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5 Unconventional Sports and Where to Play Them

For those seeking summer sports thrills farther afield than baseball, New York has plenty to offer

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New York City is a paradise for all things sports, boasting two Major League Baseball teams, two NBA teams, a WNBA franchise, two NFL teams, two MLS teams, two minor-league baseball teams — everything you can imagine.

There are even subsidiary sporting pursuits, like the summer pastime of wondering which New York Met will be injured next, the parsing of what Phil Jackson says publicly and how badly it will affect the Knicks, and the annual predicting of precisely which route the Jets will take to reach their customary destination of 6–10.

But what about those of us with a taste for sport beyond the well-trod path of our most popular pastimes? New York has you covered there, too. Here’s a helpful guide for ways to exercise both your muscles and your brain that don’t involve thinking about why the Brooklyn Nets don’t have any of their draft picks until after the next presidential election.

Pickleball

You might have played it in gym class: Players armed with squared-off ping- pong paddles hit a Wiffle-type ball back and forth across a miniature tennis court. “Pickleball was invented in the mid- 1960s as a children’s backyard pastime but has become popular among adults as well,” reports Wikipedia, which also notes that inventor Joel Pritchard, once he was done coming up with the sport, would be elected lieutenant governor of Washington State.

The 92nd Street Y has come to a similar conclusion about the sport’s popularity, advertising pickleball to players 21 years and older as “easy to learn, low-impact on joints, and a fun way to work out while meeting new racquet friends,” as well as “the fastest-growing sport in North America.” To be clear, 92Y offers no documentation for the “fastest-growing sport” claim, but hey, who are we to argue? And from personal experience, I remember very little impact on my joints during pickleball games back in middle school.

92Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, 92y.org

Stickball

If you like your summer sports with a dash of nostalgia and a heaping helping of allowing you to pretend you’re Willie Mays, then stickball is the game for you.

Stickball differs from baseball in that it’s played with a broom handle for a bat and the ball is a Spaldeen, a pink rubber sphere whose name derives from that
of its manufacturer, Spalding, filtered through a New York accent. (It’s now the ball’s official trademarked name.) The game was first played in the late eighteenth century, making it older than baseball, and had its heyday in New York in the first half of the twentieth century.

Today, kids are less likely to risk venturing into traffic to stage stickball games on their local blocks. But the New York Emperors Stickball League in the Bronx keeps the sport alive, with schedules and even live streams available on its website. If you excel enough, there’s potential entry into the Stickball Hall of Fame at 230 East 123rd Street in East Harlem.

New York Emperors Stickball League, stickball.com

Unicycling

I hear you: “Sure, these sports are great, but wouldn’t they be even better played on a single-wheeled vehicle?” You know who else heard you? The organizers of the NYC Unicycle Festival, returning to the city over Labor Day weekend. Produced by the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus organization, the four-day free festival invites New Yorkers to bring their unicycles or simply watch others celebrate one-wheeled transport with such events as a unicycle ride from Battery Park up to Central Park on August 31 (open to the public, but for experienced riders only) and a ride over the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island the next day (recommended for less advanced riders, though experience in traffic is still recommended). And then, on Governors Island on September 2 and 3? Unicycle basketball. Unicycle hockey. Unicycle sumo wrestling. Unicycle piñata (what could go wrong?). And DJ Sky King on hand to keep everyone musically entertained (though it does not appear, sadly, that he is a unicycle DJ).

8th Annual NYC Unicycle Festival, various locations, nycunifest.com

Ping-pong

With Major League Dreidel having completed its most recent competition in January, that leaves us with only one good summertime option for a tabletop sport: ping-pong, or, as some call it, table tennis.

There’s no shortage of options for playing ping-pong this summer in New York, even if you lack your own semi-finished basement. At Spin, a ping-pong-themed restaurant (or is it food-themed ping-pong parlor?) in Madison Square, you can order sliders and flatbreads to consume while playing to 21. If you consider yourself an expert, enter one of Spin’s Friday-night tournaments, complete with prizes (top winner gets $500!), and gear up for the next Olympic table tennis championships in 2020.

Spin New York, 48 East 23rd Street, Manhattan, newyork.wearespin.com

Ax-throwing

One common complaint of New Yorkers is that we have more than enough axes, but nowhere to throw them. That’s where competitive ax-throwing comes in to save your summer.

At Gotham Archery in Gowanus, you can train with instructors who trained with “The Great Throwdini,” whose website claims him to be “The World’s Fastest and Most Accurate Knife-Thrower.” Sean Bergen of News 12 Long Island once called him “widely regarded as being perhaps the greatest knife-thrower who has ever lived”; forever is a long time.

Gotham Archery insists you take an introductory class before you attempt to duplicate Throwdini’s “Veiled Double Wheel of Death.” Once you’ve mastered the basics, though, axes ahoy! And fear not, your safety concerns are addressed, as the Gotham website cautions: “To ensure a safe fun experience during your knife/hatchet class please DO NOT wear open toe shoes.”

There are even summer camps, ages ten and up. Sadly, not for ax-throwing, just archery, but that’s a well-known ax-throwing gateway activity.

Gotham Archery, 480 Baltic Street, Brooklyn, got-archery.com

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