“We soak a ball of toilet paper with white gasoline,” says Rusty Oliver. The toilet paper ball is attached to a cable which is attached to the top of a pole, tetherball-style. And then: “We light that on fire.”
Why on Earth would you do that? Because, Oliver explains, “Flaming frisbee did not go well.”
Oliver claims the distinction of having invented the sport of Flaming Tetherball at his metal fabrication facility in South Park. Now, after two decades of informal games with friends, he’s dreaming of turning it into something bigger, more official, and franchised. But he’s taking an approach that’s surprisingly cautious for someone whose idea of a good time is whacking high-speed fireballs.
Oliver says he cooked up the game in 2000, around his 30th birthday. “I was trying deliberately to create a sport that had an element of flame as a central thing,” he said. An initial proposal involving frisbees was a little too terrifying, but tetherball seemed to work better. The rules of the game are a bit different from normal tetherball: in this version, the goal is to keep the ball in motion, and the score is assigned by how often a player hits it with a tennis racket. The ball is in play until it burns out or can’t be hit safely.
And then there’s the safety gear: Goggles, gloves, and rubber sleeves are all required to prevent injury. Speaking of injury… how concerned should we be?
“We’ve had no significant injuries,” Oliver says. In two decades, “nobody’s needed anything other than a Band-Aid.”
Part of the fun, he says, is the perception of risk. “Some folks watch NASCAR ... not really to watch cars go around the track,” he says. “People watch NASCAR because there’s a sense of risk, there’s a sense of imminent danger.”
But the reality, he says, is that when played correctly, Flaming Tetherball isn’t dangerous at all. And it’s not just about brute force—he says strategy and tactics are key to delivering a serve that’s hard for your opponent to return. Oliver likens it to fencing: “If anything’s important, it’s steady nerves.”
For now, the games are played at his studio, Hazard Factory, once or twice a month. He’d like to take it public, but he says, “I had a couple miserable business experiences around my intellectual property.” Maintaining control of the Flaming Tetherball brand is a priority. (Yes, he had it trademarked.)
In a perfect world, he says, “I’d buy a small bar someplace with a parking lot and make that one of the things we can do, the way people are doing the axe-throwing thing. ... I want to create an international league with people who are card-carrying members.” Members, he says, would all agree to standard rules and a code of conduct.
But he’s wary about rushing into things. About a decade ago, Oliver and friends embarked on a similarly chaotic endeavor called Smash Putt, a sort of explosive form of mini-golf. He says the relationships eventually soured and now he’s guarded about someone else trying to assert ownership over his hot new sport.
“I’m kind of a pyromaniac, and I know how pyromaniacs work,” he says. “And the thing that makes this a reasonable proposition, safe enough to do, is the fact that we know what we’re doing.”
For now, he says, he’s looking for a vacant lot where he can establish a base of operations, and maybe build some bleachers so spectators can enjoy the scene. After all, what could be a more American sport?
“I played baseball a lot as a kid,” says Oliver. “This is a lot more exciting than that.”