Foosball kicks into a higher gear

Looking at Dean Champion, it's hard to say why he'd rather square off against opponents at a foosball table than on a wrestling mat. Mr. Champion, a thickset man with combed blond hair, strong facial features, and a firm grip, looks intimidating. But get him chatting about foosball, and he'll win you over.

When Champion, a Boston foosball promoter by night and a professor of criminal justice and sociology by day, expounds on the importance of passing, moving the men around, or winning tournaments, the game morphs into a gladiator battle – no wonder some describe it as "being just shy of a contact sport."

After two decades of obscurity following its 1970s Golden Age, foosball has been mounting a comeback in the United States, once more leaving bars for national tours and fancy showdowns in Europe. Tighter organization, better grass-roots promotion, and the promise of making the national team are some of the reasons behind the revival of the tournament circuit. While prize money at individual tournaments remains low ($35,000 is the purse at a large tournament in Kentucky later this month), the number of playing opportunities is skyrocketing. "This adds up to something bigger than ever," says Larry Davis, director of the US Table Soccer Federation.

Champion, who describes himself as a "good rookie," began taking the game seriously in late 2004. He soon found himself "logging miles like a traveling salesman," driving up and down the New England coast from New Bedford, Mass., to Portland, Maine, to play in tournaments. He was in the red, but he couldn't shake his "foosball fever" – the feeling some players experience when they transition from the recreational to the competitive game.

Foosball is a tabletop version of soccer, in which 11 plastic men are arranged on four rods from goalie to offense. Players (singles or two-person teams) move and twist the rods, trying to kick a ball into a goal at either end of the table.

Looking for a business opportunity and more play, Champion bought a few tables, and today runs a league and occasional tournaments in a Boston bar. He proudly carries a worn-out copy of a list of players in the area, half a dozen pages printed front and back with about 800 names on it – all people he met in the past two years.

The numbers can be deceiving. Champion can find 30 to 40 new players in a month, but retaining and developing them is where the weakness of foosball shows. The growth of the game is largely dependent on table manufacturers and vendors who only go where there's money to be made. There are no clubs or financial support for the game in the US, as there is in some European countries. On top of that, most professional players are not inclined to teach beginners how to beat them and take their money.

Robert Ismert, who chronicled foosball's American history in an engaging 2006 documentary called "Foos," says the game is perpetually optimistic about recapturing the glory days.

"Does foosball want to return to the Golden Years and give away cars and significant sums of money?" Mr. Ismert asks. "Or does foosball want to sustain a lower profile in which payouts are nominal, but the professional tour is sustainable?"

What foosball needs to do, he says, is define "success."

Brought to America in the late 1960s by US soldiers stationed in Germany, the game was an instant hit. Tables mushroomed everywhere from schools to bars, with more than 40 manufacturers nationwide jostling for attention. Hustling and gambling were a given, but tournaments gave the game a more legitimate image.

Players started spinning rods for money and cars (Porsches, Corvettes, and Mustangs); traveling the country in rock-star mode, media in tow. Foosball music was written, magazines were published, and, in the heat of the moment, Sports Illustrated called it a "first class pro sport." Foosball peaked in 1978 with the Million Dollar Tour and hurtled downhill afterward, supplanted by video games like Space Invaders and plagued by financial scandals, drug and alcohol problems, as well as an exodus of recreational players who felt marginalized by the new pros.

"Today, things are on the upswing," says Jim Stevens, the undisputed king of foosball commentary. The latest resurgence began with the formation of the International Table Soccer Federation (ITSF), a France-based organization that wants to get foosball recognized as an Olympic sport. The ITSF instilled discipline among players and promoters worldwide, forcing them to create federations and deploy ranking systems. In four years, ITSF spawned a dramatic rise in the number of participating countries and international tournaments (56 are planned for 2007, up from 33 in 2006, and just 12 in 2005). In 2006, it organized a World Cup to coincide with soccer's World Cup in Germany, and also hosted its fourth world championship finals in Italy.

"One of our concerns is not to fall victim to the rapid evolution and success of the ITSF," says Farid Lounas, ITSF president, in an e-mail. "Things are moving very fast, and ITSF is expected to do a lot."

The shrinking of the foosball world, complete with unifying styles (most international tournaments are played on five specified types of tables) is helping the game come back, Mr. Stevens says, even though many still view it as a joke – "that dorm room sport I used to play."

To Stevens, foosball is more like an incredibly fast chess game, with large egos and nail-biting finishes. A former player, Stevens now makes a living from selling DVDs of major tournaments through Inside Foos, the company he runs. For the USA v. France game at the World Cup, with 15,000 people in the stands, Stevens did continuous play-by-play for four hours, an "amazing experience."

That's the thing – if foosball hooks you, you're in it for the long haul, he adds.

"On a small little table, there are no limits to what you can do," says Mr. Davis of the US Table Soccer Federation. If you watch pro-foosball videos online (try YouTube), you will notice the pros are very good.

"You may be the best in your bar, but you might run into trouble when you play in a tournament," Davis says, laughing.

The game is so fast, you don't see the ball move, which some say is the main reason you don't see it played on ESPN. There are amazing trick shots, strategy plays, and mind games. Played by the best, foosball looks as intense as any sport.

But if it's really serious about becoming one, it has to resolve an issue more pressing than prize money: player development.

"It has to start with the kids," says Brandon Moreland of Minneapolis, one of the rising stars of the game, in an e-mail. "Going for an older population of foosball players is pointless. Kids are easily addicted to competitive games, and parents usually shell out for their children's interest."

Replenishing the rosters is a challenge – especially given its "bar game" label. Champion says he hopes to persuade some of the better players to give clinics to children at YMCAs and other organizations, but that task won't be easy.

"The older players are always a little reluctant to let you into their space," Mr. Moreland says. "If you take a spot in the top 20, then that means someone has to be pushed out. Not that they would be mean to you on or off the table, they just don't think you deserve to be on the table with them."

Moreland didn't view this attitude as a put-down, taking it as a challenge. He stuck with the game, he says, because foosball offers the "chance to become the best in the world at something."

"It's not something lucky, boring, or dangerous," Moreland says. "It is extremely skilled and takes tons of discipline and creativity to reach the top."

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