I had only the vaguest notion of the game. It turns out Bocce has been around for a couple of thousand years in some form (thank the Romans) and developed into its most common form in modern Italy. Thanks to Italian immigrants, it spread around the world and has become quite popular in many places. It may be on the verge of a break-out in North America and Knoxville is likely to be one of the places leading the way.
The game at its most basic is simple enough: Two teams of four players attempt to throw metal (or heavy plastic) balls the closest to the “jack” or different ball. The team with the closest ball to the jack collects a point or points for each round. Strategy comes into play with throws designed to move the jack, among other things. Hops and Hollers has been hosting games on a court they built outside the bar for some time.
I spoke to Alex Gera of American Bocce Company about their plans to elevate Knoxville Bocce to the next level. He told me it all started four years ago when he tired of looking at an abandoned lot across the street from his home in Chicago. Filled with weeds, liter and broken glass, it was an eyesore and he decided something should be done to improve it. He considered a community garden, but really wanted to do something unique. On a camping trip with friends, while playing – you guessed it – bocce, the idea was hatched to turn the lot into a bocce court.
The abandoned property, which he said had been empty for forty years, soon came to life. He and friends built the court and added seating and grills so people could cook out, watch or participate in the games or just enjoy the scene. The success was resounding and teams and leagues started forming. With a significant amount of money invested and with the project becoming more of a full-time job, the company, which now consists of Alex, Ben Tudor, Alicia Harvey and Matt David, began a website to track leagues and player statistics and to coordinate tournaments. They expanded to other parts of the city and into the suburbs.
Throughout 2014 and 2015 they worked to make the game more easily transportable. They coordinated with Packaworld to produce Packabocce, portable courts and equipment which could easily be set up anywhere and began offering corporate or private group events. The equipment has been sent to Germany, Israel and other places around the world. They began work with the Special Olympics which includes bocce as a competitive sport. And they began looking outside Chicago.
Determined to export the exciting bocce scene that had developed in Chicago, they began to look for other cities that might be conducive to that scene. They considered Asheville, attracted by its reputation and its thriving craft beer culture. But they kept hearing about Knoxville with its emergent craft beer scene, learned that Hops and Hollers had introduced the game, so they investigated the potential here. Ultimately, they selected Knoxville along with New Orleans and Boston. (You may pause and read that sentence again, if you like.) Other cities will follow.
“Beer and bocce go together,” Alex told me. The competition is real, but the camaraderie is more important. One of the fun twists they often apply to the game is that contestants must hold a drink while throwing. He pointed out that’s a pretty unique inclusion in any sport. Highland Brewing Company, which is based in Asheville but is served at Hops and Hollers, was another connecting point leading them in this direction. After talking with the owners at Hops and Hollers and Arthur Todd, the bartender there, they decided this was the place to start. Arthur will be the local manager for the league.
The plan is to create a Knoxville Bocce Club and to build a league culture around it. All the competition will be funneled through the American Bocce Company website. The fact that competition can be held outside more months of the year than in Chicago is seen as a great advantage for Knoxville. The Great Smoky Mountains Curling Club (curling) is also supporting the effort and may become involved.
The model includes incentives for everyone. The cost is about $8 a week for someone who is in a league at the height of the tournament season – a similar cost to a bowling league. Contestants will get drink specials and can win prizes. Participating businesses get more customers, the manager is paid a portion of the dues and the company takes a portion for the coordination.
It all kicks off tomorrow night at 7:30 at Hops and Hollers. Eric will be in town for the event which will feature mini-tournaments. Prizes and beer will be available, of course, and the rules and styles of play (there are many variations) adopted by this company will be presented. They hope to have leagues starting in May.
Curious? Come check it out and support a new “neighborhood” kind of game.