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Sports fans give new indoor game a Whirl

By Jean Halliday
Crains Detroit Business

When the president of my ski club suggested at our meeting that we play an hour of WhirlyBall, I had the same initial re­action as everyone else: “Don’t you mean Wallyball?” When she insisted she had pro­nounced the word correctly, my second reaction was: “What is it?” No one will have to ask that question five years from now, if the owner of Michigan’s first and only WhirlyBall court has his way.

Richard Porhola, president of WhirlyBall Inc. in Clinton Township, opened his doors in February 1986. He and his partner, Helen Tyler, own the exclusive rights to the game in Michigan. WhirlyBall, developed by a Salt Lake City company, combines bumper cars, jai-alai, and basketball in a game that makes you feel like a kid again. Two teams of five people, driving bumper car-type vehicles, try to make points by throwing a Whiffle Ball from their combination scoop-racquets at an fifteen inch circular screen mounted on a backboard.

Local WhirlyBall players have heard about the sport by word of mouth, because Porhola, 32, doesn’t advertise. Still, business has been increasing since last August, after a slow down during the hot months of WhirlyBall’s first summer in metro Detroit. WhirlyBall Inc. employs 10 part-time and owns its building in a high-technology park on 15 Mile Road, just east of Groesbeck Highway. Porhola and Tyler, his mother-in-law, plan to open a second, regulation 4,000-square-foot court next to the current court in Clinton Township by June.

He said the addition would boost total annual sales to $450,000. Within the next 12 months, they plan to open a second location along the I-275 corridor in Novi, Farmington Hills or Livonia. “Within five years, if it really catches on, we could have six locations, including Downriver and Ann Arbur,” Porhola said. It costs $50 to rent the court for 30 minutes, the minimum amount of time you can play. The cost is $25 less if you play for three consecutive hours—$275, with a $150 deposit. All of Porhola’s business is done on a reservation basis, with a minimum of six people needed to a make a reservation. “We’ve been really busy since last summer, and this summer we’ll be turning customers away,” Porhola said. “We’re already booked up into August for prime-time evenings on weekends.” Groups renting the place are usually organized clubs or church groups.

Professional people normally rent out the court for parties, he said. Most players are between the ages of 21 and 40, although Porhola said he has had younger and older customers. He said the WhirlyBugs, powered by electricity from the floor, accommodate people of all heights and weights. The minimum age for youngsters is 15 without adult supervision and 12 with adults waiting in the wings. The cost if exclusive market rights for a city and the area surrounding it within a 20-40 mile radius in $125,000. which includes equipment for a single court, according to Kim Mangum, President of Flo-tron Inc. in Salt Lake City.

Mangum, son of WhirlyBall inventor Stan Mangum, said people in eight states now play the game, which got its start in Salt Lake City about five years ago. If you think WhirlyBall is an easy sport, think again. The first trick is figuring out how to drive the Whirly Bugs. I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, and not a bad driver. But more than once (never mind exactly how many times), I found myself unable to move my vehicle. Practice makes perfect, according to Porhola, who played WhirlyBall for the first time several years ago in Pompano Beach, Fla. “There’s an art to driving the cars,” he said. “After a lot of playing time, you can get very good at maneuvering,” said Porhola, who decided to give up his refrigeration service company for a “more fun business, and one with more potential for future growth.”

I had more trouble dealing with the scoop than the WhirlyBug. Numerous times, I was moving offensively with the ball in my scoop when an opponent bumped my car. The ball was knocked out of my scoop, and my opponent picked it up. Turnover. Three times, when I went to pass the ball, it slid out of my scoop backwards. More turnovers. And every time I tried to pass the ball to a teammate, or take a shot at the basket, the ball slammed into the ceiling. No, I never did score in either game. “WhirlyBall has the same wrist shot as racquetball,” said Porhola. “The shot is a lot of wrist, not a lot of arm,” he told me after I had finished playing.

I enthusiastically chased a lot of loose balls, managing to snare quite a few of them in my scoop. I’ve never played polo of the pony variety, but a couple of times, I felt like Prince Charles leaning over his mount on the greens of jolly old England. Despite my lackluster performance, my team some how won both games. When I got out of my WhirlyBug, after the 60-minute frays, I noticed I was perspiring a bit probably from the adrenalin rush.

My legs hurt a little from sitting in the WhirlyBug, which doesn’t offer as much leg room as my Caprice Classic. Mostly, my shins smarted. That’s because I had come directly from work to the early evening game last Friday. I was still wearing a dress. I found out the hard way that it’s nearly impossible to operate a WhirlyBug sidesaddle. A law of physics kicked in every time I crashed into the pads along the wall or someone “bumped” me. My shins traveled at the same velocity as the car until it hit something solid.

I’m ready to play again, and I know I’ll be better. But next time, I’ll wear blue jeans.

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