This weekend hundreds of athletes without an ounce of magical blood in their bodies will descend on New York for the fifth annual Muggle Quidditch World Cup.
This year top-ranked Middlebury College, winners of the first four world cups, will try to stave off #2 Kansas and contenders such as LSU, Texas A&M, and McGill University in Montreal to win its fifth consecutive title.
Standard Quidditch—best known as the sport that Harry Potter played when he was in school at Hogwarts—obviously includes elements that don’t translate to the non-magical world: most notably, players flying on broomsticks and balls zooming through the air on their own accord. But thousands of Muggles (non-magical persons) around the world—mostly in English-speaking countries—enjoy a version of the game that operates according to the normal rules of physics.
Organized Muggle Quidditch began in 2005 at Middlebury in Vermont, more than 3,000 miles away from the Queerditch Marsh. In the fall of 2007 Middlebury played Vasser in the first ever intercollegiate Quidditch match. The following year 12 teams traveled to Middlebury for the second annual Muggle Quidditch World Cup.
Currently the International Quidditch Association (IQA)—the organization that operates the World Cup—ranks 129 member teams. 83 teams in three divisions (Division 1, Division 2, and Division 2 High School) will compete in this year’s World Cup tournaments.
The Flightless Broomstick and the Human Snitch
Muggle Quidditch teams, like the fictional squads on which they are based, include 3 Chasers, 2 Beaters, a Keeper, and a Seeker. Like their magical counterparts from JK Rowling’s wizarding world, Muggle Quidditch players ride broomsticks. The broomsticks just aren’t functional.
Ryan Kim, public relations director for the International Quidditch Association says that the main purpose of the brooms is “to keep Muggle Quidditch as similar to the game found in the Harry Potter novels.” The brooms serve no strategic function. But, Kim says, “They are a standard requirement for all players, who must learn to manage.”
Playing Muggle Quidditch with a broom is kind of like playing field hockey in ice skates.
A Muggle Quidditch broomstick (pictured) doesn’t look like the broom you keep in your utility closet. Quidditch brooms are sleeker than household brooms and resemble those you see in the Harry Potter films and in Mary GrandPré’s illustrations in the American versions of the novels. A company called Alivan’s (“makers of fine handcrafted magic wands”) is the International Quidditch Association’s official broom supplier.
Though the brooms are professionally manufactured, other equipment is still improvised. The Quaffle (the ball that Chasers use to score goals) is often a slightly deflated volleyball. The goals themselves—Quidditch goals are a trio of rings, each of which sits atop a pole—are made by attaching hula hoops to PVC pipes then painting the finished piece gold.
A Quidditch match ends only when a player catches the Golden Snitch. In the Harry Potter novels, the Snitch is a small, golden, enchanted, winged ball that flits about the pitch. One player on each side—the Seeker—is charged with chasing and trying to capture the Snitch.
Since enchanted winged balls are hard to come by, Muggle Quidditch uses a human snitch. A person dressed entirely in yellow, with a yellow sock containing a tennis ball tucked in his or her waistband, runs around the field and its vicinity trying to avoid being caught. Each team’s Seeker chases the Snitch in hopes of grabbing the sock and bringing the game to a close. (It’s like flag football, without the football.)
A magical Snitch, by its nature, plays no favorites. But a human Snitch is human. Kim says that critics of the sport have made claims about “Snitch bias” (i.e. a human Snitch favoring one Seeker over the other). “However,” he says, “It is a Snitch’s onus to evade capture for as long as possible. We firmly believe that all of our Snitches carry out this duty with not only their greatest efforts but also the best of intentions. I do not believe there has ever been a recorded incident of a formal accusation against a Snitch for favoring one Seeker over another.”
World Cup matches will use neutral Snitches who are affiliated with neither team.
In Standard Quidditch, the team that captures the Snitch wins 150 points (and usually the match). I’ve long considered this a flaw in Rowling’s sport. (This and the fact that all of the point values are divisible by 10. From what I can gather, wizards don’t take math classes and don’t know to simplify.) Too often the goals scored by the Chasers or prevented by the Keeper have no impact on who actually wins the game. (Granted, since Hogwarts house teams play only 3 matches each, margin of victory has as much of an impact on the standings as wins and losses. But I digress.)
In Muggle Quidditch, the Snitch is worth only 30 points. Kim believes that players at Middlebury arrived at this value early on in the history of Muggle Quidditch, after discovering that Muggle matches tend to be much shorter than those involving witches and wizards. (The Harry Potter novels mention matches that carry on for days or weeks.)
Unlike the Weasley twins, Beaters in Muggle Quidditch don’t use bats to beat Bludgers. Muggle Bludgers are dodgeballs. A player hit by a Bludger must run to his or her goalposts and back before resuming play.
Young but Sophisticated
You may scoff at the idea of college kids running around an intramural field with brooms between their legs trying to replicate a game that can only properly be played with magic. And perhaps there’s nothing novel about a group of college kids trying to mimic something they read about in a book or saw in a movie. That’s the sort of thing people do in college.
What is remarkable about Muggle Quidditch is the degree of organization and sophistication it has achieved in such a short period of time. The IQA recognizes nearly 500 teams in 20 countries, more than 100 of which are official members. Teams seeking to become a IQA members must submit an application form and a $200 membership fee. If a team wants to identify itself with the name of an institution (as most do), it must be officially recognized by its college, university, or high school.
This weekend, less than 5 years after the first intercollegiate match, dozens of teams are traveling (some across great distances) to Randall’s Island in Manhattan to compete for a championship. The World Cup opening ceremonies and final matches will be held at Icahn Stadium, a facility best known as the site where Usain Bolt first broke the world record for the 100 meters in 2008.
Granted, the young sport still has plenty of room to grow. While Michigan State this season played 29 matches against other IQA teams, many other teams played three games or fewer. The quality of uniforms also varies. Some squads spring for pro-style unis (the Ives Pond Quidditch Club of Buffalo, New York sports matching socks), while others go with matching T-shirts and mismatched shorts.
A Sport for Witches and Wizards Alike
Muggle Quidditch may soon rival korfball as the world’s most popular coed sport. Harry Potter readers know that, among the Hogwarts house teams mentioned in the books, only Slytherin House had an all-male side. The Gryffindor team that was so dominant during Harry’s first 3 years at Hogwarts featured a trio of talented female Chasers, with boys playing Beater, Keeper, and Seeker.
The current IQA rulebook says, “Each team must have at least two players that are of a different gender than the other players.” Kim clarifies, “Seekers do not count towards this gender requirement, because they typically spend a large amount of the game off the field or simply not in play.”
He adds, “Beginning next year, the IQA will be instituting Title 9 ¾, which will increase the gender requirement to a minimum of three players of each gender.” (And if you don’t think “Title 9 ¾” is awesome, I don’t know what to tell you.)
The World Cup 0pening ceremonies are tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. ET. Finals matches begin Sunday at 6:00 p.m. ET.
Four Midwestern teams are ranked in the International Quidditch Association’s top 20 heading into the World Cup: Kansas (#2), Marquette (#11), Michigan State (#15), and Ball State (#17).
Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.