Why marble racing’s popularity is soaring while other sports are stopped

The fans are tense and cheering, the competition narrows as players who have worked and trained their whole lives for this see victory right in front of them, many overcoming hardship and injuries to be here. Hundreds of thousands of viewers tune in to see if their favorite will take home the trophy and sit atop the podium at the end. Yes, I’m talking about the world of professional marble racing. 

Marble racing sounds peculiar at first glance, but one race in and you’ll see the appeal: 

It all starts with Yelle Bakker and his brother Dion, who both live in the Netherlands. They go to extreme lengths to make the professional marble tracks and environments for their competitions, Marbula One, Marble League and Marble Fan Rally, about more than just gravity-driven randomness. Their attention to detail, production value and humor — mixed with the broadcasting voice of Greg Woods — has elevated this sport to a worldwide phenomenon. 

CBS Sports spoke with Woods, who got into marble racing broadcasting in 2016 after stumbling upon the races on Reddit. After his first video broadcasting the races went viral, the Bakkers asked him to do every race. Despite never meeting, the brothers and Woods are now forever connected through this niche sport. 

A non-profit worker from Iowa by day, Woods shifts into sports commentator mode when the marble videos are sent to him. He offers his thoughts on the action, making sure to talk about the races like he would for a human sport.

“My job is hopefully not to mess it up on the first run through,” Woods said, adding that he sends in his first takes so fans get his genuine reaction to the action. “Sometimes I will mess up, but I ride the rollercoaster with the fans and I think that’s what makes it so much fun.”

Broadcasting marble racing is far from easy. There is no glossary of terms, so Woods says it’s a learning process. He does, however, take terms and concepts from other sports, specifically racing, to make it seem as understandable as possible. Still, Woods knows this is not something everyone is familiar with.

“So often I get the response of, ‘That sounds a little weird’ or I can see the look of skepticism on their face, but all too often once they start watching this, it’s a very short amount of time before they’re getting behind it and starting to cheer for the marbles,” he said.

Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, nearly every sport around the globe has come to a halt. As a result, people have discovered marble racing. One of their videos went viral recently and as a result new fans have flocked to their Twitter and YouTube pages. 

Woods says they have seen tens of thousands of more fans just this week on their social media pages. With an increase of around 75,000 new subscribers, they are up to well over 700,000 subscribers total on YouTube and have four million views this the week alone.

“Obviously we wish we weren’t in this situation to begin with. We are filling this vacuum that exists in sports right now and I think this response to it is very telling about the role that sports usually plays in our lives. It helps people to not just root for something sports related, but to kind of get away a bit,” Woods said. “Because it is packaged in this light-hearted, but very detailed, high production value sort of thing, it helps draw people in and create the suspension of disbelief.”

High production is an understatement. Marble racing does not just include the marbles on the rack. There are marbles in the stands as well, representing the colors of the marble team they are rooting for. There are marbles posed as cameramen and referees, VIP seats for the “fans,” stats flashing on the screen, advertisements along the stadium and jumbotrons.

Sometimes Yelle will even put in a note to Woods to say there’s a marble streaker on the course or a fight in the stands. Woods says the Bakkers take everything into account and their approach is as unique as it is thorough. Some races have opening and closing ceremonies where the marbles roll out knocking over dominoes to reveal the race logo, anthems play and confetti drops during podium ceremonies. There’s even a mini trophy for the champ.

With everything personified, it’s easy to buy into this alternate marble universe.

One year, the marblebase (aka fanbase) was shook after an injury nearly stole the career of a young marble with endless potential. During an event involving high-speed fidget spinners, two marbles collided, chipping Momomomo from Team Momo.

Momomomo was seen with a single crutch during for the rest of the year, and Team Momo became the first team to draft an alternate, with Momomomo obviously unable to compete. The team who’s marble was involved in the collision helped pay for the medical bills.

“It was a huge deal online because people were very concerned with the well being and ‘Oh my gosh it’s the end of his career and how is the team going to move forward’ … It was astounding. But I’m happy to report that marble did make a full recovery,” Woods said.

Intricate marble stories like this are all thanks to the fans, who “put out memes and make fan accounts for the marbles and the teams,” Woods said.

The sport’s rise in popularity has been thrilling, and Woods is hoping that these races can put smiles on faces and do what all sports do: distract people for a bit.

“If we can do our part, and we can spread some happiness during this or give people a chance to escape, then we are thrilled to do it,” Woods said.

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