From the gym to the Garden: Pro dodgeball grows to big stage

An Austria player, right, is hit by the ball during women's competition against Malaysia in the Dodgeball World Cup, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) –The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Professional dodgeball is chaos, but it’s organized chaos.

At the 2018 Dodgeball World Cup, people were dodging, dipping, diving, ducking and, well, dodging some more all over the two-court theater at Madison Square Garden. And while that part of the matches may have look scrambled, the rest did not.

Each attack Saturday was thought out, strategically planned around players’ strengths and weaknesses. Balls didn’t just fly amuck. They were thrown with purpose.

“It’s not the same game that most people remember from school,” Team Canada player Katie Morrison said. “It’s exciting to tell people that and to see their reactions that it’s actually a competitive sport. It demands a level of athleticism when you’re performing on the court — power, speed and agility.”

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The game grew up. It got rugged. Some players now get injured to a point where they bleed.

All of this was on display at the World Dodgeball Association’s second biennial tournament, where 13 different countries competed for the ultimate dodgeball title. There were three divisions — men’s, women’s and mixed competition — with 10 teams each.

Austria won the men’s bracket. England won the women’s and mixed.

The WDA was founded as dodgeball’s world governing body in 2013, bringing together 35 countries from different continental federations. Since then, it has grown to 62 countries and WDA president Tom Hickson said there are more than 67.5 million participants.

“We’ve got quite a big growth agenda happening in the Middle East at the moment,” Hickson said. “Within the next two to four years, we want to be aiming to deliver over 90 countries and over 100 million people worldwide.”

That’s the goal.

“I don’t see it shrinking,” Team USA president and player Ed Prentiss said. “It should keep growing.”

Prentiss has been playing dodgeball seriously since 2003 when he founded the National Dodgeball League. The next year, the movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” was released and interest spiked. Similar leagues start popping up everywhere.

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Once established, it took the WDA 18 months to come up with a standardized set of rules that satisfied everyone.

“Our rules system is not necessarily designed for the grassroots activity,” Hickson said. “It’s more into that high-performance standard. It’s making sure we get the best out of our athletes and get the best out of the sport.”

The basics are the same: Get hit or get caught, get out.

A game is played with five balls — cloth, not rubber — with six players per team. There are two 15-minute halves with an indeterminate number of sets. Last team standing at the end of a set, or with the most remaining players, gets points. Then, the balls are reset and action begins again. This repeats until time runs out.

Members of the dodgeball community are proud of the fact they play a very inclusive sport.

“I’m a little guy, smallest guy out there,” Prentiss said. “I love it because I can dodge and catch. Some people love it because they’re throwers. Some people love it because they’re the total package. It just depends, but you see all body shapes and sized out there.”

And they’re all wearing the same uniform — some sport knee pads for sliding, too.

Right now, players pay for their own gear and travel. Teams try to gain sponsors and fundraise as much as possible. Most players maintain a full-time job in addition to dodgeball.

The ultimate prize for winning the World Cup is an engraved silver plate. No purse.

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Still, none of this deters players.

“We just want to establish recognition,” Morrison said. “I personally want to show the youth and the future generation of the sport that they have something to look forward to, that they have something to look up to as far as professional athletes and that this is a sport they can compete in as they get older much like the more traditional, mainstream sports like basketball, hockey and baseball.”

Kids walked around Saturday in team jerseys and general dodgeball T-shirts.

There also was the World Junior Finals slotted in the middle of the World Cup’s schedule, showing future generations that going from the gym to the Garden is possible.

“All the major sports have gone through it: They had to start somewhere,” Prentiss said. “This is our start.”