Quidditch, please?

From Hogwarts to CCU, fantasy game becomes reality sport at college campuses

For Weekly SurgeNovember 8, 2012 

In J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” Series, a muggle is a non-wizard – a mere mortal with no magical powers to speak of. Pity the poor muggles – forced to envy the charmed lives of their gifted and bewitched counterparts and live their mundane lives on the sidelines. No spells – no wands – no incantations – and no Quidditch.

In the real world, this has changed. Quidditch, replete with Seekers, Beaters, Bludgers, Keepers and Chasers – even the elusive Golden Snitch – is being played on a growing number of college campuses worldwide, thanks to the efforts of an organization called the International Quidditch Association, or IQA, which hosts an annual World Cup. Prestigious schools including UCLA, University of Southern California, Yale University and a slew of others have embraced what the IQA calls the fastest-growing sport in the United States.

In South Carolina, Quidditch teams abound, from Winthrop University to College of Charleston - and right up U.S. 501 at Coastal Carolina University, which played host to a Quidditch meet in September. Even Chapin High school hosted a Quidditch meet on Nov. 3.

To the uninitiated, the game looks complicated – a dizzying display of frenetic activity, but the premise is simple: Seven players on each team. Three hoop goals on each end of the playing field, usually held aloft by PVC pipe. Volleyballs are the de facto Quaffles, which are supposed to get tossed into the hoops to score points. Dodge balls serve as Bludgers, which are used to attack opponents. Beaters are in place to deflect the attacks. Seekers keep an eye open for the arrival of The Golden Snitch, in this case a troublesome imp dressed in yellow with a tennis ball in a sock hanging from the back of its gym shorts – briefly appearing at the beginning of the match – then vanishing – only to return from its hiding place later, causing all sorts of mayhem. The Seeker’s job is to dislodge the socked tennis ball. Did we mention that all players except the Snitch are required to play with a broom between their legs?

Muggles can’t fly, but the game itself has really taken off.

Quidditch in Conway

CCU senior Ana Maria Lavado says she knew about the IQA and had seen other Quidditch teams on YouTube when she was a freshman. “I thought it looked really fun and like an excellent way to bring together like-minded people. I thought Coastal Carolina should not be left out of the Quidditch world,” she says.

She tried putting together a team in January of her freshman year, but wasn’t really successful until the fall of her junior year. “It was just hard to get a group of people who would consistently show up and I became so busy planning for my year abroad that I couldn't devote all the time I wanted to recruit more people. But it finally happened in the fall of 2011.”

But Lavado says she could only remain involved with what became the Chantgriffs for a couple of months. “I was really only around to get it up and running and to leave it in the hands of those enthusiastic members I managed to recruit.” She went to England for a year and says the team found its rhythm while she was gone. “When I came back, it was already pretty well established and I realized I didn't need to be involved anymore. My role was simply to found the team and watch it succeed.”

Chantgriffs captain Nick Powell says he first got involved with Quidditch at CCU because he is a Harry Potter fan. “I'm not the biggest [fan] on the team, as I haven't read the books all the way through yet, but I knew and loved enough about it to be drawn toward it,” he says. “Plus, it was just something different and I liked that.”

Powell says being a part of the team is not at all complicated. It’s a matter of showing up, sticking around during practice and playing. “There are dues that members are required to pay, but other than that, the process is quite casual.” He was Officer at Large last year, and says his responsibilities as captain involve collaborating with the captains of other teams, scheduling games and overseeing practices. “I represent the team in our Conference and deal with issues within the team. I’m a face for the team outside the University, I suppose.”

The Chantgriffs practice every Sunday and often on Friday afternoons on the practice soccer field next to the track at CCU and host intercollegiate matches on the campus’ practice football field, and Powell says that technically, the season never ends. “It can extend over the summer and generally takes up the entire academic year. We have set games that we need to play for rating in our conference, but when we play them is entirely for the captains of the teams to decide.” We mentioned that CCU hosted a meet in September, and Powell says the team has played all the home games that were scheduled. “But I'm trying to get some nice folks from other teams to come see us so that we can expose Coastal and the surrounding community to Quidditch and hopefully instill in them a part of the love we have for the sport.”

The CCU Quidditch tournament in September also included College of Charleston, Winthrop University and Chapin High School. “Winthrop and Chapin were conference games,” he says. “College of Charleston isn’t part of our conference, but we wanted them to come along because Quidditch is something that gets better with numbers.”

College of Charleston wound up winning all three matches that day, conference or not.

Alex Benepe, Commissioner of the IQA [ www.internationalquidditch.org] defends the organization’s claim that Quidditch is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. “Fastest growing is always a dubious claim no matter who says it,” he says. “But I find it impossible that any sport before Quidditch has grown this fast from zero to where we are now in five years.” The IQA boasts more than 1,000 official teams globally, and Benepe cites the Internet as a major contributor to this trajectory – as well as the Harry Potter juggernaut. “Other sports don’t have something like Harry Potter to help develop an instant fan base. I would be very interested to find documentation that proves that any other sport has grown as much as Quidditch in the past five years.”

The first IQA World Cup took place in 2007, pitting Middlebury College in Vermont against Vassar College. “We probably had around 800 spectators there – which is big for a town with 6,000 people,” he says. Coverage in USA Today followed, as did a whirlwind road trip in 2008, “We visited seven colleges in seven days and put on demo games and we got a ton of press attention.” Another World Cup in fall 2008 showed the result of this exposure. “We had 12 colleges instead of two. And this includes teams as far away as the University of Washington and LSU – so I feel like technically intercollegiate Quidditch started in Fall 2007, but Fall 2008 really marked when it was off and running.”

The sixth IQA World Cup takes place in Kissimmee, Fla. in April.

The Quidditch Revolution

But why has Quidditch exploded on to the college scene with such a vengeance? There seems to be a common thread for participants.

“I think it has exploded on the college level because the people that grew up reading Harry Potter are now in college and are interested in the sport,” says Winthrop University Quidditch team president Caitlin Livingston. “I also think that the IQA and the World Cup have helped the sport become so widely known.”

John Wilson, current Chantgriffs Officer at Large, attributes exposure to Harry Potter from childhood. “We grew up with magic in our minds and hearts and when muggle Quidditch was created it was a way for us to involve ourselves in the magical world of Harry Potter at a phenomenal level.”

Lavado calls this demographic the Harry Potter generation. “The students in college that began Quidditch and the ones in college right now are the core of the Harry Potter fan base,” she says. “We've grown up with the series: it was an enormous part of our childhood and our development through adolescence and the teenage years and we definitely don't want to let it die now that the series is over. We have such a love for the books, films and fandom that we want to keep the memories alive by creating new ones and by finding people who are just as in love with the Harry Potter universe. It's a way for fans to come together and continue sharing and bonding over this epic thing that has been a part of the majority of our lives.”

“It’s all a bunch of people who wanted dearly to go to Hogwarts instead of grade school every day – to believe and be a part of something a little different,” asserts Powell.

While CofC Quidditch Club President Will Duggan recognizes the Harry Potter connection, he offers a somewhat pragmatic point of view: “People who like sports can enjoy it because its actually pretty physical, while at the same time it has a fun silly atmosphere that serves as the perfect release from the stresses of college.”

So a person doesn’t need to take a crash course in Harry Potter to get involved?

“Not at all,” continues Duggan. “I would say at least half of the people who play are either only somewhat familiar with the books or are not at all; it only helps a bit when learning the positions, since they are similar to the book sport.”

“Anyone can play Quidditch,” says Lavado. “The rules are easy and will be explained to anyone who doesn't know them. While they may not understand all the references or jokes made by those who are well versed in the Harry Potter universe, we welcome anyone who is interested in playing this unique sport.”

The idea that Quidditch could become an Olympic sport could be the stuff of fantasy at this point, but it’s worth looking at.

Benepe reports that the IQA organized a Quidditch tournament in Oxford, England around one of the Olympic torch lighting ceremonies. “We got a ton of press, and some big audiences live to watch it – we webcast it live to tens of thousands of people – so that was a great chance to do a demo match to keep spreading the word.”

But to Benepe, the possibility of the sport being added to the Olympics might be a good way off, if ever. “All I can say for sure is there are a lot of sports ahead of us in the waiting line.”

But the idea sounds good to Powell. “I mean, come on – if Curling is an Olympic sport, why the hell would Quidditch be left on the curb?”

Conference Calls

The conference CCU’s Powell referred to is the Carolinas Quidditch Conference, which is not yet affiliated with the IQA. University of North Carolina at Greensboro senior Jeffrey Lusk founded the CQC. “After UNCG's first two years as a team, the thing that really stood out for me was that there wasn't a lot of organization and communication between teams,” he says. “We would [have] long droughts of not playing anyone and not really knowing who was out there in our local area. I had become so attached to the sport and the people you meet playing it, I just figured it was time someone stepped up.”

The CQC roster includes Winthrop, UNC, North Carolina State University, Duke, Furman, Appalachian State, CCU, Chapin High School and others – consisting of IQA an non-IQA teams.

Lusk says that the only fee charged by the CQC will be at the end-of-year championships at UNCG. “Teams already have to pay a bunch of money traveling and buying equipment. I didn't really think it was necessary to add onto that. We are charging at our championships so that UNCG can cover any costs they might incur - acquiring fields and water dispensers…” The championships take place in March and will include 16 teams.

Wilson says the Chantgriffs will have to play a minimum of six teams this season for the conference, but plans on playing 12 games.

And is it unusual for colleges to play high school teams?

“As far as I know Chapin is the only high school team in our conference,” he says. I for one don't mind playing a high school team; I feel as if a team shouldn't be discriminated for being a high school team if they have a love for the sport and the means to play.”

CCU is not an official IQA team.

“We're still weighing pros and cons on that one,” says Powell. “It's a pretty penny to join [as much as $350 every year] and we really don't have a lot of money. But there are some perks that are nice, if nothing else than that it presents the opportunity for us to be ranked on a global scale as well as attend the World Cup as a team.”

“I think the goal is to be affiliated with it before next year so as to participate in the Quidditch World Cup next fall,” adds Chantgriffs founder Lavado. “We haven't been established long enough to have enough funds to pay for the membership fees into the IQA.”

Benepe asserts that any team can register for free on the IQA Web site. “That’s to get them into our database and to get them added to the list of all teams on our ‘teams” page. But when on the regional teams, you are only going to see official teams,” he says.

Quidditch Confederacy

Two such official regional teams in the Palmetto State are College of Charleston and Winthrop University in Rock Hill – part of what is called the Quidditch Confederacy by the IQA, the Southeast Region.

Quidditch at College of Charleston started three years ago, according to Duggan. “It started as in informal gathering and then two years ago became what it is now, with the team traveling to World Cup IV that November,” he says.

Duggan also attended Chapin High School and co-founded the Quidditch team there. At one point the high school played CofC in a day tournament. “Since I was coming to CofC last year, this led to joining the team.”

Although he finds it unusual for Chapin to be competing on the college level, he cites the high school’s three-year history with CofC. “And they play better than most of our college competition, so we actually have a lot of fun playing them.”

He adds that being a sanctioned IQA team has its benefits. “It allows us to have official matches, which go towards the international rankings as well as giving us recognition on the IQA Web site. The main reason for us to become official, though, is so that we can participate in the World Cup event since it is the biggest Quidditch event each year.”

Indeed, College of Charleston played in last year’s World Cup in New York City. “We won matches against Lafayette College and Harvard, and technically finished 32nd in the world.” He says there is some debate over whether the team should have ranked higher. “The team that beat us out was beat out by the champions in the next round.”

Winthrop’s Livingston tells Weekly Surge that her squad competed in last year’s World Cup as well. “We beat Swarthmore and Kutztown [University] and lost to Green Mountain College and Illinois State,” she says. “We had to forfeit because we had to leave and head back to South Carolina.”

The Middlebury Connection

IQA commissioner Benepe was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, what many call the birthplace of Muggle Quidditch.

“Middlebury is kind of like the primordial soup for Quidditch, because it had everything in all the right places,” he says. “First of all, it’s a very isolated area. The college has 2,400 students and the town of Middlebury has 6,000 people. It is surrounded by mountains and farmland. You can literally see herds of cows from some of the dining hall windows.” He says a large amount of incoming freshmen at Middlebury were captains of their various high school varsity teams. “It’s also extremely cold in the winters.” Between the cold, the isolation, and the open-minded liberal arts thrust of the school, a certain mindset emerges. “You have a perfect recipe for an environment of students who have to be creative about how they entertain themselves.”

Xander Manshel, an alumnus of prep school Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, lived on the same hallway at Middleton as Benepe, and the pair became friends. Manshel set up bocce games every Sunday, but this bocce was modified – just a bit. “We weren’t just playing the game – we would dress up in this cliché looking 18th or 19th century European clothing – high socks and breeches. We’d play bocce and tackle each other and try to insult each other using historical references.”

Benepe says Manshel got bored with bocce after a couple weeks, and the idea for real-life Quidditch came up at a dinner soon afterward. Although Benepe was not at that dinner, he knows what went down.

“I think they were talking about fictional sports in general – and how Xander would try and play them in real life. The question went to Quidditch. You could run around holding a broom and the Snitch could be a person. The Bludgers could be replaced by dodge balls. And they got so excited talking about this.”

Borrowing brooms from Middlebury’s Broomball team and setting up a field of play with hula-hoops and trashcans, the first game was played on Oct. 9, 2005.

“That’s more or less how it got started at Middlebury. The first day everyone loved it and people kept coming back. The first year we had an intramural tournament with ten teams, then it stayed the same the next year.” Manshel bowed out of Quidditch soon after that, asking Benepe to take over the league. In his junior year, Benepe turned his focus on getting other colleges to start teams to play against Middlebury and development of a World Cup event – more of a community festival than an intramural sports team event.

The Seekers

For these students, being involved with Quidditch has impacted their lives in positive ways, and like the Golden Snitch, the similarities dart in and out of their narratives.

Lusk asserts that his association with the sport made him more outgoing and helped him develop leadership skills. “I'm always terrified of meeting new people,” he says. “It's been one place I've felt more comfortable in these situations. I've always been a follower. Trying to lead this conference really helped me step outside my comfort zone and do things I hadn't been capable of in the past.”

“Quidditch has helped me meet new people and build new friendships both with teammates and with people from other schools. It has also given me the opportunity to be a leader,” says Livingston.

And for incoming freshman – getting a handle on college life can be daunting, as Duggan recalls: “Last year as a freshman struggling to get used to the change of being at college with all new people, [Quidditch] really gave me something to look forward to. After going to the World Cup last year and making friends with other players on the team, I felt a lot more at home at college. It also keeps me from getting too lazy.”

At CCU, this thread continues.

“The Quidditch team has become like my family and my closest friends,” says Chantgriffs Officer at Large Wilson. “Nick [Powell] is my best friend and at times I don’t know how I would have overcome some of my struggles in college life without them.”

And as for Powell, he says Quidditch changed his life, becoming for him both a family and an identity.

“I've never had such a group of friends that I could just come to and be in my natural state without worry of being judged or pushed aside. Also, I have never played a sport I've connected with so deeply. I never played football, I sucked at baseball because it couldn't hold my attention and I'm much too clumsy for soccer. But Quidditch I'm good at. I love it with all my heart.”

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