While still little-known, it’s growing in popularity and this weekend Philadelphia is hosting a hardcourt bicycle polo tournament that will crown the world champion.
If you see people riding their bikes in circles in a vacant parking lot swinging homemade croquet mallets, it is not a franternity hazing ritual. You could be seeing hardcourt bicycle polo, an urban version of what horses do on grass. While still little-known, it’s growing in popularity and this weekend Philadelphia is hosting a tournament that will crown the world champion.
Hardcourt polo players use any concrete space they can get… a cracked tennis courts or an unused outdoor hockey rink like this one under Interstate 95 near Washington Avenue.
Montgomery: I’ve played soccer, baseball, hockey, football, just about anything and I was terrible at all of them. But for some reason I’m kind of good at this.
29 year-old Alex Montgomery has rigged up an old steel-frame mountain bike with a very low gear that makes it easy to sprint from one end of the court to another. He makes his own mallets using a ski pole for a shaft and a hunk of PVC pipe for a head. The regular Wednesday pick-up game is played 3 against 3.
Montgomery: Frankly it’s hard to gather enough people in Philadelphia. It’s a smaller city, and most people only have one bike and they don’t want to ruin it.
Bikes take a beating. So can the players. Injuries from swinging mallets, thrown elbows, and slippery concrete can leave people bruised – even bloodied. Peter Dalker has played in bike polo tournaments in cities across the country and says Boston tends to be the roughest.
Dalker: They play like it’s a severe kind of hockey. Slashing mallets and hacking at body parts.
It’s played more gently in Seattle, and it’s different in Chicago, which is different from London, which is different from New York. Cities tend to cultivate their own rules. Some places have offsides rules, some don’t. Some have rules about striking with the face of the mallet, or the use of goalies. Temple University sports economics professor Mike Leeds says America’s most popular sport – football – started the same way.
Leeds: One game between Harvard and McGill in football back in the late 19th century. Harvard played by one set of rules, McGill played by another set of rules. So they came to an agreement that they would play the first half of the game by one set of rules and the second half by another set of rules.
The organizer of the world championship tournament is Fishtown resident Montana Norvell. He wants to establish a common set of rules to standardize bike polo into a more legitimate game, which in turn could attract money. He’s walking a thin line between financial backers who want a return on investment and players who want to have fun with their friends.
Norvell: By the standards of most sports it’s very free and open – it really should remain that way. My concern is that as we put on bigger tournaments, we need more and more money to do that, and we’ll make concessions about how they play.
Norvell says some manufacturers have given support to the tournament, but it’s a bad year to ask anyone for money. These are humble beginnings for bicycle polo, not unlike the early days of professional skateboarding or the X-Games. Sports economist Victor Mathesson of Holy Cross University says even obscure, rough-and-tumble sports can hold marketing allure.
Mathesson: It’s not necessarily the number of fans, it’s the type of fans. If you can get into the very attractive 19 – 24 demographic that major league baseball is increasingly unable to attract, then even small crowds might be doing exactly what you want.
At this stage in the game, bike polo is trying to establish credibility. There is no prize money – players are fighting each other mostly for bragging rights. But organizer Norvell says that in order for the title of World Champion to mean anything, the world has to be here.
Norvell: I got a lot of teams from Europe coming. I think we’re at eight. Out of 48 it is still underrepresented, that number is going to grow. Hopefully people don’t feel they just won a tournament – hopefully they can brag they really did win a world championship.
Norvell is caught in a Catch-22: he needs money to bring world-class competitors together, but he needs world-class competitors to attract money. Like everything about bike polo, he’s making it up as he goes along.