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The Oregonian, August 12, 2009

From kickball to pingpong, sport and social clubs gain popularity in Portland and beyond
by Rachel Bachman, The Oregonian

Monday August 10, 2009, 7:26 PM

Canvas chairs snap into place, beer cans hiss open and a dozen men and women in pink T-shirts and garish knee-high socks huddle for a cheer. They conclude with their team name—“Catching Something on 82nd!”—and charge the field at North Portland’s Overlook Park for another game of kickball.

Portland-based Recesstime Sports, which runs this league along with dodge ball, bowling and Ping-Pong leagues, and Seattle-based Underdog Sports Leagues, which also operates in Portland, have exploded in popularity. Reservations for kickball alone by the two groups at Portland parks have skyrocketed from 50 hours in 2005 to 1,450 hours last summer.
But Portland is but a blip of a boom in “sport and social clubs,” now found in nearly every decent-size city from Philadelphia to Pasadena. Chicago, birthplace of the concept, has two competing sport and social clubs that total about 100,000 members plus satellite clubs in 13 cities nationwide.

As the economy falters and traditional parks-and-rec leagues erode, the clubs are creating active, postcollege communities for increasingly mobile young professionals.

“It’s a way of connecting with other people, having a basis to talk to someone else,” said Amy Short, founder and president of the NYC Social Sports Club.

“If you walk down the street and you start talking to someone on the sidewalk or maybe on the train or the bar, nine times out of 10 people think you’re a lunatic. But you can go up to that really cute guy on the blue team and say, ‘Hey, how’d your team do tonight?’”

Meeting grounds

Clubs vary in approach, but most share several characteristics: They cater to twenty- and thirtysomethings (many require players to be over 21), emphasize co-ed teams, feature playground sports and include social components such as sponsor-backed bar gatherings and end-of-season parties.

The Backyard Ballers, a flag football team that plays in an Underdog league, illustrates the clubs’ allure. On a recent Sunday afternoon the Ballers filled a long table at the Buffalo Gap in Southwest Portland, green T-shirts damp from a humid game.

The Ballers boast three former college football players, including quarterback Doug Jones, 24, a few years removed from Division III Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, and many on the team played intramural sports.

“We’re just scared stiff of being out-of-shape desk jockeys,” said Paul Van Gasse, a 24-year-old mechanical engineer at Xerox and regular substitute on the team.

But the league’s social draw is equally strong. Many of the Ballers signed up alone and Underdog placed them on a team, a service difficult to find in traditional leagues. Team member Jessica Noble, a 27-year-old who works in a medical clinic, said she discovered Underdog on the Internet and first signed up for a bowling league after moving from Denver.

“My friend and I had this discussion recently: How do we meet people after college?” Noble said. She seems to have answered the question: Noble met her roommate through flag football.

Other team members hail from Seattle, San Diego, Cleveland—even Melbourne, Australia. Transplants drive much of the growth in sport and social clubs, as the percentage of U.S. residents living outside the state where they were born keeps climbing. In Oregon, non-natives make up well over 50 percent of the population, according to census figures.

Sport and social clubs also provide a more organic atmosphere for romance than night clubs or dating Web sites. Club officials say countless couples have met on their fields and courts, and some club sites even include member profiles.

“We had one guy that called us and asked if he could borrow one of the gyms that we use on Friday night because he met his girlfriend playing floor hockey there, and wanted to propose to her at the gym,” said Jason Erkes, president of the Chicago Sport and Social Club. “Of course we obliged.”

Ironically, it is people increasingly delaying marriage and children—or forgoing them altogether—that drives demand for the clubs. The median age of a first marriage in the U.S. has risen more than three years since 1980 to 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women, according to a 2003 census survey.

“When you have men remaining unmarried for that long, they have to become their own social secretaries,” said Stephanie Coontz, an author and social historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia. “And we have seen this in a lot of ways.

“Independently of the recession, the ‘bromance’ films are a reaction to what’s already going on—and that is an increased interest among young men in finding guy friends and not doing it all through their girlfriend or wife.”

Fun during lean times

Meanwhile, 1972 federal legislation banning gender discrimination in schools spawned generations of women athletes who grew up playing team sports.

It was a woman who, missing the intramural sports she played in college, started a flag football league in Chicago. Twenty years later, the Chicago Sport and Social Club has 75,000 members and a wide range of sports and activities—including a popular lakefront volleyball league—and is growing about 10 percent a year, Erkes said.

Managers tout the clubs as inexpensive entertainment in lean times. Registration for a seven- to 11-week club season runs about $60 to $100 per person, depending on the city and activity, and league registration often includes a T-shirt, food and drink specials and a spirit of celebration.

Kickball fees in Portland even cover an alcohol permit, and fields are flanked by grills, studded with cans of Pabst and populated with teams such as Who Killed Keiko? and Man Chest Hair United.

Sport and social clubs have become so entrenched, they’re taking over parks and recreation leagues that have suffered for decades from declining funding. The club Sports Monster, which has 11 locations including Chicago city and suburbs, contracts with St. Louis and two suburbs to run their basketball and softball leagues. Underdog is managing leagues for the Washington cities of Everett and Burien, said Shawn Madden, Underdog’s majority owner.

Not everyone embraces the sport-and-social-club trend. Some in Chicago have complained about the for-profit groups monopolizing public park space. Portland, which gives field priority to youth sports, occasionally receives concerned calls about kickball’s rapid expansion and faces the challenge of balancing those competing interests, said Shawn Rogers, customer service manager for Portland Bureau of Parks & Recreation.

But for now the clubs are thriving, and it’s easy to see why. After Catching Something on 82nd won its game Thursday—the name references an avenue notorious for prostitution—it popped a bottle of champagne and danced in its spray. Christine Meyer, a 32-year-old graduate student at OHSU who also plays dodge ball and bowls through sport and social clubs, reveled in her team’s celebration.

Said Meyer: “You don’t get to be silly that much.”