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Times of the Islands Magazine

Having a Ball - Subtracting from the bucket list of sporting adventures in Southwest Florida

Jan 02, 2016 09:16AM ● By Cory Batelaan
Subtracting from the bucket list of sporting adventures in Southwest Florida


Who knows, imaginary teams such as the Sanibel Kosher Dills or the Bonita Palmolives could someday compete for blue ribbons.

Anything is possible with the explosion of niche activities like bubble soccer and pickleball. Both have leagues and tournaments. Bubble soccer, whose players shimmy into an air suit and bounce off one another, is also in demand at parties and team-building functions. Pickleball is very trendy with players 30 and up. Pickleballers in Sanibel, for instance, pack the city’s recreation center for Wednesday and Saturday games. There’s a waiting list in season. “Anyone can play pickleball,” says Char Durand, a recreation assistant at the Sanibel Recreation Center. “We have people in their eighties who play.”

Pickleball is from the 1960s. The game was for children but has crossed age boundaries. It is like tennis using a wiffleball and a giant ping-pong paddle. Bubble Soccer, or zorb football, was just introduced in the states. Players in bubble suits or orbs bounce off/bash opponents chasing a soccer ball or in a game of human dodgeball. There are bubble soccer leagues and tourneys. “It’s like hockey without getting hurt,” says Valorie Pari, owner of SWFL Bubble Soccer in Fort Myers.

IMG_1334 copyThe USA Pickleball Association boasts it is the country’s fastest growing sport, with over 400,000 players nationally. It sanctions rules and rankings. The game’s inventors had wanted a game for their children on a lazy Saturday in 1965. The three men lowered a badminton net and used parts from other games. Pickleball is even in public schools. The game court is about two-thirds the size of a tennis court.

Bubble soccer, on the other hand, is a much newer sport from Norway. Players donning an air suit look like a large ball with legs. There are no real rules. No positions. No goalies. Running into one another appears to be a chief goal, like bumper cars, says Pari, who first watched bubble soccer on social media. She couldn’t find a local league or place to play, so she founded SWFL Bubble Soccer, a Fort Myers firm. Pari has a bubble soccer field at Alico Family Golf in south Fort Myers. But her business mostly is mobile for birthdays, corporate events and related games. She started the firm after quizzing 300 people about bubble soccer and showing them the game on a mobile device. The reaction was wow, where can we get this, she says. “Sometimes spectators get excited and run on to the field in [vain] attempts to help,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Although bubble soccer is played on a relatively small field, the game is a workout. Air-filled bubble suits can weigh 15 pounds, there’s little ventilation and it is work to roll off a turtling (back) position, she says. The fun is bashing opponents with little risk of injury. Most of her customers are teenagers to about 40. She has equipment for smaller players.

Like tennis, the pickleball court is used for both singles and doubles. There are right and left service courts. There is also a marked area on either side of the net where players aren’t allowed to volley. The net itself is about three feet high. Serves are underhanded. Points go pretty quickly. A typical game is to 11 points (must win by 2). Durand says most games are 15 minutes or less.

As with most athletic activities, proper footwear (in this case for a hard-surfaced court) is necessary. Eye protection is also recommended. Warming up and stretching before as well as cooling off and stretching afterwards is always advised. With a smaller court that requires less running around than tennis, pickleball is an ideal sport for older athletes. Sanibel’s Char Durand notes average competitors are 50 to 60. They play at a slower, more relaxed pace. For them, pickleball is more of a social gathering. If, however, you have a more competitive nature, you can pick up the pace, and there are even pickleball tournaments.

And about the term pickleball―legend is that one of the game’s inventors, former U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard, had a dog named Pickles. His wife Joan quashed the speculation, disclosing that Pickles was not yet a family pet when the game was devised. The dog was, in fact, named after the game, she says.

If You Go -

Pickleball: Sanibel Recreation Center, 239-472-0345,

Bubble Soccer: 239-810-6286,