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How Spikeball became mainstream

Rafa Alvarez

Coney Island is famous for being the home of the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, but maybe one day it will be known for hosting another summertime event as well.

SummerSpike 2018 was held there on Saturday, just a few days before Joey Chestnut & Co. gorge themselves on the Fourth of July. It was the second Spikeball competition to air on ESPN, following an event in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in early May. It's the latest step forward for "the next great American sport."

Those words are taken from the Spikeball website, but the sport is technically called roundnet, and it has been around since the late 1980s. It was reborn in 2008, when current Spikeball CEO Chris Ruder acquired the brand and relaunched it, greatly aided by appearing on an episode of ABC's "Shark Tank."

Spikeball was originally a side business for Ruder, who ran it out of his basement for five years. In 2013, it hit $1 million in annual revenue, and Ruder quit his corporate job to work on Spikeball full time.

The game itself is pretty simple. It's similar to two-player volleyball, except instead of hitting a large ball over a long suspended rectangular net, players hit a smaller ball down into a circular net very low to the ground. Teams can still take three touches at a time -- for a bump, set or spike -- just like in volleyball. And the objective is the same: Hit a shot that the other team can't return.

Today, the game has grown to feature tournaments all over the country. Headquartered in Chicago, Spikeball says it now has more than 4 million players worldwide. The 2018 Spikeball Roundnet Association Tournament Series includes events in several major cities across the United States, from Boston to San Diego. Many of them sprang up organically. For instance, the Coney Island event was started by Jack Scotti, now director of the Spikeball Roundnet Association, and some friends back in 2013, well before he was hired by Spikeball.

But the first stop in the East region was in Lancaster, which begs the question: Why?

Well, in part, it's because some of the top roundnet players hail from the area. Becca Graham, 23, and Alli Kauffman, 22, are both from the small city in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Tyler Cisek, 22, half of the current men's national champion duo, is from Long Island, New York, but spends many weekends in Lancaster. (The other half is 21-year-old Ohio native Peter Jon Showalter.)

"There's a huge group here that plays," Cisek said. "Practice is easy when you have a big group of people playing around you and you can get good players to play with you."

"The Amish and Mennonite community are really into volleyball, so a lot of that population really caught on," Graham said. "And it's just a great place. There's tons of parks to play in, and the weather's pretty good year-round. We have a couple hundred people as part of our Facebook group. Any given day you might have 20-plus people playing pickup in a park somewhere."

The May 5 event in Lancaster was held on a large field behind an elementary school. Dozens of Spikeball nets dotted the grass, where competitors and spectators could warm up or play games on their own. A few rows of stands were set up in front of the main net, where the showcase matches took place.

"We've done a few tournaments in Lancaster," said Scotti, the Spikeball director. "We were going to do a tournament in [Philadelphia]; we did one there in 2017, a more urban-populated area. But we polled the community. We said we want your feedback, where do you want to see a tournament take place? And Lancaster just went above and beyond in showing interest."

Cisek and Showalter began their roundnet careers playing with other partners. Cisek was teamed up with another friend, while Showalter played with his brother. But the duo paired up for a tournament in New York two years ago and quickly realized they made a very good team.

How dedicated are they to the sport? Well, Showalter skipped his college graduation ceremony at Asbury University in Kentucky to compete in Lancaster.

"My mom was a little bummed," Showalter said, chuckling. "It was also my fiancée's graduation, but she played collegiate volleyball at a really high level, so she understands sacrificing some things to go play a sport you really like and you're good at."

Graham and Kauffman, meanwhile, have known each other since high school, when they played field hockey, basketball and soccer together. They've teamed up in roundnet since 2015.

"During the season, I'd say we probably play three times a week, formal pickup games," Graham said. "And then we would each practice individually, or train with each other, one to two times a week in addition to that. In the offseason, we play at least once a week, even in winter."

That hard work has paid off. Graham and Kauffman had never lost in an official Spikeball Roundnet Association event prior to Lancaster and won again on their home turf back in May, before finishing second at SummerSpike this past weekend. Cisek and Showalter were victorious in both Lancaster's May event and Saturday's tournament.

There's not much in the way of prize money in roundnet, at least not yet. The winners do get a small financial prize, based on how many teams enter the tournament. But these players seem to have their sights set on greater glory.

"I know my goal for the sport is to hopefully be in the Olympics one day," Cisek said. "That's the dream."

With the way this sport is growing, it's not out of the question.