In June, on her birthday, Gretchen Franco dribbled a soccer ball almost as deftly as someone not encased in a meter-wide plastic bubble.
Minutes later, Franco ignored the ball, choosing instead to ram herself repeatedly into an opposing player — also wearing a bubble — near the edge of the indoor field at Off the Wall Indoor Soccer.
The sport of bubble soccer, sometimes called bubble ball, isn’t cutthroat or complicated. Players, strapped into large inflatable plastic spheres, kick a ball toward goals on either end of a soccer field, bumping, bouncing and rolling all the way.
“It gets really hot, and it gets really fun, and all you want to do is keep playing, except you’re exhausted,” Franco said during a brief break between rounds. “Sometimes you feel like the goal isn’t to make a score with the ball, but it’s to knock somebody over and flip them upside down.”
Though rules vary from game to game, a typical bubble soccer match is played with five to eight players on each team. A single game is broken up into shorter rounds, lasting several minutes, allowing for water breaks and substitutions.
But in most cases, the players aren’t too concerned with keeping score, said Theresa Gillespie, co-owner of Off the Wall, located at 6950 S. 110th St. in La Vista.
“It’s like bumper cars but with people,” she said. “Soccer is the second reason they’re out there. They’re primarily out there just to run and bump and hit, and if they happen to play a game of soccer and score, that’s a bonus.”
Gillespie said Off the Wall started offering bubble soccer about six months ago to supplement business during the summer months, when many adult and youth soccer leagues choose to play outside. She said the bubble game has grown as people have become more aware of it through social media and word of mouth.
Visitors can rent out the field and bubbles for private events or drop in on one of the pickup scrimmages held every month. On Aug. 15 and 16, Off the Wall will host its first bubble ball tournament.
“We’ve had some corporate parties, we’ve had 40th birthday surprise parties,” Gillespie said. “We’ve had regular birthday parties, and then our scrimmage hour. When somebody shows up, they’ll tell somebody else about it, and they’ll get online and they’ll book.”
Verrelle Gordon, owner of Big V’s Bubble Soccer, also has seen business steadily rise since he opened about a year and a half ago. Gordon and his wife, Betyana, provide the bubbles and officiate games for events at indoor and outdoor venues around the region.
Gordon said the sport has proved popular with adults and children alike — once they know about it. “There’s still a ton of people that I run into that don’t know about bubble soccer. I still talk to tons of people that haven’t heard of it, but it’s growing.”
Gordon first discovered bubble soccer when he saw videos online of people playing in Europe. After finding only a few places in the United States that offered the game, he saw opportunity.
“Once you’ve seen the videos, people think, ‘I want to do that. I want to try that,’ ” he said.
And as soon as they try on the bubbles for the first time, he said, they want to hit each other.
Near the end of Franco’s birthday party, the yellow team had a slight lead over the green team. No one seemed to care. While a few of the players fought to gain and keep possession of the ball, others tumbled around the field, legs dangling lazily out of their plastic globes.
“I don’t think it’s difficult at all to catch on to and play,” said Mike Tran, who played his first game at the party. “You’re running and you think you have track of the ball, and out of nowhere you get knocked down, and you fall over and spin.”
The game is tough for everyone, Franco said. The soccer ball is difficult to see through the plastic. Experienced soccer pros tumble right alongside first-timers.
“The bubbles almost even the playing field, I feel like,” she said. “It’s just a blast.”