WhirlyBall game promotes camaraderie
By Mike Rasor
Knight Ridder News Service
By Mike Rasor
AKRON, Ohio — You may think you know your co-workers pretty well.
But have you ever seen them play WhirlyBall?
Expect shrieks of celebration. Shouts of frustration. And a growing sense of camaraderie that often wafts back to the office.
Across the country, corporations make up about 80 percent of WhirlyBall's participants, said the game's co-founder, Kim Mangum.
Corporations feast on WhirlyBall because of its applications with teamwork. Effective passing and cooperation are nearly essential to score.
Recently, a group of about 30 employees from Roadway Express jumped into some bumper cars and played a spirited match at WhirlyBall/Laser-Sport in Bedford Heights.
"I've calmed down a lot. I used to whip the ball at the ref," said Andre Spidell, 38, a copy center employee at Akron-based Roadway Express. "I'm surprised they let me in."
Employees who seem otherwise civil, such as Spidell, turn into fierce, cutthroat competitors on the court.
WhirlyBall is a game played in an agile bumper car, using a plastic scoop to shoot a whiffle ball through a 15-inch hole in a backboard. Two teams of five can play at a time.
"It's instantly competitive," said Rick Morad, owner of the Bedford Heights arena. "That's what makes it so fun."
Roadway organized the game to reunite with some former workers and strengthen the bond between current ones.
"We all got along really well before this," said Spidell, who was making his eighth appearance at WhirlyBall/Laser-Sport. "But we come here and drink beers and talk to people we normally don't talk to at work."
One of the game's best features is that speed and strength are not necessary, Morad said.
"You're in a bumper car with a lightweight plastic scoop," he said. "You don't have to be fast, so everyone is evened out."
Managers have wondered how to unite an office of workers who have little in common except their jobs. Bowling, golf, dinner and bar hopping have always been options.
But in the past few years, corporate WhirlyBall bookings have steadily increased at Northeast Ohio's only arena, Morad said.
The sport began in Salt Lake City in the 1960s. Stan Mangum, who had a few other patents, was working on a small vehicle that could move with high agility. However, Mangum was uncertain about how the machine could be used.
One day, his son, Kim, was goofing around in his dad's brake shop. Kim rode a golf cart up to a tin can and smacked it with a stick.
"That's it," Stan said. "We'll build that machine and play hockey with it."
After some partnerships went awry, the Mangums set WhirlyBall aside.
In 1979, Kim Mangum's 5-year-old son died, which inspired him to quit his job to develop the game.
WhirlyBall still needed much refining. Deciding on the proper playing surface was difficult, Mangum said. After much thought, he chose a low-voltage, electrically charged floor to motor the cars.
"We knew we had something, but it took an enormous amount of development," Mangum said.
Today, Mangum is president of Flo-Tron Enterprises, which sells WhirlyBall franchises and manufactures equipment for the game. Flo-Tron has licensed 19 WhirlyBall centers in the United States and Canada.
Morad opened his WhirlyBall franchise in 1987 in nearby Brook Park. The agreement gave Morad the exclusive WhirlyBall rights for a 10-mile radius around his arena. He moved his business to Bedford Heights in 1993.
Only recently has Morad seen such a large corporate interest in WhirlyBall.
"It wasn't that way until people trusted us enough to bring their company down here," Morad said.
WhirlyBall helps unite employees who may not have anything in common, Morad said.
"Many companies come in here and say, 'We usually go to dinner,' " he said. "At dinner, you only get to sit by a couple of your co-workers. Here, you have four teammates. It just creates a common interest."
Corporations use WhirlyBall to reward employees, build teamwork and even evaluate prospective employees after an interview, Mangum said.
The referee also serves as a play-by-play commentator. The whole package of excitement can completely transform an employee, Mangum said.
"I've seen people with no personality at all who become someone else on that court," he said. "When you score with the commentary, it makes you feel like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Most of us never experience that."