HOST INTRO: Twenty years ago, the world’s most famous fictional wizard, Harry Potter entered our lives along with every wizard’s favorite sport–quidditch. Since then, quidditch has gone from fantasy to reality. Some 20,000 players in 25 countries play the game. This weekend, elite quidditch players will tryout for the Titans, New York’s Major League Quidditch team. The sport is more popular and more competitive than ever…and it is facing an identity crisis. Will the growth prove a charm or a curse? Acacia O’Connor has the story.
Kyle Carey is a senior at NYU. We’re in his apartment on the lower east side. And he’s showing me his broom closet.
AMBI CAREY BROOM CLOSET “Watch out”
CAREY: The irony of it is that we have so many quidditch brooms in there that we can’t fit our actual broom in there.
That’s right, this closet is for quidditch brooms. Carey pulls two out, one neon yellow, the other a white early generation broom.
CAREY: PVC Pipe it still has the words from home depot to mark it. I wish I had an old broom to show you. We don’t use those anymore.
Gone are the old twiggy brooms of yesteryear…or 2005, when Muggle quidditch was started, open to players of ANY skill level. But now, players like Carey ride sleek store bought batons.
Before you ask, no, real-life quidditch players don’t fly. Instead they run with their brooms between their legs. Players score points by throwing balls through three ringed goals, while avoiding being hit by the bludger, another ball. The game ends when the famous snitch is caught. In the book the snitch is a tiny golden orb. In muggle land…
CAREY: It’s a pair of usually tight yellow shorts. With a tennis ball attached in a sock.
The ball is attached to a human runner with velcro. Carey pulls it off. It’s the snitch runner’s job to evade capture. And in the early days, they went to extremes.
CAREY: There was a snitch that took the staten island ferry went and got chinese food, came back and people were still searching for them.
But now, the snitch is confined to the field. And over the years there have been more changes too, like time limits for games and time outs. Jack McGovern has volunteered with Major League Quidditch since it started. He says these changes represent the sport’s growing popularity with a new kind of player:
MCGOVERN: They speak to what our players have asked for to make the game safer more competitive more enjoyable and they speak to what we believe spectators will enjoy more.
Today’s quidditch is intense. Think the sprinting and goal-scoring of soccer added to the full body contact of rugby with a smidge of dodgeball thrown in. Which is what makes quidditch appealing to players who are more sporty than nerdy, like Dom Bailey.
DOM BAILEY You’d be surprised by how many people in the quidditch community have actually read the books, because it’s not many.
And not everyone is happy about that. Gone are the cape-wearing Harry Potter fans.
BAILEY: Now you have actual jerseys, you don’t use brooms anymore, It’s athletic people who want to win.
The special culture of quidditch is still a big part of the sport. That’s true even for more athletic player like Bailey, who also coached less… sporty? team members in college.
BAILEY: We were like family, my Emerson team from 2 years ago. If you play quidditch, that envelops your life.
Adam Cohen teaches sports management in Sydney, Australia. He wrote his dissertation on the social benefits of quidditch. He says, as the sport becomes more official, leagues have to decide where their priorities lie.
COHEN: Do they want to highlight elite athletes, you know the best athletic people, or do they want to highlight we’re about inclusivity, we’re about fun while still being a sport, versus lets full on tackle and smash the guy and see who wins. It’s hard to cater to those two demographics.
OCONNOR: I mean, can you do both?
COHEN: Not simultaneously, in my opinion.
COHEN: it’s certainly an extreme net positive in the sporting world and I would be curious what it looks like in another three to five years from now.
For now, quidditch remains true to its inclusive past. It’s rule, Title 9 and ¾, ensures equality for women and people of non-binary gender identities. That means quidditch is one of the only truly co-ed sports.
A sport that can go mainstream and stay true to its quirky roots? That would take a special type of magic.
Acacia O’Connor Columbia Radio News