ESPN once had to fill 24 hours with sports at a time when there wasn't 24 hours worth of sports. Well, by airing "SportsCenter" several times a day and by loosening the definition of what is technically a "sport," it succeeds, with programming like the annual spelling bee and poker and cheerleading competitions. (Whether cheerleading is a sport is a topic for another time.)

But one sport which has yet to receive much coverage is slowly blossoming across the country, and it's about time. This sport has what ESPN thrives on: It's dramatic, enigmatic, classic, and nostalgic (and probably lots of other "-ic" words). I'm talking about the unheralded stepbrother of softball and baseball -- Wiffle Ball.

With the game close to entering its sixth decade of existence, the call for it is growing. It has never really gone away as people have played it consistently the entire time, but now, leagues and tournaments are popping up all over the country and solidifying its place in the sports landscape.

According to vice president of The Wiffle® Ball, Inc. Stephen Mullany, "Over the past maybe five or six years, there has been a huge insurgence to organize leagues. For instance, Wiffleup does tournaments from the East Coast to Chicago every summer."

One of the tournament-based companies, Big League Wiffle Ball, is run by Nick Benas and Jared Verrillo, two high-school friends from Connecticut (near where the sport was founded back in 1953 in Fairfield by Mullany's grandfather, David). He added, "In the early 90s, there were five tournaments nationwide. Today, there are hundreds of leagues, with approximately 100,000 players, including charity events and fundraisers."

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BLWB has put on tournaments all over the country from New England to St. Louis, Arizona and California. They've even set up shop at venerable Fenway Park during the Jimmy Fund's annual fundraiser and will be working with former major leaguer Reggie Sanders on July 9 at the Talking Stick Fields in Scottsdale (where the Diamondbacks and Rockies play their Cactus League games), during MLB's All-Star Game festivities in a charity event to benefit autism.

When asked why the sport is becoming so popular, Benas compared it to the boy band N'Sync: "People make fun of them, but then run home and put on their cassettes."

Well, I don't know if anyone's running home to listen to N'Sync, or if anyone these days still even has cassettes, but his point is clear, there's a love of the game. And there are now outlets for junkies and enthusiasts.

Then there's Lou Levesque, who in 2002, began Golden Stick Wiffle League in Danvers, Mass., with former partner, Mark Spellman. Now president of the primarily league-based company, Levesque has built it into five different formats through persistence and ambition:

In 2010 alone Golden Stick put on 76 events in 15 cities across the country paying out over $41,000 in total prize money. This, after seven years of only one league (in Massachusetts), until 2009, when they expanded to Long Island, and held their first national championship series in Las Vegas between the regional winners from New York and Boston.

"I no longer need to find an excuse to go to Vegas every year," Levesque says.

Though his company is expanding, there are still many other organizations fighting for a share of the market, and he embraces the competition. "I know we’re doing it right!" he says. "That's all we need to worry about."

Typically a game is set on a field shaped like a pizza slice where there are two lines spaced further from home plate that decide between a single, double and triple. A home run clears the fence.

You can't walk, but you can certainly strike out and with a perforated plastic ball that can drop 3-5 feet when thrown from 40-50 feet away at speeds reaching upwards of 80 mph, a "whiff" is not an unusual outcome of a plate appearance. (That’s actually where Mullany came up with the name.)

A 21-inch-by-28-inch strike zone is set up behind the plate, 15 inches from the ground.

While BLWB loves the classic traits -- three players, triangular field, slow-pitch -- Golden Stick's fields are 90 degrees, allow four players on the field and a variety of plastic bats offered by different companies.

Regardless of the specifics chosen, as the popularity continues to increase, so too does the prospect of a professional league.

There's not enough revenue coming in yet, but both league proprietors envision a bright future. "I see our league as a young UFC," Levesque says. "There will be ads on Spike TV, funding from investors and sponsors ... maybe even our own version of 'ring' girls." Benas agrees and adds that he sees "gambling, trading cards, and the development of new equipment from bats to balls and even cleats."

Why are they so confident? For one thing, it may be the market that this sport appeals to. Levesque turns the interrogation on me. "Why is poker so popular on ESPN?" he asks.

I venture the guess, "Because everyone can do it." He corrects me, "because everyone has done it," though still giving me points for a correct answer.

Rosters can include anyone. "It's one of the only sports in town where a guy that looks like Harry Potter will play another who looks like the Hulk ... and beat him!" (Hmm, I would think someone who's green and wearing shredded clothing would have bigger worries than Wiffle Ball tournaments, but I understand his point.) "The great part of this is the match ups between 16-year-olds and 50-year olds. All fighting for the same trophy. It is just tough to find a game without demographic boundaries."

It's about skills development. "Their bodies may be out-of-shape, but their hand-eye coordination is on par with a 12-year-old gamer," Benas says. "It’s not who you are, but how much you practice." This makes a lot of sense. The majority of Americans who would have no success playing baseball, football, soccer, etc. may now be Hall-of-Famers on the Wiffle Ball field.

And the best part is the drama. "Imagine the drama of throwing a 75 mph with a 4-foot drop to win the $25,000 Red Bull Cup?" Levesque says to me, almost salivating over the phone at the exciting possibilities.

That's something you won't get from the spelling bee, or even during a bull-riding competition. And for you, the viewer, you've returned to a simpler time, without a care in the world, except for whether to throw the curve, the slider, or blow the fastball by your opponent.

You'll be back in your backyard again, this time, all the world may be watching.

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