On a mild fall evening, a group of University of British Columbia students sprint back and forth on a turf field adjacent to the school’s massive student union building. Amid shouts and exhortations some are trying to throw a ball through upright hoops mounted at each end of the field, while others are flinging a different type of ball at the students as they advance across the turf. Each participant holds a piece of pipe between their legs as they run, which causes everyone to move in an awkward lope. The activity is part of a tryout for UBC’s quidditch team, the sport inspired by J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular series of Harry Potter novels.
The fictional sport, which has been described as an odd mixture of rugby, dodgeball and basketball, was adapted to real life in 2005 (minus the flying broomsticks) when students at Vermont’s Middlebury College began playing it on their campus. In the years since, it has spread across some 40 countries and now includes multiple international tournaments, including a World Cup that happens every two years. However, despite its rapid growth, it has never grabbed mainstream news attention until recently when the sport’s major governing bodies – the International Quidditch Association (IQA), US Quidditch (USQ) and Major League Quidditch (MLQ) – announced they were changing the sport’s name to quadball.
Two reasons were cited for the switch: Ms. Rowling’s controversial opinions on transgender matters, and the fact that Warner Brothers, the studio that produced the Harry Potter films, owns the trademark for quidditch, which limits the sport’s marketing potential.
New name means new opportunities
The name quadball, which refers to the number of balls and positions in the sport, won’t possess the cachet or instant name recognition enjoyed by quidditch, but organizers don’t regard this as a major obstacle. In July 2022, Chris Lau, chair of the IQA board of trustees, said IQA was “very excited to be joining USQ and MLQ in changing the name of our sport and supporting this change across our members worldwide.” He added: “We are confident in this step and we look forward to all the new opportunities quadball will bring. This is an important moment in our sport’s history.”
According to insiders, the lack of trademark protection had been a simmering issue for several years in the quidditch community. As Austin Wallace, member of Canada’s national quidditch team, notes, “The only thing holding back the name change was people’s love for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter.” That good feeling began to fade in 2020 when Ms. Rowling voiced concerns over trans women being allowed access to female spaces. Her statements drew praise from some women’s rights campaigners, but also sparked angry accusations of transphobia by trans activists.
Ms. Rowling has since tried to clarify her position, stating: “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” The LGBTQ rights organization GLAAD responded to Rowling’s comments, saying the author has aligned herself with an ideology that “willfully distorts facts about gender identity and people who are trans. In 2020, there is no excuse for targeting trans people.”
Keeping the game gender-inclusive
In a phone call from her Toronto office, Yara Kodershah, executive director of Quidditch Canada, says her organization fully supports the name change, explaining that Ms. Rowling’s remarks “became problematic from an ethical standpoint” for her organization “because one of the unique aspects of our sport is that we are designed to be transgender-inclusive. That’s been built into the fabric of our sport in terms of how we recognize the genders of our players.”
There is, however, a “gender maximum rule” in quidditch that says a maximum of four players from one gender can be on the field at one time. (Each team has six or seven players on the pitch in total, depending on the phase of play.) But as Ms. Kodershah noted, “It has nothing to do with assigned sex, it has nothing to do with their physical body. It has exclusively to do with the gender they identify as.”
Even so, the name change to quadball won’t officially take effect in Canada until 2023 because, “we had already made commitments to our tourism partners and cities across the country to host various events under the name quidditch,” says Ms. Kodershah.
In 2019, before the onset of the pandemic thinned their ranks, there were 18 university quidditch teams active in Canada, plus four community-based teams, all of them concentrated in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Although there are fewer teams competing in 2022, the national championship will still proceed in Edmonton at Foote Field on Dec. 3-4.
Chris Rothery, a veteran quidditch player assisting with the UBC tryout, said that he has been involved with the game since 2012: “When I started, people were still wearing capes and riding broomsticks.” The broomsticks have since been replaced with three-foot lengths of PVC piping, which are cheaper, more durable, more readily available and less bristly. That change improved the game and Rothery is confident that the rebranding to quadball will also be a positive move. “I believe it will open new avenues for funding for the sport by allowing room for sponsorship deals,” Mr. Rothery said.
As for J.K. Rowling, when asked on Twitter if the name change rankled her, she replied cryptically, “I never let the muggles get me down.” That, as all Harry Potter fans know, is a reference to people lacking any magical skill or ability.