Tetherball is a fun backyard game enjoyed on playgrounds and in backyards everywhere. But I wondered, how did hitting a ball on a rope attached to a pole start? After hours of research, I’ve found the answer.
Tetherball was invented in 1875 Britain, and originally used a tennis ball with rackets, sometimes called tether tennis, rather than the larger tetherball we know today. The use of a volleyball attached to a rope to play tetherball started sometime after 1895 when volleyball was invented.
There is much debate about the origins of tetherball, and since there’s no official governing body, tetherball is technically not a sport. Without any official records about the start of tetherball, it’s origins are easily argued. But here are some of the most plausible, and interesting, theories I’ve found.
Around the 1900’s tetherball started to become more popular. With patents being filled and companies like Spalding and Wright & Ditson creating versions of tetherball with sets of rules for sale. However at this time, tetherball was still played with a tennis ball wrapped in a net and tied to a pole with a rope.
Sometimes referred to as tether tennis or swingball, the game started to be played without rackets in some cases. By 1920, school yards and playgrounds started adding tetherball to their play areas.
With the rise in popularity of volleyball in the early 1900’s, and the fact that many people were playing tether tennis without rackets, it didn’t take long for a volleyball to replace the tennis ball as the tetherball.
Initially, people were wrapping a volleyball with a net and tying it in place of the tennis ball. This became the preferred way to play tetherball. Soon after, softer balls with a rope hook built in, specifically made to play tetherball with were introduced. Tetherball sets have been sold using this setup ever since.
Check out my Tetherball Cost and Compare Guide to see an example of popular modern tetherball sets.
Here’s a fun video showing what’s inside a modern day tetherball in case you were interested.
The origins of tetherball are not very clear, and there’s plenty of disagreement out there as to where the game got its roots. Some of the theories I’ve came across are unrealistic, but entertaining all the same. People have tried to relate tetherball to documented rituals as far back as the 9th century.
Let’s look at some of the most interesting tetherball origins theories out there, and then talk about what most likely happened.
This is one of the most gruesome theories I found during my search for tetherball origins. It may seem unrealistic, but back in the 800’s, these types of rituals did exist. This theory argues that tetherball evolved from a pagan ritual, or from barbarian cultures.
In the 9th century in west and central Asia, it is believed that soldiers may have cut off the head of their enemy’s, attached it to a pole with a rope, and hit the decapitated head back and forth for fun after a great victory. That sounds too vicious to me, but things were very different back then.
I can see how some very old barbarian or pagan rituals can seem similar to tetherball. Aside from using a ball rather than a head. But for an outdoor recreational game, I don’t see how soldiers playing with their defeated enemies could have transitioned into a fun village game that I would expect children could be a part of.
Here’s a nicer theory revolving around maypole dances. These were dances performed to celebrate the spring time, usually the planting of crops, an early harvest, or as a fertility dance. Village members would gather around a pole or tree and hold onto ropes that were tied to the top.
The layout of a maypole dance celebration is very closely related to the layout of a tetherball court. The argument is that tetherball evolved from this maypole set up. They eventually tied a small ball to the end of the hanging rope, and used it to play games during the celebrations.
Here’s an example maypole dance. You can see why it’s thought that tetherball courts could have been modeled after this dance.
Most Likely Theory
Out of all the theories I’ve come across, the most likely theory is very simple. When volleyball became more popular, people started combining tether tennis with a volleyball. The very first modern tetherball games actually used a volleyball attached to rope, rather than the softer tetherball we know today.
Sadly, this theory doesn’t have the fun and exciting origins of the other theories, but to me, it makes the most sense. I like to think maybe it was a combination of influences that led to the modern day tetherball we love and know today.
Modern day tetherball is an outdoor recreational activity without a professional league or official set of rules. Some tetherball sets will come with a set of rules, and the rules of the game are mostly universal. But there is no governing organization, and tetherball is not officially a sport.
There was a tetherball championship held in 2007, but before that, and since then, there have been no official leagues or tournaments. Here’s a video of that tetherball championship in Pattaya, Thailand.
As you can see, that championship was in no way regulated by any governing body. Any tetherball championships, are usually just set up by a group of people for fun.