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Getting ball rolling -- with you inside

Sphere USA brings a globally popular recreation stateside. Don't worry, say the Chicago proprietors, no one has vomited yet.

August 05, 2007|Josh Noel | Chicago Tribune

MT. BRIGHTON, MICH. — If you throw up, you get a free T-shirt.

But that was little consolation to Pam Wood, 58, as she was about to roll down a hill while strapped to the inside wall of a large plastic ball: up and down, left and right, round and round, tumbling like clothes in the dryer.

Beside her grandchildren at the bottom of the hill, Wood had been the picture of bravery. But at the top, she began to doubt.

"Boy, it seems a lot shorter looking up than down," she said.

Thirty scream-filled seconds later, Wood was back where she started, her family waiting. She climbed out of the ball, dazed, her forehead glistening.

"Was that fun, Nana?" her 14-year-old granddaughter asked.

"No, that was not," said Wood, who did not qualify for a T-shirt. "But we'll talk about this for years to come."

Sphere USA, started by two friends who met as options traders in Chicago eight years ago, offers the only opportunity in this country to experience "sphere-ing" or "zorbing": rolling down a 700-foot slope in a clear, inflatable PVC ball at about 25 mph.

Though many prospective riders' first question is about the odds of throwing up, proprietor Robert Pelon, 34, says no one has been sickened by the experience.

"You expect to get dizzy, but what you get is confused -- which end is up and stuff," Pelon said. "You are too disoriented to get sick."

The activity can be found this summer only on Mt. Brighton, 20 miles north of Ann Arbor, but it probably won't be obscure for long. Two companies are racing to grab hold of the American market for an amusement already popular across the globe.

SphereMania, a British company, has planted the first seeds with Sphere USA, the American franchise started by Pelon and Dan Teuscher, 32. Its prime competitor, the New Zealand-based Zorb, is readying a site near the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

SphereMania dominates England, but Zorb has a wider reach, with sites in Sweden, Japan, Germany and Poland, among others.

Sphere USA hopes to have three more sites next summer, 10 within five years and as many as 20 within 10 years. Think Tahoe and New England mountainsides, Florida spring breaks, military bases and college campuses -- anywhere there is disposable income and adventurers willing to roll in a ball like so many hamsters.

"There's a race going on," Pelon said. "We're in it to win it."

Officials at Zorb did not respond to calls. News stories last summer touted an imminent opening in Tennessee, but the facility remains under construction.

Both companies offer two types of the sport: a harness version -- the kind Pam Wood braved -- in which a rider is strapped in at the shoulders, hips and feet and rolls end over end. The result is usually a sweaty, dazed participant.

The other is the tamer aqua ride, in which a rider climbs into the ball with about 5 gallons of water and rides unharnessed down the hill while the ball spins, bounces and rolls. Generally two people ride the harness sphere at a time to balance weight, which creates a smoother ride. One to three people can ride in the aqua sphere; riders do not go head over feet and pretty much just sit upright.

At Sphere USA, the per-person cost is $22 for one ride, $35 for two, $45 for three and $50 for four.

Both rides at Sphere USA come in balls that are actually two orbs working together -- a 12-foot-diameter ball on the outside that has, fixed in its center by 500 shock-absorbing straps, a 6-foot ball where the participant is harnessed. Future generations of the ball could include video cameras to capture the experience and an opaque version putting riders in the dark as they tumble down the hill.

Investing in the sport has been a no-brainer for Pelon since he first saw zorbing featured on MTV in 2003. He said he talked with Zorb about starting a North American operation but was rebuffed.

He turned to SphereMania, and flew to England with Teuscher in 2005.

"After the first ride we weren't sure what we had just experienced: 'Was that super cool or was it not super cool?' " Pelon recalled. "Then we did it three more times and it was awesome."

Pelon and Teuscher went in on the rights to SphereMania in the U.S. and Mexico, buying the American rights for slightly less than $100,000.

They looked at seven locations for their first site, but ended up staying close to Pelon's home in Northville, Mich., after his wife became pregnant.

"Don't get me wrong, I like it here," Pelon said of the southern Michigan site. "But when you're sitting in Tahoe or Hawaii, it'll be a little better."

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