On a warm Sunday afternoon, on the electric green turf of the Boise State University soccer field, the Boise Grays trained for its first game of the season. The players stretched. They ran. They practiced situational plays. It was just like NFL training camp.
Except that the professional sport they play is Quidditch—the game from the Harry Potter book series by JK Rowling.
In the Harry Potter books, Quidditch is played by young wizards who ride magic flying brooms high in the air. In the non-magical version, invented by students at Middlebury College in 2006, players run with "brooms" between their legs playing a complex fusion of rugby and dodgeball.
The Boise Grays are one of 16 teams in Major League Quidditch, a thriving professional sports league. The sport is gaining momentum quickly.
“There are very few mixed-gender sports, especially mixed-gender contact sports, and that’s something that Quidditch really thrives on,” said Jack McGovern, media outreach coordinator for Major League Quidditch.
MLQ is dedicated to high-level competition, high-stakes playoffs, and accurate statistics. The official league rulebook is nearly 250 pages long. Teams can be found in major cities from New York to Los Angeles, and start playing in June each year, competing for a championship in late August. This year's championship will take place Saturday-Sunday, August 18-19, in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Grays began its inaugural season in Boise on June 16, pitting its roster of mostly Boise State students against the Salt Lake City Hive in a three-game series. The event took place on Field No. 4 in Ann Morrison Park, the team's home turf. Its road games in California against Los Angeles and San Francisco will be streamed live on Facebook.
“Boise was becoming an increasingly attractive market for our league,” said McGovern, who cited the success of Boise’s club Quidditch team, the Nomads, as one of the primary reasons for awarding Boise a franchise.
Fans will likely be surprised by the intensity of the game.
“It might look like chaos at first, but it’s a really fast-paced game. There are multiple positions and multiple balls at the same time. As you keep watching, you’ll start to figure out the strategy,” said McGovern.
Brian Bixler, a utility player for the Grays who played football at Santa Ana College, touts the game’s physicality.
“It's just a really competitive fun sport. I was not expecting it,” said Mercedes Natali, the manager of the Grays.
Despite the impressive gameplay, Quidditch players have been unable to escape the stigma that surrounds the game.
“The second people show up and they see everyone running around with sticks, they usually just get back in the car, and they tell you later that they never saw you,” said Bixler.
“We used to make fun of it” said Matt McCracken, a former high school football player and star player for the Grays. “It's different than people think. It's a contact sport, not just a nerdy sport.”
Since the sport originated from a children’s book, it has inspired skepticism, but the game is so compelling that it has transcended its storybook origins. In two hours of the Boise Grays practice on June 10, Harry Potter did not come up once. There wasn’t even a passing reference to the movies or the books.
“On my team we don't have any die hard Harry Potter fans. They're mostly just athletes,” said Natali.
Some players think it’s time for the sport to leave its fantasy roots behind.
“The brooms I think are the main inhibitor,” said Bixler. “If they can ever let that go and lose that aspect, it can blow up.”