Play Ball! Introducing the Mesoamerican Ball Game

The Mesoamerican ball game became the New World’s first organized team sport. It seems to have started around 1600 B.C. No courts were discovered from that time—only balls. The first ball court was built by the Maya in 1400 B.C. at Paso de la Amada. 1,300 courts have been found all over Mesoamerica, though the size of the courts varies.

The only eyewitness account of the game comes from Spanish priest Diego Duran. He saw Aztec games played in the 1570s. At that time, courts were shaped like the letter I. They had a central alley with sloping walls. On top of the walls, spectators could watch the game. There was no standard size for the courts; they varied between 100-200 ft. Stucco floors painted with the city’s patron deity acted as a kind of mascot for the team.


A Mayan ball court in Uxmal, Mexico. Image by Tato Grasso, April 2007.

Aztec teams had between four and six players. They bounced a solid rubber ball back and forth using their buttocks and their knees. It was against the rules to use their feet or their hands. A center line was drawn down the court. The goal for each team was to get the ball back to the other side of the court by bouncing the ball only once on their side.

A team lost points if more than once bounce occurred or the ball went out of bounds. Points were earned by hitting the back wall of the opponent’s side. Most players guarded the back line so it was hard to score. A couple of players stayed up front to try and return balls. At the center line, rings were placed high up on the walls. If a team managed to get the ball through the ring they won automatically, but this was very difficult to do, especially without the use of their hands.

The ball was made of solid rubber and could kill a player if they were hit with it in the face or the stomach. Players who had survivable injuries viewed them as a badge of honor. Players often got injured because they didn’t have much protective gear. They wore only loincloths, thigh pads, and gloves.

Ball games were spectator sports. The audience bet on the outcome of the game, though nobles obviously bet more than the poor. People bet their land, crops, and some even sold themselves into slavery. Nobles had the best seats to watch the game. Afterward, the players expected them to throw gifts to the winning team. If some nobles tried to leave without giving anything to the winning team, those players were allowed to rob them.

The game served an important function in communities beyond just entertainment. Since each city had a team, disputes between cities could be resolved via a ball game. This solution was more practical and less bloody than starting a war.

Unlike many of today’s sports figures, Aztec ball players were unpaid and poor. They received some gifts and gambling earnings, but not enough to support themselves. Their payment came in the form of fame if they won. Many of the less successful players ended up as slaves to nobles.

The Mesoamerican ball game is still played today. It’s called Ulama de cadera, which means hip ball. Cancun brings in ball players to attract tourists. Guatemala has a national team and is trying to revive the game.

Travel Brochure for Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs didn’t have brochures in the fifteenth century. Based on their experiences with the Spanish conquistadors, they weren’t looking to attract many tourists, either. If they had a brochure for visitors to their capital of Tenochtitlan, however, it might have read something like this:

Welcome to Tenochtitlan!

The Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan makes every city in the New World look small, and some in the Old World, too. An estimated 200,000 people live here, compared to 150,000 in fifteenth century Paris.


Mural by Diego Rivera showing life in Aztec city Tenochtitlan

Places to visit include:

The City Zoo

Don’t miss seeing the zoo, the likes of which have never been seen by Europeans. The first section houses birds of prey such as eagles. The second section houses reptiles, mammals, and exotic birds. The Spanish call most of the mammals lions because they’ve never seen an ocelot or mountain lion before. These big cats are fed parts of sacrificial victims. The Spanish find this disgusting, but it is unwise to voice your opinion as a tourist. Among the reptiles you can see rattlesnakes, or as the Spanish like to call them, “snakes with music in their tails.”

Public Theater

Aztecs enjoy all kinds of art, and artists are treated with respect. The theater, or cuicacalli, which means house of song, has several different functions. It is both an opera house and a school of music for youth. Young people who have musical talent can come there and learn to play the drums, the flutes, or trumpets.

The theater is also the place where dances are performed for the community. Aztecs like to refer to dancing as “singing with your feet,” so singing and dancing are naturally performed under one roof.

Botanical Gardens

As you make your way around the city you will notice the fine public gardens. The finest garden in Tenochtitlan, however,  belongs to King Moctezuma. His palace houses plants from every part of Mesoamerica, even ones that should not be able to grow here. Between 300-500 gardeners check on the hundreds of plant species. If one species dies, then an expedition is sent out to get another sample.

Tlatelolco Market

Tlatelolco is the sister city of Tenochtitlan. When you walk through its marketplace, you can find merchants selling pottery, cloth, gold, and jewelry. Slave auctions also take place here. After shopping you will probably be hungry. The marketplace has many restaurants that serve food from all over Mesoamerica. Entertainment is available from street dancers and singers. Overall the marketplace is a great spot for families to spend time together and for residents to socialize.


Model of Templo Mayor by S. Shepherd, 23 Nov. 2006

Templo Mayor

Downtown you can see the Templo Mayor from a great distance. It is 60 meters tall, and has two flights of steps that lead to two temples at the top. Each temple is a different color–blue for the rain god, and red for the war god. Daily sacrifices are performed to appease the gods. The heart is cut out of the human being sacrificed. The Spanish are a bit queasy about this practice, but Moctezuma has warned them to act like the guests that they are in the city.