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

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.”

Three models for successful public petanque courts

Related posts — What to look for when you’re looking for places to play

Lately I’ve been interested in trying to identify “critical success factors” for public petanque courts. One thing that I’ve noticed is that there seem to be three different models of usage for public petanque courts.

The first is the classical village square model, which is where petanque was developed and became popular in France. In this model, the petanque terrain is located in the center of a busy public place — the village square or perhaps a small park. The area is surrounded by businesses, especially restaurants and cafes. Because of the businesses and cafes the area has a lot of foot traffic. People meet there to chat on lunch breaks and after work. Despite being located in the heart of New York City, Bryant Park fits this model. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising, because the village square model is an essentially urban model. It works because the petanque court is located right in the middle of an area where people live, work, eat, drink, meet, and socialize.

The second model is the rec center model. Many cities or counties have created recreation centers and large recreation parks. The parks typically contain multiple recreation facilities — a rec center for basketball, badminton, and gymnastics classes, a weight room, a swimming pool, one or more baseball diamonds, football fields and soccer fields, tennis courts, perhaps a volleyball court. There are jungle gyms for the younger kids to play on, and shaded benches where moms can sit and chat and watch the younger kids while their older siblings practice team sports. There are water fountains and restrooms. There may be outdoor grills and small shelters with picnic tables, so that the whole extended family can come for a big family Sunday-afternoon grill and picnic.

Above all, there is lots of parking. Where the village square model is an essentially urban model, depending on foot traffic from people who are already in the area, the rec center model is an essentially suburban model, based on the rec center acting as a magnet for people who want to use the recreation facilities that it provides. People aren’t already there. They come to it, sometimes from serious distances, and they come in cars. That’s why parking is an important component of the rec center model. Another important amenity is lighting that can allow afternoon play to continue on into the evening. This can be essential to the survival of some petanque clubs in winter, with winter’s shorter days.

A good example of this model are the petanque courts in the Virginia Highlands Park (photo, above), a vast recreation facility in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC.

There is a third model, which I call the amenity model. park_west_petanque_terrain_in_tucson_arizonaDevelopers of housing developments or vacation trailer parks or camp sites sometimes provide petanque courts — well, in the United States, bocce courts — as amenities. Tucked into a quiet corner of the grounds of a high-rise or a mobile-home park or a retirement community or a large camp ground, you will sometimes find a swimming pool, perhaps a shuffleboard court, and perhaps a bocce court. A good example of this model are the petanque courts at Park West Mobile Homes Estates, a retirement community in Tucson, Arizona.

I’m not sure how successful the amenity model is in the USA. There certainly is a scattering of “amenity” bocce courts in this country, but I’m not sure how heavily the courts are actually used (although I understand that petanque courts are popular as amenities at many nudist resorts). But in France, at least judging from the old photos that I’ve seen on the Petanque America website, petanque is a standard part of the standard family vacation in August. Camp grounds often provide a petanque terrain, and when a dedicated terrain is not available, families play on the open dirt fields of the camp ground.

How to approach the Parks&Rec Dept. about support for petanque in your public park

Suppose you’ve decided to approach the Parks and Recreation Department about support for petanque in your local parks.

A wonderful example of a public petanque facility — Paggi Square in Austin, Texas, designed with input from the Heart of Texas Pétanque Club.

The first step in the process should be to develop a clear and detailed idea for the proposal that you want to present to parks&rec department. Write your ideas down in outline form. Eventually, with luck, this outline will be the basis of your proposal document. As you write the outline, ask yourself the kind of probing questions that soon will be put to you. Have you explained clearly what you want, and why, and why you think the parks&rec department should support it?

The first time that you meet with the department’s representative(s), he/she/they will probably never have heard of petanque. Your first meeting will go more smoothly if you have a printed introductory document to give them. It should provide a short executive summary of information about petanque, and about who plays the game and why. The purpose of the introductory document is to provide both information and reassurance… to provide concrete proof that petanque is something real, something that many people actually do play, and something that other cities support by providing facilities in their public parks. A full-color document makes a vivid impression, so (if you don’t own a color printer), copy your document file onto a flash drive and take it to your local graphics company or office-supply store. They can easily print color copies at a reasonable fee.

Your introductory document should be just that, an introductory document. It is not your proposal document. It is only the first step in your relationship with parks&rec so it should be short and easily digested. After introducing the idea of petanque, and support for petanque in public parks, you might continue with a little information about your local club. If you have a handout with information about your club, this will be a good time to bring that out. Eventually, you can lead the conversation around to an informal presentation of your club’s idea for a parks&rec project. Think of this as a casual, low-key, informal presentation of the ideas in your outline. Expect probing questions and perhaps even ideas, suggestions, or proposals for alternate projects. Stay calm, pay close attention to the feedback that you’re getting, and stay flexible.

If your meeting is successful, the next step will probably be for you and your petanque group to prepare a project proposal document for the parks&rec budget and planning committee. That document should quickly summarize basic information about petanque. (You don’t need to repeat all the detail of your introductory document in this document. Just append it to your proposal document.) The rest of your project proposal document should provide details about the specific construction project being proposed — the project’s details, costs, and benefits. In this document it is important to provide evidence that the proposed petanque facilities will actually be used, so presenting information about your club, its strength, membership, and history is important. It is also important to show that your club is committed to the project and prepared to support it. (In New York City, for example, La Boule New Yorkaise committed to offering free weekly petanque instruction at the new terrains in Bryant Park.)

If the proposal is approved by the budget and planning committee, the parks&rec department will issue an RFP (request for proposal). This is basically a request for contractors to bid on the construction of the planned facilities. By its very nature, an RFP must be very specific and detailed about exactly what is to be built. Writing such a document is not something you can leave to amateurs— the parks&rec dept. will have people who are experts in writing RFPs. Your job will be to work with them and provide them as much information and assistance as they need to get it right.


Introductory documents

  • Petanque in Public Parks by Stephen Ferg— (pdf) (docx)
    We hereby place this document in the public domain.
  • Pétanque in public parks & places by Philippe Boets— (pdf) (docx)
  • Petanque in Public Places by Gary Hosie — (pdf) (docx)

Proposal documents

  • Proposal for a Petanque Terrain at C.V. Starr Community Center by The Noyo Yoyos Pétanque Club (2010)— (pdf) (docx)

RFP documents

  • RFP for the construction of public petanque courts issued by the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan Parks and Recreation Department (2009)— (pdf)