What makes a game popular?

Some thoughts about what it would mean for petanque to become “popular”.

All American petanque players wish that there were more American petanque players. Partly this is missionary zeal— we’ve found a good thing and we’d like to share it with others. Partly it is self-interest— if there were more players, it would be easier to find others to play with, and easier to find challenging competition. So we all wish that petanque would become more popular in the USA. But what, exactly, would it mean for petanque to be “popular”?

To me, petanque being “popular” in the USA would mean that I could move to almost any town in the USA and find people to play with. If there wasn’t an already-existing petanque group, I could find enough people to start a group.

Another way to think about “popularity” is as comparative popularity. When petanque players think about comparative popularity, they think of bocce. Bocce is so similar to petanque, and there are so many more bocce players, that the relative success of bocce in the USA instills a nagging doubt in American petanque players. We wonder— does petanque have any chance of EVER becoming as popular as bocce?

I think, however, that worries about the comparative popularity of bocce, and indeed the whole notion of comparative popularity, should be discarded. Yes, bocce is more popular in the USA than petanque. But it is important to realize that bocce actually isn’t very popular in the USA, and that petanque has much tougher competition than bocce. Pickleball (a cut-down version of tennis played with over-sized ping-pong paddles and whiffle balls) is growing in popularity at a fantastic rate, especially among retirees. The same is true of cornhole (an adult version of beanbag toss). An AARP webpage listing games and activities for older people lists petanque, but only as a third choice after pickleball and cornhole.

I can understand the growing popularity of pickleball. It is, after all, an adapted form of tennis, just as petanque was an adapted form of boule lyonnaise. But when I see people happily rushing to play cornhole (which seems to me an incredibly boring game for adults) while ignoring petanque (which seems to me a fascinating game) I wonder—

Why are some games popular, when others are not? Why do some games become popular, while others do not?

The simplest explanation is: it’s just a fad. Fashions in games, like fashions in dress and music, come and go. They flare up, stay a while, and then fade out.

Another explanation is that ALL pastimes are niche pastimes. ALL pastimes are “popular” among a small number of aficionados. Every American has a huge variety of pastime activities and hobbies to choose from— basketball, baseball, football, wood working, hiking, yoga, coin collecting, chess, making Youtube videos, macrame, cooking, poker… ad infinitum. None of these activities engages more than a small percentage of the population, but each one has its own group of dedicated participants.

Some pastimes of course outlast the boom-and-bust cycle of fads and engage the attention of a major chunk of the population. At this level of participation we need to think of a pastime as as a cultural practice, embedded in a particular culture. Children play it because they see their fathers and grandfathers playing it, and because the media bathes them in news about its events. When a pastime is embedded in a culture in this way, it may be difficult for a new or foreign pastime to gain a toehold and compete with pastimes that are already embedded in the culture. Can a French game ever become popular in America? Will Americans ever want to play petanque in a tailgate party before a football game?

And then of course there is the Darwinian tendency of any pastime to spin off local variants. Consider Mölkky, a Finnish form of skittles, which seems to be gaining popularity in France; it involves, basically, throwing a stick of wood at some other sticks of wood.

Three questions for petanque

I think that there are three key questions that we confront when thinking about the popularity of petanque.

(1) What would it mean for petanque to become “popular” in the USA? If we were to set ourselves the goal of making petanque “popular” in the USA, what would count as achieving that goal? How do we define success? Or at least, how do we define our goal?

(2) Assuming that we could define what making petanque “popular” was, what can we do to make it more popular? Financial incentives for starting new clubs? A nation-wide advertizing campaign?

(3) Is it actually possible to make petanque popular in the USA? Could it be that petanque, an immigrant to a nation that already has many popular sports, will never be able to obtain the degree of popularity in the USA that it has in France or Quebec?

These are tough questions and I don’t have answers to them. But here are a few thoughts.

(1) The idea of assessing the “popularity” of petanque by comparing it with the popularity of other games, sports, and pastimes is pointless.

(2) The French organizational model, in which most players belong to clubs and the clubs belong to the national federation, won’t work in the USA.

  • The linchpin of the French system is the club, which is a mechanism for funneling players’ financial support into the club’s boulodrome. For that kind of system to work, there must be many players concentrated in an area where the only available venue is a club-supported boulodrome. If there aren’t enough players, or if an appropriate terrain is available without the construction of a boulodrome (e.g. in a public park), then the system won’t work.
  • Another leg of the French system is the monopoly that the French national federation has on organized competitions; in France, if you aren’t a member of the FFPJP you can’t play in serious competitions. The American national federation (FPUSA) does not have such a monopoly and has no way of creating it.
  • A third stumbling block is the sheer size of the USA. The distances between cities and clubs makes regular inter-club competitions unfeasible; without such competitions there is little need for a national organizational infrastructure to support such competitions.

As long as these conditions exist, and as long as the FPUSA lacks the kind of monopoly on petanque that the FFPJP has in France, one cannot measure the popularity of petanque in the USA by counting clubs and members of the national federation. We need some way to count all petanque players in the USA, not just FPUSA members.

(3) In places in the United States and Canada where petanque has taken root, it has most often started from a French seed, from someone with a connection to France. In New York City it started with French restauranteurs. Near Boston, it started with French expatriates from the Armenian community in Marseilles. In the San Francisco Bay area, it started with expatriate French wine growers. Sometimes it started with an American returning from working and living in France. In Canada, of course, it started with the French colony of Quebec.

But there are also mysteries. Why should petanque flourish among retirees in Florida while remaining virtually unknown in Arizona? Why has the tiny town of Zanesfield, Ohio become one of the most active clubs in the country? How did the club in Fresno, the American home of many Hmong refugees, expand so much and welcome so many? How did a tiny group in Austin, Texas become the Heart of Texas club, while there is nothing in Houston?

(4) We must also realize that many petanque clubs are the creations of particular energetic and enthusiastic individuals. These clubs pop up, flourish for a few years, and then fade out of existence when the founder dies or moves away. It’s a natural cycle, I think, but it suggests that one strategy— the FPUSA’s aid program for new FPUSA-affiliated clubs— may not be especially effective in promoting the long-term growth of petanque in the USA. The trick is not to make new clubs, but to keep them alive once they’ve started.

(5) The FPUSA thinks of growing petanque in the USA as increasing the number of FPUSA members and clubs, but I think is quite wrong. Growing petanque in the USA is not the same as growing the FPUSA or increasing the number of FPUSA clubs. There is a natural progression in the growth in popularity of any game or sport or activity. In the beginning, for whatever reason, there is a growth in general popularity. The activity/sport grows, and more and more people begin to engage in it. Then, once there are a lot of people doing it, they start to develop an interest in organizing clubs, holding inter-club competitions, and so on. Eventually they dream up the idea of an umbrella organization for all of the clubs and all of the competitions— a national federation. Clubs and a national organization, then, are the results of growth, not its causes. It follows that if your plan for growing the popularity of a sport is to grow clubs, you’re putting the cart before the horse. The first thing that you need to do is to grow players. That’s why I think that the best way to grow petanque in the USA must be to promote the general popularity of the sport and not to worry too much about whether or not a player or a club is affiliated with FPUSA. If the effort is successful, then clubs will naturally appear, and players and clubs will naturally get to the point where FPUSA affiliation makes sense for them.

New map of FPUSA regions

FPUSA has redesigned their website. The new design includes a new map of the regions. Unlike other maps that we’ve seen, this map assigns every state to a region, even if the state currently has no active member clubs. The colors indicate the region. Stripes means a state has at least one FPUSA-affiliated club. A state without any clubs is shown with dots rather than stripes. CLICK to see a larger image.fpusa_regions_2016

How the FPUSA works

[updated 2018-07-07]
I’ve been curious about how FPUSA officers are elected, and about how the FPUSA works in general.  I found answers to my questions in the FPUSA constitution and bylaws.

FPUSA organizational structure
The organizational structure of the FPUSA has three layers.

FPUSA board of directors
national officers
(elected by club presidents)
regional counselors
(elected by club presidents)
club president (elected by club members)
individual member

FPUSA board of directors
The governing body of the FPUSA is the FPUSA board of directors, which in recent years has consisted of 17 members— 5 national officers (President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, and National Sports Director) and 12 regional counselors. Information about the current board can be found on the FPUSA website.

I don’t know why they are called “regional counselors”… a better term would be “regional representative”. The regional counselors are the elected representatives of the clubs in the seven regions. The number of counselor-representatives is based on the number of individual FPUSA members in the region. Each of the seven regions has at least one counselor; some have two.

Regional counselors and national officers serve two-year terms.   Elections for half of the regional counselors, and for the FPUSA President and Treasurer, are held in November of odd-numbered years.  Elections for the other regional counselors and the other FPUSA national officers are held in even-numbered years.  So in November 2015 there was an election for FPUSA President.

The Board of Directors holds a regular Annual Meeting once a year, and may meet in special meetings on an as-needed basis.  Unless the President closes the meeting, any FPUSA member may attend any meeting of the Board of Directors.  Minutes of the meetings are taken by the Secretary and distributed to Board Members after the meetings.  The Annual Meeting typically takes place in conjunction with the FPUSA World Championship Qualification Tournament.  In 2015, that took place September 12/13 at the Fresno Petanque Club.

In order to be FPUSA President, a person must have been a member of the Board of Directors (in some other capacity) for at least 3 years, and an FPUSA member for at least 5 years. For Vice-President, the corresponding requirements are 2 years and 4 years, respectively. And so on for the other regional and national offices.

FPUSA standing committees
The FPUSA has a number of standing committees whose job is to discharge specific functions. Some of the national officers chair standing committees.

  • The National Sport Committee is a 5-person committee headed by the National Sport Director. The responsibilities of the National Sport Director are quite broad. They include responsibility for the rules, administration of the umpire corps, running regional and national competitions, handling tournament hosting bids, and “promotion of the game (including youth development and outreach)”.
  • The Discipline Committee is responsible for processing disciplinary complaints and actions. The chair of the committee is appointed by the President each year.
  • The Communications Committee is chaired by the Secretary of the Board. It is responsible for official communication among the Board of Directors, as well as official communications with the FPUSA member clubs and the FIPJP (the international federation). It is responsible for publishing the annual newsletter, maintaining the FPUSA website, and advertising.
  • In addition to the standing committees, the Board may create special committees for specific purposes. In 2018, for example, a special committee was created for strategic planning.

What are the benefits of FPUSA membership?


In this post we look at the benefits of FPUSA membership— that is, of individual membership and club affiliation. (Clubs are said to be “affiliated with”, not “members of”, the FPUSA.)

At the outset let’s note that FPUSA membership is really cheap— $15 a year for membership through an affiliated club, and $20 a year for an at-large “individual” membership.

Benefits of FPUSA membership

  1. FPUSA membership is required for participation in FPUSA regional and national championships. And of course FPUSA membership is required in order to represent the USA in FIPJP World Championships.
  2. FPUSA membership is often required for participation in play and competitions in other countries. As Frank Pipal (current FPUSA president) notes—

    An FPUSA license is recognized by other FIPJP member federations including the FFPJP [the French national federation]. The ability to play in FFPJP tournaments depends on the nature of the tournament. A tournament that is part of a league, departmental, regional, or national championship will not be open to foreign players, but many others will be.

    Ernesto Santos points out

    As an FPUSA member you get an international license that allows you to play around the world. In almost all other countries, you will need to show your license before being allowed to play in an affiliated club’s tournament (or even casual play). Many times they will collect that license before the start of a tourney and only give it back when you leave (provided you didn’t misbehave). If you don’t have a license you may be required to buy a day-license on the spot. And this holds true even for non-sanctioned open tournaments like La Marseillaise.

Benefits of FPUSA club affiliation

There are no club-level dues for FPUSA affiliation, but there is a minimum-membership requirement. FPUSA requires affiliated clubs to have at least 8 members for the first year of affiliation and at least 12 members during succeeding years. FPUSA will not “dis-affiliate” a club that cannot meet the 12-member requirement (the club can renew its affiliation and remain on the insurance policy), but the club’s voting rights are suspended until the minimum-membership requirement is met.

That means that

  • For a club with fewer than 8 dues-paying FPUSA members, FPUSA affiliation is not an option.
  • For a club with 8 or more members that are also dues-paying FPUSA members, FPUSA affiliation is basically a freebie.

Liability insurance

For a club, the primary benefit of FPUSA affiliation is the liability insurance that comes with that affiliation. If your club holds an event, and if someone gets injured during that event, then this insurance will protect your club and members from any financial damages for which they might legally be held liable.

  • FPUSA doesn’t provide any information about its liability insurance on its web site. US Lacrosse, however, does, and that information shows that liability insurance is a more complicated affair than you probably imagine. The moral of the story: when your club gets its FPUSA insurance document, read it carefully.

Your local Parks & Recreation Department may require your club to have liability insurance as a precondition for holding an event at one of its facilities. When a club joins FPUSA, it receives a certificate of insurance that should satisfy that requirement. Further certificates are available from FPUSA upon request.

Non-profit status

FPUSA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Affiliated clubs (meeting certain organizational requirements) may receive a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status through the FPUSA without having to file their own separate application with the IRS. This can be useful when setting up club accounts and dealing with state incorporation and taxation authorities.

New club benefits

During its first year of affiliation, a new club may be reimbursed by the FPUSA for up to $100 for purchases of petanque-related equipment— guest boules, playing circles, prize medals and trophies, club banners and signs, etc. During its second year of affiliation, a club is eligible for a 50% reimbursement of up to $100 on $200 in purchases. This is an important benefit— having a good supply of guest boules for new players is probably a critical success factor for new clubs.

Benefits to the sport of petanque

When it is time for an FPUSA national champion team to travel to the FIPJP world championships, the FPUSA assists with the cost of travel. The money comes from entry fees for the national championship (international qualifier) tournament and a percentage (20%) of FPUSA income from membership dues. For any given trip, that amount might be somewhere between $500 and $1000 per person.

The bottom line

Clubs with fewer than 8 FPUSA members do not qualify for FPUSA affiliation. If such a club wants liability insurance, it will need to pay for it out of its own local club dues. Depending on the club’s location, such insurance may or may not be available and affordable.

For clubs with 8+ FPUSA members, FPUSA affiliation is a way to obtain free liability insurance. For a club large enough to consider becoming a corporate entity, FPUSA help in securing 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status can also be important.

For the serious individual player, FPUSA membership is required in order to compete in FPUSA-sanctioned tournaments at the regional and national level. In other countries, it may also be required in order to compete in any kind of competition.

For the casual player, perhaps the most compelling reason for FPUSA membership is that your FPUSA membership helps to keep your club’s total membership level above 8, thus keeping your club eligible for FPUSA affiliation and the liability insurance that goes with it. That’s why FPUSA membership may be included automatically in membership in your local club.

One argument for FPUSA membership is that your annual dues assist Team USA to travel to the world championships.  That’s true, but remember that only about $3 of your annual dues goes to support Team USA.  If you really want to help, donate $20 (or more!) to the team’s Facebook fundraiser.

There is also one intangible benefit to FPUSA membership.  Personally, I like feeling that I belong to the club.  I like carrying my FPUSA membership card in my boule bag, and I like being able to say that I am a card-carrying petanque player.  And as long as I have that card, I can harbor a secret fantasy of traveling to France and playing in La Marseillaise.  Priceless.

Petanque club websites on wordpress

WordPress.com is a great blogging platform. We use it to host this blog, of course, as well as Petanque Portal USA,  All About Petanque, and The Rules of Petanque.

In this post I want to talk about wordpress.com as a place to host a web site for a petanque club.

In our opinion, every petanque club should have a web site. And in our opinion, wordpress.com is the best place to host it. (Learn how to make a web page for your club.)


WordPress is free, well-established, and easy to use. It is powerful and offers many sophisticated features— but it doesn’t force you to use them if you don’t want to.

  • If all you want to do is to put up a single cover page with information about when and where you play, you can do it.
  • If you want to allow people to send you email — but NOT to expose your email address to spammers at the same time — you can do it.
  • If you want to be able to request confirmation of members’ plans to attend the next get-together, you can do it.
  • If you want to be able to post (and automatically send email) with notifications of upcoming events, or notifications of sudden cancellation of events due to bad weather, you can do it.
  • If you want to be able to post pictures of your club’s last tournament or picnic, you can do it.

If you are considering creating a WordPress web site for your petanque club, here is a small collection of links to the WordPress pages of other clubs. Skim through the collection, see what other clubs are doing, and see if this is something that might work for your own club. (Some clubs pay a small annual fee for a web address that omits “wordpress” and ends with .just .org or .com.)

Clubs in the United States

Clubs in other countries

Surfing the American Petanque Directory

Lately we’ve been working on the American Petanque Directory (APD) , adding pictures and navigation links to the pages for the states.


Together, the pictures and the navigation links make it easy to surf through the Directory, viewing petanque terrains in different states. This is pretty entertaining, but it also has a practical use.

We’re interested in techniques that can be used to build a case for constructing a petanque terrain in a public park. (See the post on petanque in public parks.) It is pretty clear that any pitch to, say, a director of a city or county Parks and Recreation (P&R) Department needs to include pictures. Seeing petanque terrains literally gives a P&R director a picture of what he is being asked to build. And showing him that other cities have built petanque terrains assures him that it isn’t a crazy idea — other cities have done it, and done it successfully. This is why documents written to promote petanque in public parks invariably include an album of pictures. See the appendices to

Our hope is that the APD can be used as a virtual, online album when making a case for constructing a petanque terrain in a public space. The APD is easy to access — a P&R director can pull it up instantly on his office PC. And the vivid full-color photos have the immediacy of the 7 o’clock news. The Directory is clearly “live” — it’s obvious that you’re seeing pictures of clubs that are very much alive, active, and thriving right now.

Seeing petanque terrains in other cities might even suggest to a P&R director that his city is missing a trend. “Other cities are building petanque courts. Maybe we should think about building one too.”