Athletes on broomsticks: The growing cult phenomenon of Michigan Quidditch

Ariel Bond/Daily
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BY PROMA KHOSLA
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 19, 2010

In the shaded seclusion of Nichols Arboretum, a few shouts break nature's silence.

“Brooms down, eyes closed!” calls out LSA junior Emily Byl. “The Snitch is released!” And so begins a game of Michigan Quidditch.

Of course, Quidditch is the beloved wizard sport in J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, but it's sneaking into the Muggle world. The ‘U’ team is among the most recently registered in the — wait for it — International Quidditch Association.

“This actually started two summers ago when my friends and I were really good friends with someone from Eastern (Michigan University)’s team,” Byl said. “We were looking and looking and trying to find our Quidditch team, and we realized that it didn’t exist.”

In the year that followed, Byl and her friends familiarized themselves with the IQA rulebook, which specifies everything from forbidden maneuvers to standardized brooms. In September, they set up a Michigan Quidditch table at Festifall on the Diag.

“Festifall drew way more support than we had ever fathomed," Byl said. "We realized there was a niche for it because a couple people e-mailed me right when the group started — when I registered the group, I got 10 e-mails from people who were interested — but we had about 300 people at Festifall register. It was absurd. Our booth was continuously crowded with people and we really weren’t quite ready for that capacity of interest.”

“To me, it just sounded interesting because you wonder how they translate the game,” said LSA freshman Robert Morgan, who signed up at Festifall. “Obviously we don’t have magic and can’t fly, so I was like, ‘Wow, how are they gonna pull this one off?’ ”

As it turns out, there aren’t too many differences between the wizard and Muggle versions of Rowling’s sport. College Quidditch still has seven players: three chasers, two beaters, a seeker and a keeper. On either end of the pitch are the goals, each made of three hula hoops duct-taped to tiki torches and wedged in the ground. The Quaffle is used to score, and the Bludgers (three instead of two) are used to hit and confuse other players. For these, the Michigan players currently use dodgeballs featuring Disney characters. The greatest challenge posed by bringing Quidditch to life is the Snitch.

“The concept behind the Snitch is that it’s essentially ... a runner,” Byl explained. “Someone dressed in all yellows or bright colors.”

The “Snitch Runner” sticks a tube sock containing a tennis ball into his or her pants.

“So to catch the Snitch you have to grab the ball out of the Snitch’s pants,” Byl said. “The Snitch can hide, the Snitch can climb trees ... it’s pretty fun.”

At the moment, LSA freshman Mark Wagner plays the part of the Snitch. Wagner ran cross country in high school and participated in the Detroit Free Press Marathon this past Sunday, so playing Snitch came easily to him.

“This is a good way to stay in shape,” Wagner said. “I go on runs too, but this way I just get to run around the Arb and have people chase me.”

Catching the Snitch ends the game and earns the respective Seeker’s team 50 points. In the books, catching the Snitch is worth 150 points, but the IQA feels that this puts too much pressure on Seekers and risks trivializing the rest of the game.

Though the IQA began as the Intercollegiate Quidditch Association, it changed its name to reflect the participation of high schools and institutions in other countries. To date, the IQA has registered more than 400 colleges and 300 high schools everywhere from the United States to New Zealand.

When Byl and her teammates began scrimmages in the Arb, the team drew quite a bit of attention with its equipment. A woman asked if the players were playing broomball at an early practice. When she heard it was Quidditch, she just had to watch.

“She said, ‘My son would love this,’ and so she and a couple of other families came to watch the game with their kids,” Byl said. “Obviously for us, it’s to bring the books to life. It was cool to bring the books to life for them as well.”

The team hopes to attract a fan following for its upcoming games against Eastern Michigan and Michigan State. The EMU game will be in the Arb on Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. Michigan will play MSU on Nov. 7, same time and place.

“It’s very entertaining to watch. We really love having crowds. People do try to get into the role of being wizards and not Muggles,” Byl said.

Before the big games, official tryouts will take place Sunday, Oct. 24 at 3 p.m. in the Arb. Until then, players practice by scrimmaging each other with the names of Quidditch teams from the books.

“Our first game was Gryffindor versus Slytherin,” said LSA sophomore Danica Whitfield, who plays the position of Beater. “People come dressed up; we have Slytherin people who paint their faces and make t-shirts, and we have Gryffindor people who decorate brooms and have that whole house rivalry going on.”

In the following week, teams were named after professional Quidditch teams from the world of “Harry Potter”: the Applebee Arrows and the Chudley Cannons. Byl and her teammates enjoy these subtle nods at Rowling’s universe as a reminder of what brought them all together.

“Everyone here is really pumped to play Quidditch,” said LSA sophomore Camille Duet, who plays Chaser.

“No one’s here because they have a Quidditch scholarship,” Duet added.

“You just get to nerd out with other people,” Whitfield added. “You can’t really express your love for Quidditch so much in a classroom. When you’re on the field you can be like, ‘Oh, this is just like in the book!’ ... and you can actually do it because you’re playing.”

Byl agreed that actually playing Quidditch is a great way to make Rowling’s fiction into reality. “I have tried to bring the books alive in many different ways. This is kind of the easiest way because when you’re caught up in the game it’s easy to kind of —”

“— immerse yourself,” Whitfield finished.

“When I was first conceiving this idea I definitely did go back and reread some of the Quidditch scenes in the early books,” Byl added. “Just when they were describing Quidditch to Harry for the first time, because it is such a bizarre game.”

At the same time, the team welcomes new players regardless of their level of interest in “Harry Potter.”

“I’m not the biggest ‘Harry Potter’ fan,” Morgan said. “I know people who know more than I do. I’ve read all the books. I just went to the mass meeting and thought it sounded like a good time.”

“Honestly, anyone should just come out and play,” Duet said. “Even if you don’t know (the books), it’s such a good time. There’s a nice edge of competition but no one’s so gung-ho about it that we’ve had to take anyone to the emergency room yet.”

Meanwhile, the competition is what drives Morgan.

“I’m really excited to play MSU,” he said. “You may have beat us at football, but we can beat you at a fictional sport.”