Spaceball: the forgotten sport of the future

I visited my first trampoline park last year and it was a lot more fun than I expected.

I have George Nissen to thank for that experience. He was the gymnast who invented the modern trampoline and brought trampolining to the masses. It didn’t become the phenomenon he’d hoped for but it did become a recreational mainstay for kids across the globe. And trampolining became part of a sport you probably haven’t heard of – spaceball.

“If you’ve got 50 kids out there on trampolines, well, after a couple of weeks 25 of them are going to be better than the other 25. And the ones that are not so good at it drop out. Later you’ll find there are maybe 12 left. And pretty soon there’s just a hard core.”

George Nissen

What is spaceball?

As a way to promote trampolining, Nissen invented spaceball, a sport that combined trampolining, volleyball, and basketball. The game involves players who must throw a ball past their opponent through a double net while bouncing. If the opponent fails to catch the ball or otherwise drops it, the other player wins a point.

At the height of its “popularity”, Nissen managed to get some of the Jackson 5 to play it on TV. The sport also got an endorsement from NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter, who called it “the best conditioning exercise for space travel”.

Spaceball at Butlins in Clacton, UK (1964)

In truth, spaceball was better as a way to exercise than a capitalist sport like basketball or volleyball. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sports Studies:

“The activity is said to increase physical indurance and enhance coordination and balance.”

But it didn’t become as popular as standard trampolining (which featured at the Olympic Games in 2000 and Nissen watched it live in Sydney). Its highest honour was making it onto the Olympics website.

Nissen and [Larry] Griswold envisaged trampolines being used in a variety of new games, although they never grabbed the public’s imagination. In one, called Spaceball, two teams of two on a single trampoline with specially constructed end walls attempted to propel a ball through a middle wall, to hit a target on the other side’s end wall.

Interestingly, Hammacher-Schlemmer, the shop for “unique gifts, gadgets, electronics, and more” made a mini spaceball trampoline for $699.95 but it’s no longer in stock. ‘Tis a shame.

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