Steamboat is home to the unofficial footbag hall of fame
On the west side of Steamboat Springs is a not-so-hidden but perhaps not well-known recreation gem: World Footbag.
The business, once known as the World Footbag Association, sells and ships massive quantities of footbags, commonly known by the brand name, Hacky Sack. Not only is the building the center of operations but is the closest thing the country has to a footbag hall of fame.
Between owner Bruce Guettich and employees Peter Shunny and Randy Nelson, there is decades of footbag history within the walls of World Footbag, including a historic display and an unofficial hall of fame of the sport.
Hacky Sack was created by John Stalberger and Mike Marshall in 1972. The sport stayed in the Pacific Northwest as a niche hobby and exercise for some time.
Guettich discovered it while skiing in the Northwest.
“I found it to be a great exercise and activity that helped all the other things that I did, especially skiing,” Guettich said. “The timing of stepping off of one foot and on to another. You balance on balls of your feet, staying focused with knees bent. The biggest high is it’s exercise with fun.”
Footbag is a sport associated with college stoners, but considering World Footbag is coming off their best year of sales yet, the sport is obviously popular across the board.
“It’s an infectious game,” Guettich said. “It really has allowed, for anybody that is remotely athletic, to see the benefits of this sport and what it can do, just on the recreational level. Most people know this game for just it’s noncompetitive aspect. It’s fun to do with other people whether it’s a party, concert or campout. It’s just camaraderie. It’s working together to keep this little bag off the ground.”
Growing the sport
Guettich and Greg Cortopassi started the World Footbag Association in 1983 as a players association and a magazine, which published three times per year. WFA was also the creator of a rules-making committee in 1983. In 1984, the association moved to Golden, a more central location in the U.S.
“When I first started this game and started in it, it was a small little hobby,” Guettich said. “It was a little passion of some players. I worked as a manager of a sporting goods ski shop in Portland. The brand name (Hacky Sack) started in Oregon City, Oregon. I was involved at grassroots level when it was taking hold.”
The WFA sent out small teams across the country nine months out of the year, spreading the gospel of footbag. That’s how Peter Shunny, Randy Nelson and Guettich got to be close friends. They would travel to schools and teach P.E. classes how to play and educate the instructor on how to teach the game to other students. Now, the three work at World Footbag together and are all members of the Footbag Hall of Fame.
“Back in the ‘80s,” said Nelson, “I used to compete and tour for Bruce and World Footbag and do school assembly shows. I did three school tours. I don’t even know how many hundreds or thousands of shows I did. It was two to three shows a day, on the road across the country, basically. I was way into footbag.”
Nelson was so into footbag; he was the freestyle world champion in 1986.
Nelson has worked at World Footbag for 25 years but previously worked for Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp for 15 years.
Shunny first encountered footbag in college in New Mexico, where he was playing soccer. Soccer was his go-to sport after being paralyzed for two months when he was 13 with Guillain-Barré syndrome. He gained the ability to walk again but lost dexterity in his hands, so he turned to soccer. Then footbag came around.
“I was in between classes, kicking a tennis ball, goofing around,” Shunny said. “A guy walked up and said you should be playing Hacky Sack. I was like what are you talking about? I went over there, hook line sinker, I loved it.”
Nelson even traveled to Australia to show off the sport at the World Fair and helped sell 22,000 footbags in the country.
Guettich became a face of the sport as he appeared in a Michelob Super Bowl commercial that featured footbag players in 1985.
“We did the foundation of the work; we’re sort of reaping the benefits now,” Shunny said. “But it still needs to be promoted to get more kids playing.”
Thriving in Steamboat Springs
In 1996, the headquarters moved from Golden to Steamboat. In 1999, after 16 years of printing, Footbag World magazine was discontinued due to the rapid growth of the internet. A few editions can be found at World Footbag in Steamboat, though.
Around the same time, WFA dropped Association from its name, becoming broader and less membership-based as World Footbag. At one point, membership was more than 119,000 strong.
The World Footbag website, Footbag.org, sells more than 130 products, which makes it the largest collection of footbag products in the world, according to the site’s About Us page. The company sells wholesale to Amazon, Zumiez, the U.S. military and more.
“Last year was our best year in business,” Guettich said. “That’s a big statement to say that we are still at a point when the sport has ebbs and flows. We’ve seen years of massive crazy popularity to where it slows. It’s the type of game that is so inexpensive, that is fun to do, that you can do by yourself or with a group of three or more. It can be done indoors, outdoors — it has so much simplicity to it that it’s here forever.”
World Footbag headquarters documents the past, present and future of the sport. One of the very first footbags, created by Stalberger, is on display in a case describing the creation and evolution of the game.
The hallway is plastered with 8-inch by 10-inch frames of hall of fame members performing acrobatic tricks and efforts over the years. There are also display cases with every variety of footbag that World Footbag sells. The bags are made of a variety of materials and vary in size. There’s also a variety in the material that fills the bag, ranging from plastic pellets to sand to ball bearings.
The back section of World Footbag isn’t as visually interesting, but it’s where the work happens. There are packing machines and stations to put stickers on items and more. The walls are covered with old banners from World Championships and events, reminding the men working there of the events that made the sport popular and brought them together.
“We’ve had a lot of experience and a lot of highs and lows,” Shunny said. “Nothing better than being with your best friend doing it.”
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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