, thrown through the hoops to score points), bludgers (kickball-like balls used to hit opponents with), and, of course, a golden snitch. In J.K. Rowling's original, the snitch was a tiny self-propelled golden ball with wings that darted around until a team's "seeker" captured it, thus ending the game. But in Muggle Quidditch, the snitch is a person, dressed in yellow, who has a tennis-ball tail. To end the game in real-world terms means to capture the snitch's tail.

Quidditch is more than a whimsical expression of fandom, though. It's an amalgam of different sports, from dodgeball to basketball to rugby and more, with more than 700 rules laid out in a 172-page manual. Hundreds of teams have popped up across the globe, 300 of which are officially-recognized members of the governing body, the International Quidditch Association. Thousands of college-age plus students clamber to participate. And many of those participants would like to see the game, which has only been around since 2005, achieve some sort of legitimacy as a sport in its own right.

So the players who show up for World Cup VI take Quidditch very seriously. Will the rest of the world ever do so as well?

* * *

October 9, 2005 has gone down in Quidditch lore as the day of the first official Muggle Quidditch match, held by a student named Xander Manshel started on a field at Middlebury College.

"For him, and I guess for us, it was a fun experiment to try," said Alex Benepe, the current president, CEO and commissioner of the International Quidditch Association and de facto godfather of Muggle Quidditch. "But it was addicting to some."

Benepe lives for Quidditch. Asked how many hours a day he dedicated to it, he didn't hesitate: "all day long—as soon as I wake up to when I go to bed." He's helped grow the sport in the past seven and half years through the creation of an official governing body, the International Quidditch Association, a 501c(3) "magical nonprofit dedicated to promoting the sport of Quidditch and inspiring young people to lead physically active and socially engaged lives."

There are six people on the IQA core executive board, including Benepe. Below are several tiers of domestic and international leaders, organized by region, country and continent: six US regional reps, 42 US state reps, and nine international reps all tasked with representing the IQA for the hundreds of teams within their region. The IQA works year-round, gearing up regional tournaments, guiding teams, organizing social and philanthropic events and most importantly, the annual World Cup. And because the IQA is nonprofit, everyone works for free.

Though he has big goals for the sport, Benepe seems to understand the challenge of having a purely volunteer-based organization, and for that matter, of being at the helm of an organization that has yet to turn a significant profit, the quest for legitimacy's biggest obstacle.

"The league is starving," said Benepe. "It's like a plant—I love metaphors—it's like a plant that needs to be transplanted to a new pot. And it needs money. You can't just do that magically. It can happen organically but organic growth is long and slow... Anything that is truly viral and sustainable has money."

IQA events are indeed expensive to run. World Cup V in November 2011 cost around $200,000, money the IQA barely managed to make back through ticket sales and merchandising ventures—the league's main source of revenue. Benepe is expecting World Cup VI to cost significantly less since it moved out of New York.

* * *

The first Quidditch World Cup took place in 2005, and featured 10 intramural teams from Middlebury College. Five years later for World Cup IV, the sport had expanded with more than 46 college and high school teams competing on New York City fields with what some estimate was 15,000 spectators and media outlets watching. 2011's World Cup VI saw 96 teams competing over a two-day tournament, with teams traveling all the way from New Zealand to compete.

"This past year, Quidditch has decisively made the jump from game to sport," said Benepe over the phone from Kissimmee, where he is overseeing the final touches. "We were sort of on the fence last year, in our aim to legitimize the sport, but we've stepped up our game since."

Many involved in Quidditch talk about a dividing line, separating "sporting enthusiasts" from "Harry Potter-lifestyle enthusiasts." More simply put, jocks vs. nerds.

The IQA has made many changes over the last year to in the quest for legitimacy: Its now charging higher fees per team registration, to cull the less competitively ambitious teams and to allow the organization to offer better services. The sport has also started referee certification programs, as well as Snitch Academy courses to train and certify snitches. And while the game has held onto its college demographic, community (non-college affiliated) teams have formed in many cities in the world.

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Raya Jalabi is a New York-based journalist who has written for The Guardian.

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