Hold on to your brooms! Quidditch drops Potter

JESSICA CONTRERA
Last updated 11:37 01/07/2014
Quidditch
MARVIN JOSEPH/Washington Post

FANTASY MEETS REALITY: Quidditch enthusiasts play in Fairfax, Virginia, while the annual QuidCon was taking place in Washington.

Quidditch
MARVIN JOSEPH/Washington Post
LOOKING FOR A CLEAN SWEEP: Austin Nuckols plays for the red team in a game of Quidditch in Fairfax, Virginia.

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The Nike-clad coach barked out the words as they appeared on the screen: Rules! Opponents! Officials! Teammates! Self!

Her audience was still attentive more than an hour into her presentation. They soaked it up as she encouraged them to prove themselves, to be what they knew they could be: athletes.

Athletes, with coaches and referees and rule books and tryouts and fans.

But also with brooms.

And a guy who runs around as if he is a magical flying ball.

No capes though - they tossed that idea years ago, they promise.

Welcome to the third annual conference of the International Quidditch Association, held last weekend in Washington.

Quidditch, of course, is a game invented by JK Rowling and detailed in her seven Harry Potter novels. In the game, wizards fly on brooms to score points by catching, throwing and shooting balls through elevated hula hoops.

Adapted by muggles (non-wizarding folk) at Middlebury College in Vermont in 2005, the phenomenon has grown to include more than 4000 players on 300 teams around the world, mostly based at colleges and universities, although several cities have community teams as well.

The game is typically played on a 30-by-48-yard field on which athletes run with brooms or PVC pipes between their legs, throw volleyballs or dodgeballs at each other and through hoops. Scoring is complex, and the highest-value maneuver involves catching a human embodiment of the "snitch", who sprints around the field of play.

"Attitude is what matters most," the coach, a paid speaker, was saying now. "Especially when you want to be taken seriously."

To be taken seriously, the quidditch players have been adapting the culture of more respected sports by certifying their coaches, standardising the rules and recruiting talented athletes. The conference this weekend, where some 40 players gathered to improve their coaching, refereeing and team-management skills before playing in a small tournament Sunday, was part of that effort.

But they've also been trying something else to gain respect: ditching Harry Potter.

In recent years and in conferences such as the Washington gathering, the players have been actively disassociating themselves from the fantasy world in which their sport was born.

Though most still love the series, they have decided that the sport has outgrown its children's-novel roots.

And they're not alone. Seven years after the final book was released and four years after the last movie premiered, the fan base for the Boy Who Lived — on websites, at conferences and in this college-popular "sport" — is carrying on the Potter legacy by leaving Harry behind.

Record-breaking sales, the highest-grossing film series of all time, Diagon Alley replicas . . . you remember.

For more than a decade, the world was taken with the magical universe in which 11-year-olds could steal their dads' flying cars, discover invisible rooms, fight evil wizards and, of course, learn inspiring lessons from it all in the end.

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The Potter mania hasn't faded quickly, especially with Warner Bros. adapting Rowling's fictional encyclopedia "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and the Universal Studios Potter attractions.

The fan-based institutions that brought together the diehard Potter lovers are still alive and well. But they too are shifting away from Harry Potter to survive.

At its peak, top Potter fan site MuggleNet.com had more than 50 million visitors per month. Its founder, Emerson Spartz, said traffic dropped in half after the last movie came out in 2011.

But in the three years since, the stream of visitors has been consistent, even as posts shifted focus from the books and movies to news about the movies' actors, theme park and JK Rowling's new novels. "Look at Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Star Trek," Spartz said. "Those series have all taken pauses from an official perspective, but their community of fans remain strong and vibrant."

A similar fan site, The-Leaky-Cauldron.org, was known for organising each year the world's largest Harry Potter conference, called LeakyCon. Today, LeakyCon advertises itself as an event for multiple fan bases, from Disney to Twilight to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Quidditch has followed suit. It was once common for players on college campuses to wear capes, dress as characters from the books and talk about "bringing fantasy to real life". Today, Harry Potter isn't mentioned in the online history of the International Quidditch Association.

Instead, hoping to attract former varsity athletes, the group highlights that the activity is a full-contact sport. This year, they are even changing the rules so that all quidditch coaches must be tested and certified.

"As we've pushed to be more of a sport, and as the average college team has become more competitive, it becomes more intimidating for the casual Harry Potter fan who has never played a sport before to join," said Logan Anbinder, who has played for the University of Maryland team and the Silicon Valley Skyfighters, a community team. "And that's kind of sad."

The day after the quidditch coaching session, the conference continued with meetings on injury prevention, tournament planning and referee training.

But for one hour on Saturday afternoon, 15 players gathered in convention centre room 147A for a discussion on Harry himself.

The group was made up primarily of the players who came to quidditch first as Potter fans. They are no longer the majority of the participants.

One had tried to start a team in the second grade. Another still runs a blog where she writes in character as Narcissa Malfoy. One bought a new Hogwarts robe every time she outgrew the previous one, so that she could keep dressing as Hermione.

The question on the table was right up her alley: Who was a better friend to Harry - Ron or Hermione?

"Hermione is way more useful. I mean, what does Ron do?"

"Just because they fought, true friendship is sometimes hating each other's guts."

"Hermione isn't under the same pressure and circumstances as Ron!"

A few players flipped through tattered copies of the books to make their points, their inner fandom now out in full force.

Back and forth they went: Is Voldemort redeemable? Is it fair for JK Rowling to say Dumbledore was gay after the series ended? Does your house affiliation matter after you graduate from Hogwarts?

And then it was time to be done. They gathered their books and headed over to the next room, where for the first time they could be certified as official quidditch coaches. The questions took a different form: When can a team be disqualified? When can a player be banned from the league? Does a medical professional need to be present at each match?

They would always be Potter fans, but these days, being athletes mattered more.

- The Washington Post

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