Article originally written 2009 by Red Husted
Throughout footbag’s short history, we have had a wide range of peaks and plateaus. There have been grand leaps forward as well as small steps back. The ups and downs of footbag began in the early 1970′s with creators John Stalberger and Mike Marshall. From one decade to the next, there have been major trend shifts within the sport, with public perception all the while remaining mostly complex. The 2000′s alone have been a roller coaster ride regarding participation, exposure and organization. The fluctuating trend of freestyle footbag is the focus of this article, as it is the area with which I have come to be most familiar through the years. Although we have had quite a ride in the past decade, freestyle footbag’s intricate pattern of gain and recession began modestly in 1972. To understand where we are today, one has to look back to see how the sport arrived here.
The Beginning (1970′s)
In 1972, John Stalberger and Mike Marshall patented a new invention they hoped would energize the masses and catch on as a new form of sport and fitness. Their invention was given the trademark name ‘Hacky Sack’ which was essentially a flat leather bag (similar to a pancake) filled with beans.
Knowing they had something completely new on their hands (at least to western audiences), the two innovators realized they had to construct a sport around their initial product. Thus, the game of footbag was born. Hacky Sack was the company and specific product title, footbag was the larger sport surrounding it. From here the two men began to promote the sport feverishly. They worked diligently to advertise it commercially, and created the first tournaments and regulations further to support it. When Mike Marshall died in the late 1970′s, Stalberger carried on their work with the help of other promoters such as Ted Huff and Garwin Bruce. It was in this time frame that footbag experienced its initial growth, at a grassroots level. Images of players from this era are as one might expect with tie dye shirts, headbands, long hair and tube socks. This was the initial image of the footbag player in the seventies and though it was a fully accepted image for the time, it also created a stereotype that has lasted far beyond those formative years.
Though freestyle footbag would not be created until the late seventies, the roots of it were formed during those early years with the tournament scene and advancements in footbag design. It was a gradual rise, but toward the end of the decade, Stalberger’s sport gained larger exposure. Thus began footbag’s fad stage. From here, the name Hacky Sack (but not the word ‘footbag’) would become a household name. This was the first boom in the sport, leading into the early eighties.
The Fad (1980′s)
In the seventies, the sport had been on the rise, and so had its iconic players. Stalberger himself gain notoriety as the inventor/promoter of the sport, and towards the late seventies such foundation laying players as Jack Schoolcraft (considered the grandfather of freestyle) was also gaining notice within the sport. But it wasn’t until a young player named Kenny Shults hit the scene that the sport had its first bona fide footbag super star, known to both the public and the internal community. Shults dominated much of the footbag realm. He broke many records both in net and consecutive, but it was in freestyle that many believe was his strongest contribution. Shults propelled the game of freestyle footbag years ahead, and created many of the foundation tricks that are utilized today. The basic concept of the ‘combo’ was introduced by Shults, who was inspired by Freestyle Frisbee at the time. Kenny Shults was to footbag what Michael Jordan was to basketball. Now the sport had an icon to showcase; a young driven player who would dominate across the board and set records. This added legitimacy to the sport, and significantly helped with its promotion during this stage. Hacky Sack was a household name, and the tournament scene and interest in playing boomed during the early eighties. Although the appearance of Shults was bringing more of a spotlight to footbag, another trend that haunts the competitive footbag scene was formed; a divergence between ‘casual kickers’ or ‘hacky sackers’, and ‘hard core’ players.
While Hacky Sack was well known publicly, footbag was not. We have seen this with other sports as well, such as the use of the name ‘Ping Pong’ to describe the sport of Table Tennis. Hundreds of thousands of people owned a Hacky Sack, playing casually while in school, or on lunch at work. Unfortunately, this did not necessarily translate to the tournament scene; many people were simply happy playing here and there, some unaware at all of a deeper competitive arena.
By the mid 1980′s, John Stalberger had sold his trademark to Wham-O, a company that had interest in increasing the sales of the Hacky Sack. As the tournament scene grew, the fad of hacky sack settled down, and footbag would head into its first plateau, or time of slower growth.
Slow Growth of the Freestyle Underground Scene (1990′s)
By the early 1990′s, Kenny Shults was still dominating across the board, but was now joined in freestyle by other new sensations such as Rick Reese, Dave Yevin and Peter Irish. Freestyle footbag had become a sub-culture sport, with small tournaments (and a few larger ones) popping up around North America. Outside of this area however, very few other countries played. The competitive freestyle scene was a tight-knit community; all the top players were well known to each other, and in many cases, good friends. This has always been possibly footbag’s greatest attribute; it simply is a very social and interconnected sport. We have seen the numbers in freestyle footbag go up and down, but this one point has never changed. Today when I promote footbag, it is not just the physicality of the sport that is a selling point, but also the rich community of the good people who play. You’re not just playing footbag; you are tapping into a positive social network. The foundations of this can certainly be traced to the grassroots movement of the seventies, and the tightly connected community of the nineties. It was once humorously remarked by Peter Irish that he could count the handful of people who could execute the Around the World move. This statement wasn’t far off in the least; during the late eighties until the later nineties, there were really only a handful of top players dominating freestyle, all of which lived in the United States.
In the days before the mass use of the internet, the only way freestylers could learn and get better was to attend/host events and build local groups. This is exactly what happened during this time frame; many footbag groups rose up around the nation, dedicated to either freestyle or net. Some of the strongest areas of footbag included Denver, Colorado, and San Francisco, California. Ironically, though we have more people playing today, we have less footbags clubs currently than we did a decade ago. I will elaborate on this point shortly.
I have always thought that footbag’s greatest fight was with its perceived image to the masses which seemed to reach its height during the nineties. Freestyle footbag grew very slowly between 1990 and 1999 as it was constantly battling the ‘hippy slacker’ image. Footbag was no longer a fad, and many people assumed that its time had come and gone. There was very little exposure in the first part of the nineties to counteract the majority’s belief that footbag was simply a ‘stoners’ game. Because of this, gains in attendance were modest, although the technicality of the sport continued to rise. Though the popularity of hacky sack had declined from the previous decade, the microcosm of freestyle footbag was in fact building gradually. Upon joining the sport in the mid nineties, my first exposure to competitive freestyle play was from a common underground source; Kenny Shults’ classic instructional VHS tape entitled ‘Trick of the Trade’. This was being distributed by one of the few true footbag companies at the time, the World Footbag Association. In addition, the Flying Clipper also commercially represented footbag in those earlier days. Unfortunately, Wham-O, a larger company, came into marketing the footbag. It was not focused on the competitive footbag scene but rather spread its interests across many different product lines. Luckily for the mid nineties footbag generation, a new website had entered the picture, one that would quickly represent the base and library for the sport.
I can’t deny that I was more or less a child of footbag.org. Not long after I received Tricks of the Trade, I went online (for the first time really) and found the quintessential website to our sport. It had a few pictures and videos up from recent events, as well as a generous amount of information about the tournament scene. This would end up being the great connector that would not only bring the sport together, but also drive up our exposure and interest. From the mid to the late nineties, freestyle footbag continued to slowly grow and gain new people. I believe this coincided with more and more people logging on to the internet and footbag.org. In the late nineties, a small but prominent footbag scene had arisen in Europe as well. Inspired by such greats as Peter Irish and Ryan Mulroney, the seeds of freestyle footbag’s greatest boom were being quietly planted.
The Boom (Early to mid 2000′s)
Between 2000 and 2002 a great deal happened in freestyle footbag. Ryan Mulroney finally became the World Footbag Champion, only to hold it for a mere two years before the great European onslaught. Initially, not much attention had been focused on the European scene; if footbag was small in North America, it was huge in comparison to our counterparts across the Atlantic. That changed rather quickly in 2001, with what can be described as no less than a European invasion into the sport. In retrospect, it could have been the previous generation of European players grooming their next gen shredders, or the enormous influence of Ryan Mulroney via internet videos and VHS tapes that evolved their freestyle scene, or quite simply footbag.org. Whatever the case, there was a large influx of players joining the tournament scene in 2001, led by a young freestyler from the Czech Republic named Vasek Klouda. I have already written about Klouda’s rise to fame;
Klouda’s ascent happened meteorically to say the least. Freestyle footbag exploded along with him, and suddenly forums were buzzing, videos and DVD’s were out and about and freestyle footbag even managed to make its way into commercials on occasion. Other countries/areas such as New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South America would also develop new scenes. Exposure was the highest it had been since the eighties, thanks in no small part to the online push and an inspired new footbag star to play icon. Exciting sites like flipsider.com and freedomfootbags.com had grown in popularity, and local clubs were still enjoying strong solidarity from the decade before. The capital of freestyle shifted from North America to Prague, and in 2003, the first non-North American World Footbag Championships were held in the Czech capitol. Due to the internet, players did not require a local footbag group to learn and improve. This would also prove to be a double-edged sword later on. In the meantime however, the sport saw its attendance double if not triple, and there were even some occasional decent breakthroughs into mainstream culture. For the first time in a while, everything was new and exciting again in footbag. This continued until around 2007.
Plateau (Mid to Late 2000′s)
No boom lasts forever, we have learned this from previous generations in the sport. What I have noticed in my years with footbag is that we go through cycles in popularity and membership. For footbag, the later 2000′s showed a noticeable slowing of momentum for the game. This can be attributed to a few things.
The Club Scene
First, the local group scene had taken a hit in the mid and later 2000′s. As I mentioned before, it is ironic to me that there are far more players now than there were in the 90′s, but less organized clubs. The reason for this is that with the rise of online exposure, people did not need clubs to get better, or to learn about the sport. Jorden Moir’s classic basement shred videos are a testament to this. A player could learn and increase skill without another freestyler around for hundreds of miles. This is precisely what happened; more and more players were “sprinkled” everywhere, and less condensed in groups (especially in North America). As attendance rose, clubs declined, leaving a handful of strong groups again in North America. Unfortunately, as the excitement of the early 2000′s died down, membership dropped a bit, and the lower club status still did not improve.
With the drop in clubs came a smaller showing of tournaments and events. It started during the mid 2000′s with the showing of more ‘jams’ than heavily organized tournaments. After a little while, the number of jams decreased as well. Without a solid group to host an event, the event will usually suffer. It is a sizeable task to run a decent footbag competition, which many times can be a thankless job. With less organized clubs came fewer events on the whole. This is what we are seeing in North America right now, with the exception of a few major events such as the US Open and the New Years Jam/Tournament. In Europe, long running events such as Todexon and the European Championships still remain solid, as well as some key country tournaments (the Polish/Finnish Footbag Championships).
A great and interesting thing happened in the early 2000′s. The average age of the freestyle footbag player dropped as many teenage players entered the sport. This was good on many levels; it raised the energy level and innovation of the game, and most importantly rejuvenated footbag for the next generation. While there were a few drawbacks to this shift, I can currently think of two. The first point is that with the younger generation, they simply have a harder time getting to events. Whether it be a lack of funds, transportation or parental permission, it is more difficult for them to go great distances than their 1990′s mid to late twenties counterparts. For this reason, tournament attendance in the later 2000′s had taken a small hit.
The other point is that the younger players entering the sport did not have the experience to run events, and not enough older players had chosen to stick around to coordinate. The result again became fewer organized tournaments. I will always have a great amount of respect for the people who are willing to take up the cause of organization in footbag, especially the younger generation. I remember attending an event it 2006, in which a young player had chosen to take the reigns of the event as tournament director. He was a bit stressed by the event (but non-the-less confident) when I ran into him just outside the venue. Apparently, someone had come up and criticized aspects of the tournament to him, and he was a bit put off. I broke it down to him that he was in fact doing a good job (the absolute truth), and that we had nothing but great respect for what he was doing. Running tournaments can be a task; as the older generation retires and moves on, that very task is by default left to the remaining players in the sport.
A final point regarding the young generation from the early 2000′s is that they simply got older. Responsibilities set in, whether it is school, family or work. It’s no secret that during the teenage years an individual might have more time to devote to their hobbies than once they hit the workforce. I personally watched this scenario play out a few times, with friends simply getting to busy or sidetracked to stay vested in the scene. Life happens.
In Europe, footbag was exciting and fresh in the early 2000′s. As time went on, the newness wore off, and again footbag settled in for the long haul. When its sensation did slow down, it was inevitable that attendance would lower to some degree. Europe is not quite what it was in 2003 for footbag, but is still doing very well. It is certainly not a light that is going to go out any time soon.
The effects of the 2008 economic crash can be felt in many areas and of course, freestyle footbag was not immune from this. If it was difficult for the younger players to get to events due to finances, the global recession certainly hasn’t helped the cause. As capital has dried up with consumers and companies alike, less has been possible across the board. On the players’ end, a cutback in discretionary funds was imminent. On the potential sponsorship side, funds simply dried up. Sponsorship for almost every sport, big or small, was cut back in late 2008 and 2009; even the microcosm of freestyle footbag was affected. Quite simply, money wasn’t flowing, people weren’t traveling as much and tournament numbers were marginally down. The domino effect from up high seemed to have trickled all the way down into our developing sport.
As of the writing of this article, freestyle footbag is again in a generational transition (one that occurs every seven to ten years as I have seen it). Veteran players are retiring (some too young in my opinion), while the next players in line are stepping up to take those coveted top spots. Fresh faces are popping up, as is fresh interest in the sport. Vasek continues to reign in competition, and his shadow still stands tall over freestyle. Though the sport is not quite at the place it was in 2003-2004, this can simply be seen as part of the cycle footbag has been going through for thirty-plus years. Three steps forward, one step back, it would seem. Whether we see another boom or gradual growth is unclear; it almost seems too soon for another explosion, but you never know. Footbag has many attributes, and a few hurdles. Issues to be addressed include footbag’s image problem (to be examined in another article), and its need for proper exposure and funding. This being said, there are many exciting things afoot. As we have started to witness a transition of players, so too has there been a flux in promotional interest. Below are just a few things, both currently happening and on the horizon, in freestyle footbag.
For many years there was a lack of good footbag websites outside of footbag.org. Flipsider managed to bring some much needed style and hype, but for some time a decent site such as this was few and far between. Here is a list of just a few current and recommended sites.
This site is the essential library and information source for footbag. footbag.org has been around for quite some time, and plays lynch pin for the footbag community. From learning about clubs and tournaments to watching videos and studying the rules of the game, this site has it all. It is also home to the non-profit IFPA (International Footbag Players Association), another great offering by Steve Goldberg and crew.
The World Footbag Association has been in business for many years, and has supported the internal community generously. In their early years, they organized many footbag events (including the World Footbag Championships more than once), and today continue to promote the scene by getting decent product and apparel to the masses. They also practice fair trade business, and universally cater to the casual kicker and freestyler alike.
Freedom Footbags was started by my very good friend Daryl Genz, a multi-time Doubles World Champion. Freedom began modestly, catering to the internal freestyle community. This has been their perceived base for many years; they have essentially worked grassroots style to promote the scene. More recently, Daryl’s wife Sunny Freeman Genz took over the company, and together they continue to honorably promote the sport and its tournament scene. You’ll rarely find people more genuine and likable than Daryl and Sunny; they have put their heart into their business and it shows.
Planet Footbag has represented the sport in Europe for some time now. They have been present at or sponsored many footbag tournaments in that region, and have acted as promoters of footbag continuously. In the mid 2000′s they produced a popular footbag shoe called the Quantum, no small feat for sure. Today they continue to supply Europe with quality footbag products and information.
This is freestyle footbag’s main internal forum. If you want to know what is going on in the “hard core” freestyle community, this is the place to check. People on modified.in constantly interact about what is happening in the scene; it is a good place to check up on the day to day happenings in freestyle footbag. The members there are very friendly and welcoming; this again is a common attribute in footbag. There is a great video links section as well that is regularly updated. And for the title of the forum itself; the reference is to modified shoes of course!
This newer website is dedicated to covering freestyle footbag news by tapping into blog and news syndication around the net. The operators of the site are part of the internal scene, and have been good at staying updated on current freestyle affairs. Great promotional work Shred Global!
Of course we are proud to throw our hat into the circle of footbag promotion. The Fourkast Footbag Company was created to tackle a few different things in footbag, including the perception and image of the sport (no small challenge). We believe a sharper and more defined image needs to be promoted for footbag to grow; this is one of the Fourkast site’s main objectives. Keeping people excited and interested with footbag is Fourkast’s number one goal; we work to do this with both the internal community and the general masses. As an association of individuals working to promote footbag professionally, we are honored to keep up the good fight!
Outside the websites, there are some great projects currently on the table to excite the people. A Worlds Championships in San Francisco was recently announced; this follows a very successful 2009 Worlds in Berlin that left the players energized. A few high-quality video projects are also slated for this year, originating from both sides of the Atlantic. We even have a new footbag shoe (the Nucleus, many thanks to Queency Mateo), with the possibility of more apparel on the horizon (shoes are of course a key element in our sport). Then there is the question of the top players themselves; who will step up for the new competitive generation? Such newer players as Milan Benda (from the Czech Republic), Anssi Sundberg (from Finland), Norek Dudzinski (from Poland), Nick Landes (from the US) and Johnny Suderman (from Canada) have brought great things to the table in recent years. From our status quo top players I still expect greatness too; their time on top passes only at their choosing. For new thinkers and organizers, Ianek Regimbald, Jay Boychuk and Anssi Sundberg (to name just a few) can be applauded for their dedication to improving the internal scene and system. We need good people both in the spotlight and behind the scenes to push the sport along.
Freestyle continues to represent the tip of the iceberg that is footbag. Hundreds of thousands of people casually play, with a couple of thousand players dedicated to the technical side of the game. This ratio can be found on a larger scale in other sports as well; Table Tennis, for example, has millions of casual players, but far fewer high level competitive players. This is something to remember. The ratio always leans towards casual play in any game/sport. The difference from other sports and ours is one of awareness; though many people play footbag and “hack it up” on a regular basis, not all are aware of a deeper competitive aspect and scene. Entities outside the sport are not conscious of freestyle or worse yet have a preconceived notion of it based off an old stereotype. This may be the most important point in footbag promotion-spreading awareness. Not everyone who plays footbag has to learn freestyle, but it would be advantageous for the casual player to be at least aware of the freestyle scene.
Aside from educating the masses about freestyle footbag, much work still needs to be done demographically. The ratio of male to female freestyle players is still very far from decent, but this is not an isolated issue to just footbag. Many other/larger sports including skateboarding suffer from this dilemma; there simply are far fewer females vested in these sports than males. Soccer however is one sport that has a strong ratio between male and female players. This point may prove helpful to footbag in the future, as the foot-related sports do in fact complement each other.
The sport’s ethnic demographic could stand improvement as well. Footbag is still largely played by white middle class teenage to late twenties males. There is indeed room to grow. With soccer in fact being the number one sport in the world, its popularity could be utilized to promote footbag in other cultures. The fact that freestyle footbag is a very urban sport could also be better promoted (all you really need is a footbag, shoes and possibly some concrete). It is an inexpensive and very accessible sport. This is something everyone can appreciate, and so should be a strong selling point. Finally, in other parts of the world there are already foot contact games similar to our sport; Takraw is one example, Shuttlecock and Chinlone are two others. Branching out to meet these related disciplines certainly won’t hurt the cause, and it could potentially build new bridges that help expand our sport outside its current demographic.
Internally, though it would seem freestyle footbag is in a plateau compared to the early 2000′s, from experience I believe it will continue to move forward. The real question is how quickly or gradually this will occur. The cycle seems to be one first fair gain, then plateau. As fluctuations occur, a player should feel confident that the sport is always in motion. Compared to the mid 1990′s, we have made many advances and we are quite a bit larger. The game of footbag will always continue to exist, as long as there are those hundreds of thousands of people who own some type of footbag and play. This base alone ensures footbag will continue; it is still essential that freestyle draws from this point. Anywhere someone picks up a footbag to either “hack it up” or “shred”, the sport is still alive and kicking. On the freestyle end of things, I can optimistically say that we are progressing into new territory. Sometimes this happens by leaps, sometimes by only subtle gains. An understanding of this goes along with understanding the sport and the scene in general. Such as life, footbag has its ups and downs; times of progression followed by moments of recession. The best advice I can give is this; be excited by the ups and not discouraged by the downs. It’s all part of the process of a growing sport. Whether freestyle footbag jumps to new heights, or gradually moves forward, at the very least I am happy I can still go out and play solo or with my friends. Isn’t that what it’s all about?