WORK IN PROGRESS
UNEDITED / UNPUBLISHED
It was only a matter of time before the modern sport of footbag spread into Europe. Torben Wigger, a Danish school teacher, reportedly brought the first Hacky Sack® to Europe in 1980.1 He began kicking in Copenhagen, Denmark with other early adopters including Stephen Skriver and Henrik Borring, becoming the country’s earliest champions in the sport.
Wigger and Skriver formed the first European footbag club in 1982 called High Society. It was quickly followed by two other Danish clubs: Jumpin’ Jack Flash Hacky Sack® Stars and Zick Zack Hacky Sack®.2
Aside from Wigger’s imported Hacky Sack®, however, the only footbags available in Denmark at that time were handmade. When Danish kicker Allan Petersen was first introduced to the sport in the summer of 1983, Hacky Sacks® weren’t yet available in European stores. A friend directed Petersen to Fælledparken, a large public park located next to the soccer stadium in Copenhagen, where a young woman was selling hand-stitched footbags. Petersen still owns that first footbag he purchased from her, below.
The Danes kicked mostly alone until 1983 when John Stalberger traveled to Europe with his business partner, Lee Kennedy, as well as Scott “Mag” Hughes and the young kicking prodigy, Kenny Schults. Kennedy, via Kenncorp, owned the rights to the Hacky Sack® brand outside the U.S. The group first hit Paris, where Hughes and Shults performed footbag skills at the SISEL sporting goods show. Schults, who was 17 at the time, remembers the demos as excellent practice. “We had to control the footbag to keep it from going out into the people walking by,” Shults said, “and we had to make it exciting to watch and we had to be able to play for many hours each day. We played one pass power style with the footbag rarely passing higher than waist high going back and forth from about 8-10 feet apart. Hour after hour. This really helped to develop skills for the net game.”
From there, they went to Munich, Germany for the ISPO sports fair, where Shults met the legendary soccer player, Alain Giresse, of the French world cup soccer team. An agent for Giresse spotted Shults kicking and escorted him to the booth where Giresse was signing autographs. “I showed some of my best tricks and Giresse seemed quite impressed,” Shults remembers. “Freestyle Footbag was very much in its infancy at that time so the best tricks were things like the flying clipper, dragon fly, around-the-world, mirage, and my signature double-around-the-world.”
Subsequently, Hughes and Shults traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to meet with the High Society club.3 Wigger had organized the first European footbag tournament a few months earlier. It was held in Skælskør on the southwestern shore of Denmark’s main island of Sjælland (Zealand) in April of 1983. Called the World’s First Danish Hacky Sack® Footbag Championships, it included events in singles and doubles net as well as footbag golf, long kick, most kicks, and freestyle kicks.4 Wigger took first place in Single Kick in that year. The first European championship occurred in Copenhagen the following year with Henrik Borring and Stephen Skriver taking first in net.5
At this time, the best way to obtain an official Hacky Sack® brand bag in Europe was through the several players’ associations that were springing up. In 1984, the French Footbag Association was organized by Pascal Marechal5 and the British Hacky Sack® Association (BHSA) by Ian Mitchell-Innes, who was an official Hacky Sack® distributor. In the BHSA welcome letter sent to new members, Garry Griggs commented on the emergence of these groups: “Players’ associations have been set up in Belgium, Denmark, America, Canada, and England to date, and many other countries are expected to follow shortly. By the end of 1985 it is anticipated that there will be well over six million players in participating countries throughout the world.”6
Also in 1984, two “Franks” formed the Belgian Footbag Federation: Frank Cotteleer and Frank Van Dyck, who were also official Hacky Sack® distributors. They put together a team of four high-school athletes (Dirk Horemans, Eric van de Leur, Danny Deceulaer, and Koen Peeters) to demonstrate the sport and invited Mag Hughes and his wife, Cheryl, to come to Belgium and train the team. “Frank Cotteleer’s business card was simple,” Mag remembers, “white with his title, marketing consultant and his name above in all lower case letters. He was a dignified European businessman, gracious, kind and always in a coat and tie. He loved sports and was a part owner in a Belgian professional basketball team. He was big on American fads and figured Hacky Sack®, the new American sport, was going to be big.”7 That same year, the Belgian national baseball team started a tradition of handing out footbags to opposing teams at major competitions that went on for years.8
Hughes worked with the Belgian team for several months while living in Antwerp. In addition to their training, the team visited schools, malls, sporting good stores, and various sporting events in Germany, Austria, and France. This small group of four Belgian demonstrators expanded into Team Hacky Sack®. The team included kickers from Europe and the U.S., with Tricia Sullivan George and Dave Robinson coming to Europe in 1984 for an eight-month tour. The various groups comprising Team Hacky Sack® would travel to holiday camps, shopping malls, beaches, and carnivals demonstrating footbag skills and interacting with the public. The UK members of Team Hacky Sack® included Garry Griggs, Simon Yates, Grant Montgomery, Ian Mitchell-Innes, Tina Lightning, and Simon Forrester, who would publicly demo “Powersack,”9 in which two people kicked back and forth, ten to twelve feet apart.
The Danish contingent of Team Hacky Sack® was formed when John Stalberger and his business partner came to Denmark to ask Wigger and Petersen to represent the sport throughout Europe. They were sent some Hacky Sack® product to be distributed both via direct sales, and as tournament prizes.
Wigger and Petersen first demonstrated in Paris, kicking as street performers in front of the Centre Pompadou that houses France’s National Museum of Modern Art. Centre Pompadou was a perfect venue for demonstrating footbag because it featured outdoor chairs and benches for drawing crowds. “We’d start kicking,” Petersen remembers, “and there would be a big circle of people around us.” Demand for footbags was high at these events and when the Hacky Sack® product ran out, they sold homemade bags hand-stitched on the train between appearances.
Other lengthy trips, including a month-long tour of Sweden, were undertaken by Petersen and his kicking partner Remi Kristensen. Mats Johansson, a Swedish Hacky Sack® distributor, had contracted Petersen and Kristensen to demonstrate at about thirty locations of the Åhléns department store, with daily shows held either outside or in the sporting goods area of the store.
By the end of 1984, a promotional blitz had exploded across Europe. Arsenal football stars Tony Woodcock of England and Charlie Nicholas of Scotland endorsed the sport of footbag,10 developing training methods and practicing together for the cameras. The World Footbag Association also sent a team to France, headed up by Garwin Bruce, to perform kicking demos for newspapers, television, radio, and at professional soccer games.
The BHSA had held the first UK Footbag Tournament earlier in 1984. Mag Hughes took down the Singles Consecutive and Net, with other firsts from Dirk Horemans and Erik van de Leur from the Belgian team, Dom Pasquariello, and Simon Yates. There were second place showings from Torben Wigger, Allan Petersen, and Paul Mehew, and a third place in Junior Singles Net from Graham Bull. Footbag popularity was growing quickly in England and the following year Garry Griggs and Allan Petersen appeared on the BBC’s kids program, Blue Peter, to perform footbag with the newest flourescent version of Hacky Sack®.11
Another tournament was held in Belgium in the summer of 1984. Only a small group of kickers participated: nine between the ages of 12 and 15, and eleven over the age of 16. But Hughes recalls those days as kicking with one big family. At the Belgian tournament, thirty-two people came together to offer a free lunch for the kickers and “eat together as one big family.”12
Another promotional push happened in Norway during the summer of 1985, when an ad agency representative was walking the streets of Copenhagen looking for campaign ideas for the Norwegian chain of Snappy Burger restaurants. The rep spotted Petersen and Kristensen kicking in the popular pedestrian mall near Helligåndskirken, a historic Danish church built in 1296. The rep was impressed with the sport and its ability to draw a crowd. She told them it was just the type of thing she was hoping to discover: something new and potentially trendy. She ended up contracting them to tour Norway on behalf of the Snappy Burger chain of restaurants where footbags and an instructional booklet were given out as toys in the kids’ meals. Petersen was also featured in a photo spread on restaurant placemats demonstrating the flying clipper. The tour included restaurant locations in Oslo, Trondheim, and Bergen. Albert Laverick replaced Petersen on this tour when he was called home due to the death of his father.
One problem Denmark was having was a very low rate of participation in the Danish High Society group. Eventually, that group disappeared and, as a result, Allan Petersen and Albert Laverick formed the Danish Footbag Association (DFA) in 1986 to fill the void.13 The group expanded on what Wigger had started and drew some of the later champion kickers including Albert Laverick, Remi Kristensen, Søren “Spoon” Ravnkilde, and Bjarne Everberg as a solid group of competitive kickers was forming in Denmark.
Because Petersen had reorganized the group into the DFA, promotional queries were now directed to him and he handled events including stage and television appearances in Denmark. The Hamburgische Landesbank in Germany sent a letter to Petersen in 1988 asking to hire kickers to perform at a private celebration of the bank’s 50th anniversary for their employees. Wigger, Petersen, and a few other members of the DFA performed. “They thought we were cheap entertainment,” Petersen recalls, “but we thought we got paid well.”
By the late 1980s, footbag was well established in Europe with tournaments being held in many countries. American kickers like Bill Betherum, Scott Cleere, and Craig Atkinson joined Mag Hughes in attending these tournaments, including locations at Donauinsel in Vienna, Austria and Dortmund, Germany (1986). And the European players were regularly traveling to American tournaments, as well, making the sport of footbag a truly global phenomenon.
- “The History of Footbag” footbagdenmark.dk/en/sporten.php?action=overblik&text=historie
- “The History of Footbag Net” www.footbag.org/reference/-/The_History_of_Footbag_Net#1982_-_Start_of_Footbag_Net_in_Europe
- Hughes, Scott. Online communication dated Mar. 25, 2021
- “The History of Footbag Net” http://www.footbag.org/reference/-/The_History_of_Footbag_Net
- “One More Giant Step” Footbag World (1984) p. 2
- Griggs, Garry. BHSA Welcome letter (1985)
- Email from Mag dated (Jan. 23, 2021)
- Chetwynd, Josh. The Secret History of Balls (2011)
- “Team Hacky Sack® News” Footbag Fever Spring 1985 newsletter p. 1
- “Soccer Stars Use Hacky Sack®” Footbag Fever, BHSA Newsletter (Autumn 1984) p. 2
- Footbag Fever, Spring 1985, p.1
- Message from Mag Hughes (Mar. 25, 2021)
- Danish Footbag Association, first meeting minutes, Petersen collection (1986)