Thanks to an unexpected visit by Canada’s first father last week, the Ontario volleyball championships were a considerably more high-profile event than usual. Stephen Harper was in the stands at RIM Park in Waterloo, Ont., cheering on his 13-year-old son Ben. Harper declined interviews; his spokesman told reporters, “This is just a dad here watching his son play volleyball”—which, considering the popularity of the sport, is becoming a surprisingly ordinary activity.
According to John-Paul Cody-Cox, executive director of Volleyball Canada, the star-powered tournament is part of a larger trend. While the organization doesn’t compile overall participation data, Cody-Cox says the national championships have ballooned from 530 teams in 2005 to 780 this year—a good measure of the “uptick in interest.” On top of “a huge boom” in travel teams, with parents increasingly willing to pay for tournaments, he says the sport has also experienced growth in recreational adult leagues.
In terms of participation, volleyball may have even eclipsed baseball. According to a 2008 Statistics Canada report, the number of people playing baseball plummeted from 1.3 million in 1998 to 520,000 in 2005—and just barely stayed ahead of volleyball as the country’s sixth most popular sport. More recent overall participation stats aren’t available, but it’s likely volleyball has now passed baseball. (Baseball Canada insists its numbers don’t capture the full picture, but its annual president’s report charts a 50 per cent drop in membership from 2004 to 2009.)
Due to volleyball’s non-contact, highly social nature, Cody-Cox says its popularity should come as no surprise. As for Ben Harper, who wears No. 8 for the Ottawa Fusion, Cody-Cox says he could have a future in the sport. “He’s got long arms and big feet,” he says. “You never know.”