You likely don't know what it's like to play soccer while inside a plastic bubble, but John Anthony Radosta does. "It's a very, very different type of game from anything out there," he tells me over the phone. Like in other contact sports—yes, it's a contact sport—you run towards opponents at full bubble-bound speed, bracing for impact, but instead of being greeted by a world of pain, you just "kind of roll over. It's a bit of a psych-out. It's actually quite an adrenaline rush."
Bubble soccer is, for the most part, exactly what it sounds like: full-contact soccer where each player wears a plastic bubble from thigh to head approximately five feet in diameter. The bubble itself is a souped-up version of those inflatable sumo wrestling costumes, although your hands remain inside the bubble at all times. No, seriously.
Watching bubble soccer reminds us that this planet has conditioned us to expect certain outcomes in certain situations. For example: when people run into each other, people get laid out. In bubble soccer, we expect the same outcome, but it never comes to pass. Instead, one (or both) bubble athletes fall to the ground, legs waving in the air in a desperate search for stability. Bodies fly, but everyone is safe, because they're inside a bubble.
Bubble soccer, of course, began as a lark. According to Radosta, the idea was hatched by Norwegian comedians/television hosts Henrik Elvestad and Johan Golden in 2011 as a joke, which makes sense because it's the world's sport being played by people encased in bubbles. At first, the game didn't really have any rules. It was basically the NFL Blitz version of soccer, with bubble-mediated contact allowed any place, any time. Want to deck a player after he releases a pass? Go for it. Don't like the way the bubble over there is bubbling along the field? Destroy his shit. Unresolved rage issues compounded by a phobia of harming others? Welcome home, friend.
While bubble soccer wasn't designed to address growing concerns about safety in sports, it's also the exact answer many observers have jokingly suggested. In fact, writers have long treated the "wrap athletes in bubble wrap" argument as the undesirable slippery slope endgame nobody wants.
Dan Levy, one of Bleacher Report's few paid writers, wrote a facetious column in 2012 titled, "NFL Has Too Many Head Injuries: Wrap Everyone, Not Just QBs, in Bubble Wrap." William Brangham at PBS wrote a more thoughtful piece on the dangers of youth sports, specifically soccer: "Believe me, I get it: soccer's a contact sport. Kids can get hurt. I'm not looking to bubble-wrap my kids, but I'd be lying if I said my wife and I weren't increasingly uneasy while watching from the sidelines." Of course, the undesirable endgame both writers posit is pretty much what bubble soccer is. And it works.
The worst injuries Radosta—who works for fitness company Advanced Sports Technology and has equity in the National Association of Bubble Soccer (NABS)—has seen are twisted ankles and knees while legs are flying, mostly during the XFL-style kickoff where both teams run at each other with the ball in between them.
In order to make the game safer, relatively speaking, NABS instituted contact rules similar to those in the NFL, such as banning hits on defenseless players. Players receive yellow and red cards for infractions, and penalty shots are occasionally awarded. But Radosta emphasizes the game hasn't lost its full bubble contact spirit.
When I asked Radosta to describe the injuries he's seen since the rule changes, he replied, "People have gotten sore shoulders from the strap kind of digging into them when they get hit. Or maybe they get whacked from the side and their head hits the inside of the bubble. But it's a plastic, inflatable bubble. It doesn't hurt that much." However, the sport's obvious safety—remember, the players are inside bubbles—didn't much help in making it commercially viable.
When Radosta first looked into making a business of the sport, he was hit with the irony that insurance companies were hesitant to underwrite the game since there was no prior claim history; nothing scares insurance companies more than an unknown risk. So in the byzantine way insurance works, companies were far more eager to insure dangerous games like football or hockey because they could quantify precisely how dangerous they are.
Radosta eventually got insurance companies to sign on, and by April 2014 the NABS was created under the ownership of Advanced Sports Technology. As of next week, NABS will have 30 active leagues across the United States with more on the way.
Bubble soccer's business model is similar to CrossFit's with a little bit of Kickball rec league mixed in. Local entrepreneurs buy the equipment—anywhere from $380-$500 per bubble—and then make the money back through league registration and private event fees.
Bubble soccer isn't all fun and games, though. It's a hell of a workout. The bubbles themselves are deceptively heavy, sometimes as much as 30 pounds, and because the bubble extends beyond the thighs, players have to shuffle along the field (which ends up looking like a field full of the Egg Council Guy). Still, Radosta describes it as the equivalent of running with a 30-pound vest without being able to swing your arms for momentum.
The NABS quickly found that full-length soccer games with 11-man teams were impractical, so they shortened the games to six or seven minute quarters with five to eight players a side, depending on the field.
This fall, the NABS is hosting the Bubble Bowl, a single-elimination tournament in Las Vegas. Although they haven't signed any contract, ESPN and Telemundo have expressed interest in broadcasting the tournament.
For now, Radosta is glad to simply see the game develop and grow. Teams are starting to experiment with strategies like setting up basketball-style picks and other methods of using the bubble's girth to their advantage. Radosta is excited to see where individual ingenuity takes the sport.
"It's like watching baseball when it was first invented with Abner Doubleday." Except, you know, in bubbles.