Odd Ball: Weird NYC Sports

Jonathan Zeller

"Weird" is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to sports. For example: most Americans take for granted that basketball is a "normal" game, but there's not necessarily anything intuitive about two groups of five very tall gentlemen or ladies striving to pass a leather ball through a cylinder 10 feet off the ground, or that they have to bounce said ball every time they move with it. So we're not disparaging any of the following competitions—showcases for the best bull riders, eaters, yoga practitioners, dreidel spinners and the like—by calling them "weird." The fact remains, though, that they're not exactly on par with the NFL or Major League Baseball as far as popularity goes (though some of these events' proponents may feel that won't be the case forever). Read on for details.

Pro Bull Riders. Photo: Andy Watson/Bull Stock Media

Professional Bull Riders (PBR) at Madison Square Garden
What is it? A bull-riding competition in Midtown Manhattan might seem as incongruous as a kosher deli in Alabama, but PBR has brought this marquee event—now called the Monster Energy Drink Invitational—to Madison Square Garden year after year (January 4–6 this time around), laying down 700 tons of dirt on the arena floor. Unlike a traditional rodeo, which includes such events as tie-down roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing, PBR is all bull riding, all the time—athletes do everything they can to stay atop a 2,000-pound bucking bull for eight seconds, earning points for control, body position and style. Legendary rider Ty Murray (Mr. Jewel to pop-culture fanatics) explains more in this article.

Why should you go? Says Luke Snyder, who's earned more than $1.5 million in his bull-riding career: "It's almost like a rock concert with a little bit of added bull riding…. They're going to shoot off pyrotechnics [and] they're going to play current music like what you might hear at a hockey game." And, of course, "[it's] probably the most dangerous sport going on right now." Snyder is also bound to be at his best in New York City, as he proposed to his now-wife in front of the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

Courtesy, squashpics.com

J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions Squash at Grand Central Terminal
What is it? This event is odd mainly because of the setting: a gorgeous glass-walled squash court in the middle of Grand Central Terminal could attract more than a few new fans who might mistake it for the railroad depot's similarly sleek Apple Store. It's free to watch the games through the front wall (though spectators can also buy premium seating right up against the court), and the action moves at a blistering pace as players fling themselves back and forth and sometimes onto the playing surface. Their ruthless jostling for position might remind commuters of their own daily routine, and the matches could draw more foot traffic than the iPhone emporium itself. This year's Tournament of Champions is set to take place January 18–24.

Why should you go? Julian Illingworth, the top-ranked American squash player, says no other sporting event brings fans closer to the action than this one, where they can watch players right through the wall. "You can be 10 feet away from guys who are the [best] in the world…. If you go to US Open tennis, even if you pay $1,000 for a ticket, you're still going to be 40 or 50 feet away…you're not going to be a ball boy out there." Illingworth says the distinctive setting allows fans to experience the speed of squash in a way they ordinarily couldn't. "The glass court's cool, because the ball is right there. It's hitting the glass right in front of you, so you can really see how hard they're hitting it—you can easily see how quickly they're moving."

Courtesy, NYRR

Empire State BuildingRun-Up
What is it? It's exactly what it sounds like: a race from the lobby of the Empire State Building up 86 flights of stairs to a finish line at the observation deck. To avoid excessive crowding in stairwells not meant to handle 600 runners at once, the start times are staggered, with elite competitors going first. Thomas Dold of Germany—a sort of Usain Bolt of bizarre races, who also excels at backward running—has won seven consecutive Run-Ups. This year's race is scheduled for February 6.

Why should you go? Well, you'd have to compete—you can't just sit and watch people run up the steps. Why would you race? Perhaps you enjoy severe pain in your quadriceps. Just kidding. Racing to the top of one of the world's best-known buildings and finishing with a panoramic nighttime view of the City is most likely an extremely rewarding feeling—albeit one we doubt we'll ever experience personally.

Jared McCann. Photo: Mike McInnis and Jerry Herman Photography

USA Yoga National Yoga Asana Championship at the Hudson Theatre
What is it? In the first weekend of March, the National Yoga Asana Championship is set to come to New York City for the second year in a row, immediately following the New York regionals. During the competition, which looks a bit like a super-contortive gymnastics event in slow motion, judges assign scores based on participants' form, execution and "grace." Some critics say that the very idea of a yoga championship is antithetical to the ancient wisdom at the heart of the discipline. On the other hand, much has also been written about the folly of trying to determine what yoga is really about, and these athletes can do undeniably incredible things with their bodies. And for the amateur yogis among us, the competitors' achievements can serve as an inspiring reminder of what is possible with hard work, persistence and patience.

Why should you go?Eoin Thomas Sharkey, a yoga instructor who competed at the New York regionals in 2012, describes the drama inherent in completing a sequence of yoga postures alone onstage, in front of the judges and an audience, all of whom sit in total silence: "Last year I demonstrated a handstand pose, [and] there was a moment where I came out of my concentration. Realizing that I was going to have to struggle in order to get my legs fully up in the air, that was scary…. They're either going to fall, or I'm just going to find the strength to do it."

Courtesy, Major League Eating

Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island
What is it? It's a credit to Major League Eating (MLE) and the power of ESPN coverage that most casual sports fans probably know exactly what the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is. That doesn't make it any less bizarre that a group of grown men (and some women) get together every Fourth of July to gorge themselves on as many franks as possible—arguably more than a healthy person should eat in a lifetime—in a 10-minute span, employing funky techniques (dunking buns in water, cracking hot dogs in half) that remove all the joy from the act of eating. Tens of thousands of fans attend, while more than a million watch at home. The sport has its icons—perennial champ Joey Chestnut and powerhouse Takeru Kobayashi, who now competes in non-MLE events because of what he sees as onerous contract requirements by the sport's most powerful body. It may seem silly on one hand for any eater to try to become the Curt Flood of his discipline, but it's hard to argue that these guys aren't putting their bodies on the line.

Why should you go?Pat Bertoletti, currently the world's second-ranked eater, has a pretty novel pitch to fans: "Last year, if they were there, they would have seen me eating in a thong-back American flag Speedo." For some reason ESPN saw fit to scrub this outfit from its broadcast. Says "Deep Dish," as some have dubbed the dynamo, "At the end, like, 20,000 people—I don't know how many people—but there was a chant for me to put pants on, which made me very proud." There's a tremendous element of drama for Pat at this particular competition. Though he holds world records in the consumption of Slurpees, blueberry pie, pickles, pancakes, waffles, cannoli and plenty of other foods, a hot-dog championship still eludes him. "At this point, I just go in and try to do my best, but there's something about hot dogs I just can't…," he says, searching for the words to convey his inadequacy. "To be honest, I just can't do the hot dogs. I'm not as good with them as other foods." This from a man who's eaten as many as 55 in 10 minutes.

Courtesy, Major League Dreidel

Major League Dreidel (MLD)
What is it? It might be surprising to see the words "major league" modify a seemingly noncompetitive staple of Jewish childhood, but the version of dreidel that "major leaguers" play doesn't have much to do with the traditional game; instead of having the tops' Hebrew letters randomly determine who wins gelt (gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins), players in December 2012 competed at something called "target tops," billed as "dreidel meets cornhole and shuffleboard." In past years, they vied to see who could keep their top spinning the longest in a so-called Spinagogue (a miniature "stadium" for spinning). For more info, watch this commercial from the event's creators, which features brash anthropomorphized dreidels.

Why should you go? Major League Dreidel Knishioner Eric Pavony, who probably deserves a Nobel Prize for his job title alone, doesn't mince words when discussing the state of dreidel before MLD came along. Traditional dreidel, in his opinion, is "a children's gambling game, and it's pretty boring." Not content with a contest that relies solely on luck, Pavony and his cohorts came up with new versions of the ancient pastime. Add a crowded bar and some adult-beverage consumption (not limited to Manischewitz), and the atmosphere can become charged pretty quickly: "When somebody spins the dreidel the length of the table and it magically spins its way into this little cup at the end, the place goes crazy," Pavony says. Adults going bonkers for dreidel in the middle of hipster Williamsburg? In the grand tradition of Hanukkah, one could say a great miracle happened there.

Courtesy, Brewskee-Ball

What is it? It's Skee-Ball, with beer. Calling itself "the first-ever competitive Skee-Ball league," this organization—which started in New York City—now also holds competitions in Austin, Texas; Charlotte and Wilmington, North Carolina; and San Francisco, using an NCAA-style seeded tournament to crown a national champion. To see the madness in action, watch this video of a 2010 semifinal match between competitors named William Ocean and Rookie Monster, which the play-by-play commentator calls "the greatest Brewskee-Ball match ever played." As Rookie Monster is lifted onto spectators' shoulders to the sound of ecstatic cheers, the line between ironic and sincere appreciation gets very blurry. Williamsburg's Full Circle Bar—its name comes from Brewskee-Ball terminology for a round of all 40-point rolls (40 times the nine rolls in a "frame" is 360, or the number of degrees in a full circle)—serves as the league's home base.

Why should you go? Brewskee-Ball Skee.E.O. Eric Pavony (whom you may recognize as the Knishioner of Major League Dreidel) says of doubters: "If they have never played Skee-Ball competitively on a team with their friends [and] beers, they don't know what bar sports are all about." He's proud to have brought the game to a new demographic. "When we started, there were really no Skee-Ball lanes in a bar. It was this distant childhood memory for most folks, a game you played as a kid at Chuck E. Cheese's or the Jersey Shore and that you loved—but once you reach a certain age, Skee-Ball [becomes] extinct from your life until you have kids of your own." The games take place on a near-constant basis at Full Circle Bar.

Photo: Manish Gosalia

Gotham Girls Roller Derby
What is it? Two all-female teams of five skate around a flat, elliptical track, each led by a "jammer," who scores points by lapping as many opponents as possible. The other players, known as "blockers," work to protect their own jammer and prevent the opposing jammer from progressing around the track. The event features spirit-boosting "jeerleaders," and skaters boast amusing pseudonyms like Angela Slamsbury, Speed McQueen and Anne Phetamean. The season runs from March through October.

Why should you go? "Buster Cheatin'," a former referee who is the current president of Gotham Girls Roller Derby and coaches their champion all-star team, mentions two major selling points. First, it's "one of very few full-contact all-female sports." And these women hit hard. Second, New York City's roller derby is the best anywhere. "Our [opponent] at nationals this year was really a conglomeration of all-stars from all around the country that had gotten together to form kind of a superteam with the sole mission of taking down our New York City Gotham Girls team," he says. "And we wound up winning."

Courtesy, SPiN Galactic/SPiN New York

Dirty Dozen Pro Ping-Pong at Spin New York
What is it? We all know table tennis as a fun childhood basement activity and a serious sport that's contested on an Olympic level. The "Dirty Dozen" tournament held at Spin on Friday nights is strange because it brings professional players—who compete for a $500 prize—into a raucous, alcohol-fueled environment complete with a DJ, interactive audience games and, apparently, raunchy dancing.

Why should you go? Dora Kurimay, who has won the tournament twice, has traveled the world playing table tennis. But she's never encountered a degree of distraction on par with what she faces at Spin. "The first time I came to Spin and played a Dirty Dozen, I played against [elite men's player Kazuyuki Yokoyama], and he started removing his clothes," she remembered. While Kurimay was surprised, it seems such antic tournament behavior may not be unusual. Kurimay also says dealing with enthusiastic fans—who sometimes heckle—is a peculiar problem for a Ping-Pong player to have. Regardless, she calls it "a really fun environment."