What makes a game popular?

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

One thing that all American petanque players wish is that there would be more American petanque players. This is due partly to missionary zeal— we’ve found a good thing and we’d like to share it with others— and partly to 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. That wouldn’t mean that I could always find an already-existing petanque group, but that (with a modest amount of work) 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 that it is natural for petanque players to think of it as a rival. And the relative success of bocce in the USA instills a nagging doubt in the hearts of American petanque players— we worry that petanque might have no 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?

Probably 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. There is a virtually infinite number of pastime activities and hobbies to choose from. Think of basketball, wood working, coin collecting, chess, making Youtube videos, macrame, cooking, jogging, throwing the shot put… almost to infinity. None of these activities engages more than a very small percentage of the population, but each one has its own group of dedicated participants.

But for some pastimes participation outlasts the boom-and-bust cycle of fads, and participants include a significant portion of the populace. For such activities we need to start thinking in terms of culture and cultural practices. At this level of participation we need to think of a pastime as as embedded in a particular culture. Children play it because they see their fathers and grandfathers playing it, and because the news media (newspaper, radio, television, Youtube) 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. (The exception may be in cultural imperialism, when one culture is massively more powerful than another.)

One would expect that factors such as the cost and ease-of-use of the equipment would affect the popularity of a game, but that doesn’t seem to be a useful predictor of the popularity of a game. Petanque doesn’t require the cumbersome target boards that cornhole does, but on the other hand cornhole doesn’t require a suitable terrain— it can be set up in a stadium parking lot for a group having a tailgate party before a football game.

And then of course there is the Darwinian tendency of any activity to spin off an almost infinite variety of 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.

Comparison of petanque with games such as cornhole and Mölkky is instructive. We usually think of petanque as a ball game or boules-type game. Ball games are of course ancient; but throwing games are probably as ancient as humanity itself. Throwing a rock at a rabbit naturally evolved into games involving throwing many different kinds of things at many different kinds of targets. American Indians played a game called Chunkey which involved throwing long poles at rolling hoops. Today we throw darts at targets, horseshoes at stakes, bean bags at holes, and balls or pins and balls, to mention only a few. So we shouldn’t think of petanque’s competitors as being restricted to other ball games. Its competitors are a huge variety of other throwing games.

So, let’s return to petanque, and to 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, the plant 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 only one person who was a French expatriate or American returning from working and living in France. In Canada, of course, it started with the entire province of Quebec. (It never took root in Canadian soil outside of Quebec. Even the biggest and most cosmopolitan of western Canadian cities, Vancouver, has no petanque club.)

But there are also mysteries. In a few places a small French seed has exploded to an amazing and inexplicable degree. Florida is traditionally the USA’s retire-in-the-sun state, but why should petanque flourish in Florida while remaining virtually unknown in, say, 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, California, 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 (HOT) club, while at the same time there is nothing in Houston?

(4) We must also realize that some petanque clubs are virtually the personal creations of particular energetic and enthusiastic individuals. These clubs pop up like weeds, join the FPUSA perhaps, flourish for a few years, then (when the founder dies or moves to another city) die. It’s a natural cycle, I think, like the changing of the seasons. But it also 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) I’m not sure what would be the best way for FPUSA to promote petanque in the USA, but I have a general intuition about the direction in which it should go. A few years ago Ed Porto (then FPUSA president) and I exchanged email on a number of topics. As we conversed, I gradually realized that what Ed meant by growing petanque in the USA was increasing the number of FPUSA members and clubs.

It took me a long time to digest the implications of that position, and I now think it is quite wrong. Growing petanque in the USA is not the same as growing FPUSA. 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.

In this pattern, clubs 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.


One thought on “What makes a game popular?

  1. Great article!! I am an American retiree living in France who enjoys petanque in these summer months when I travel south for the summer. For years I would offer the experience of pétanque to young American students at the American school I taught at in Germany during the last days of each year when we would have a festival of games at the end of the school year. As most of them had never heard or seen the game , I enjoyed watching them discover the games and its pleasures. I agrée that getting young Americans to discover the game is the best way to see it grow as an American sport! Vive le pétanque !!

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