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WhirlyBall: the new corporate game plan

Fortune 500 companies across the country have turned to a hybrid sport called WhirlyBall, which combines jai alai, basketball, hockey and electric-powered bumper cars, to have fun while developing teamwork skills for use back on the job.
John Fay, Product Director at Cigna, keeps the ball from fellow collegue Stacey Grandfield, Sales Representative at Cigna, left, during a game of whirly ball in South Windsor, Conn., Wednesday, March 8, 2006. Companies across the country are using the game of whirly ball to develop team building skills. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)Jessica Hill / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bowling night is always fun and there’s nothing wrong with a game of darts, but credit department managers at Zebra Technologies have found a new way to build office camaraderie: WhirlyBall.

“We’ve done some non-organized functions but this — everybody loves it,” said Theresa Williams, 40, director of corporate credit for Zebra Technologies’ corporate office in Vernon Hills, Ill.

Fortune 500 companies across the country have turned to the hybrid sport, which combines jai alai, basketball, hockey and electric-powered bumper cars, to have fun while developing teamwork skills for use back on the job.

Williams takes her employees to the Chicago WhirlyBall center — a 4,000-square-foot rink with an electric floor — about six times a year. She says it brings a parity to the office that traditional outings can’t match.

Flo-Tron Enterprises, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has trademarked WhirlyBall and franchised it to more than a dozen facilities in the United States and Canada. Sam Elias, president of Chicago WhirlyBall, said annual revenue has steadily increased by 15 percent.

Corporations represent about 80 percent of WhirlyBall bookings, said Kim Mangum, president of Flo-Tron, which manufactures all WhirlyBall equipment.

“It’s really become a rage with corporations I’d say within the last three years,” Mangum said.
WhirlyBall East Coast in South Windsor, about 15 minutes north of the Hartford insurance hub, has hosted employees from The Hartford Financial Services Group, United HealthCare and Aetna, according to manager Jim Murphy.

“WhirlyBall is the talk of the water cooler for weeks,” he said.

WhirlyBall features two teams of five players, who pass the ball with handheld plastic scoops and score points by tossing it at a target on an elevated backboard — all while driving an electric vehicle steered with a lever.

“It totally gets us out of the box,” said Paul Donato, 31, a financial analyst at Cigna, the health insurance giant. “We’re sitting in our cubes trying to do work, working on computers, pumping out proposals and now we’re sitting in a bumper car approaching our co-workers at 12 miles an hour ramming them and hoping the ball falls out of their little stick. It’s totally different but it’s a really good time.”

Tom Choquette, owner of Washington WhirlyBall in Edmonds, Wash., said one Seattle accounting firm even uses WhirlyBall in its interviewing process. He wouldn’t identify the firm, he said, because WhirlyBall is used as a surprise test of how prospective employees cooperate.
Mangum and his father, Stan, developed WhirlyBall in the 1960s and 1970s in Salt Lake City. Mangum said when he was a teenager, he hit a tin cup with a stick while riding a golf cart and his father seized on the idea.

While the game may be an innovation for corporations, some experts question its value.
Lynda McDermott, president of New York’s EquiPro International, said she hasn’t heard of the sport and doesn’t see how it applies to the workplace. EquiPro advises team-building programs for clients including Pfizer Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and Time Warner.

“Sometimes clients don’t care, they just want to have fun,” McDermott said. “I just think if you’re going to get a return that it makes sense to do some type of linkage back to the job itself.”

Barry Whitehouse, training and development manager for the sales department at Henkel Technologies, takes his employees to play WhirlyBall but agrees its an informal way to encourage teamwork.

“In a real structured team building event you gather together in the end and you debrief and there’s a learning that takes place or a moral to the story,” he said. “It’s not that.”

That hasn’t stopped dozens of companies — from Microsoft Corp. and McDonald’s Corp. to UPS Inc. and UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, according to organizers — from getting into the game.
Donato asserts WhirlyBall is a great way to learn more about co-workers in a casual environment and is great way to build teams.

“You’re passing and you’re blocking and you’re getting someone out of trouble, it’s totally interactive,” Donato said.

And that’s something, he said, that you just can’t get from bowling.