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Fans flock to online marble races with Iowa commentator amid sports cancellations

Hillary Ojeda
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Greg Woods is originally from in Iowa. 

Social distancing, canceled sports events and mounting anxiety in light of coronavirus have led people to rediscover of a corner of the internet that remote groups around the world already knew all too much about.

Marble racing.

Created by Dutch brothers Jelle and Dion Bakker, the videos, which are produced in Jelle's studio in Nijmegen, Netherlands, show multi-colored handfuls of marbles racing down paths on sandy hills or Formula 1-inspired tracks. The marbles have names and fan-created social media accounts.

In addition to the mesmerizing movement of the marbles, the commentator's seriousness while narrating the competitions has captivated viewers.

And one of the frequent "sportscasters" who offers breathless coverage of the gravity-driven sport is from right here in the Hawkeye state.

Iowan Greg Woods has provided commentary on at least 75 of the videos since the summer of 2016, and says the last few days have been surreal. Although he is originally from Newton, he currently resides in Fort Dodge.

The voice of Iowa native Greg Woods is well-known among the fervent fans of marble racing.

"It blows my mind the reach of things like this," he told the Press-Citizen. "I'm just the person shouting about the marbles rolling down the hill."

A program specialist and research champion for the Alzheimer's Association Iowa Chapter, the sports-fanatic-turned commentator is also a 2015 graduate of the University of Iowa College of Public Health’s Master of Public Health program. He said the intersection of his professional interests with his love for sports, and marbles, has been mind-boggling.

"We wish we weren't in this situation, but to know that we're helping people fill that void where sports would be is nice to see," he said.

Jelle's Marbles Runs public relations manager, Anton Weber, told the Press-Citizen on Tuesday that the company reached a million views on Monday on its YouTube channel alone.

Weber, who also goes by his username Mellacus, said one has gone particularly viral on Twitter gaining more than 30 million views. 

TIME Magazine and Newsweek, among other news outlets, have written about the latest burst in popularity of the videos. TIME reporter Megan McCluskey spoke with comedian and author Elijah Daniel after he shared the viral Jelle's Marble Runs video.

Daniel told the magazine that Woods was a major part of the appeal to the videos.

“The commentating really is good,” he told TIME. “It does resemble real sports, in a lot of ways, and he approaches it with a professionalism that wouldn’t normally align with something as silly as marble racing, which adds to the entertainment value.”

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Jelle Bakker had long been making marble runs, but it wasn't until 2016 that he and his brother took things to the next level, launching the marble league, an "Olympic" tournament for marbles, and Marbula One, a Formula 1-style race for marbles, among other events.

Marble fans in Jelle Bakker’s studio in Nijmegen, Netherlands, on April 9, 2019.

"Our recent popularity can be explained with the worldwide cancellation of sports events, I think," said Weber, the public relations manager. "People are forced to move out of their preferred content comfort zone and as a result are more open to crazy ideas like our marble races."

The team hopes that in this time of crisis, the videos can be a form of comfort for some.

"We always wanted to spread positive vibes and excitement about the little things in life with our content, give people a little universe to escape everything that's happening in the real world," he added. "And now, more than ever, we're doing our best to continue with that, because we're in this unique position of being able to continue our series."

The Bakkers reached out to Woods in 2016 after he posted a video with his commentary because he thought it would be fun. It was so popular among their fans, he said, that they asked him if he wanted to do the commentary for all their videos.

Jelle Bakker sets up the starting gate for a test run of the water race in his studio in Nijmegen, Netherlands, on April 9, 2019.

He never expected the videos to viewed by so many people and for awhile, he said, he didn't think to even tell family members about it. His father only found out Woods was doing the commentary when a friend of his showed him a video of it thinking he would like it. Woods said his dad recognized his voice.

"One day he asked me, 'Do you do this?'" he recalled.

It was his dad who introduced him to his favorite sport, Formula 1 racing. Woods was intrigued by the sport and commentary from a young age. He said he gradually gained experience by speech competitions in high school, sports commentary at Drake University and most recently for a high school in Fort Dodge

He said his role in the production is just one part of a global effort by Jelle's Marble Runs contributors.

When asked if he had a favorite marble, Woods was quick to answer.

"As a commentator, I must remain impartial," he said. "I love a good sports story."

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