In Social Sports, It’s About Camaraderie, Not Competition – New York Times

Robert Kinsler started United Fray in 2009. He was working as a real estate broker in Washington when he saw an article about leagues for Skee-Ball, the arcade game, in New York. He started his own league, charging $20 a person. At the start of the following year, several hundred people had signed up. He quit his job to focus on the league full time. Last year, United Fray had 45,000 participants in its leagues, he said, and it has expanded to Jacksonville, Fla., Phoenix and Philadelphia. Participants pay $35 to $120 to join a team.

The Sport & Social Industry Association said its 65 member companies had revenue of about $66 million in 2015, the most recent data available, with 1.2 million participants in its leagues. (The number of individual players is smaller than that: If you play in a soccer league and a dodge ball league, for example, you would be counted twice.)

Adult sports leagues have, of course, been around for a long time. Companies and communities organize softball, running, basketball, soccer, tennis, football and other teams. Many traditional leagues are single-sex and quite competitive.

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Most participants look for a social experience in a structured setting when they join a team.

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Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Social sports leagues, by contrast, generally cater to people like Ms. Keenan, who sign up on their own or with a small group of friends. Most of the leagues are gender-neutral. “You get to meet so many people,” she said. “It’s not super-competitive, and kickball is a very accessible sport.”

Robert Herzog founded the social sports company ZogSports with a touch football league in Manhattan in 2002. He narrowly missed being at his office on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower on Sept. 11. In the following months, he re-evaluated his life and created the league with the goal of creating fun, caring communities.

Most participants are looking for a social experience. “It is all about you creating a personal connection with other people,” he said.

Like Ms. Keenan, most of the people signing up for social sports leagues today are urban professionals in their 20s and 30s.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, said people in their 20s today were less likely to be married or living with a partner than in previous generations, so they had fewer social connections and were looking for more ways to make friends.

Many people are drawn to the structure of social sports, she said. “They played in structured sports leagues, they did structured activities as children,” she said.

And after they leave college, that structure — classes, intramural and club sports and other such activities — disappears. “That can be a very difficult transition, and social sports can help to fill that gap,” said Ms. Twenge, who is the author of “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.”

Growing interest in social sports is fueling expansion among young and old companies alike. ZogSports had 125,000 participants in six cities last year. Chris Hastings, president of Chicago Sport & Social Club, said 75,000 people participated in its leagues in Chicago and another 20,000 did so in Dallas. His company has also acquired an outfit that organizes social leagues for college students.

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Robert Kinsler started United Fray in 2009. Last year, United Fray had 45,000 participants in its leagues in four cities. Participants pay $35 to $120 to join a team.

Credit
Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Chris Giebner and his wife, Tracey, own Tampa Bay Club Sport, which is expanding beyond millennials. His firm offers leagues aimed at older players and youth leagues catering to 3- to 17-year-olds in hopes that as the students get older, they will stick with his company.

Five years ago, in Kansas City, Mo., when Luke Wade, a software developer, couldn’t find a sports league in the heart of the city, he started his own. The first year, nearly 1,000 people signed up with his company, KC Crew. Six years later, the company is his full-time job, and he expects that this year more than 6,000 people will end up playing in leagues that include flag football, tennis and that singing sport, karaoke.

“Kansas City has done a great job attracting tech companies and millennials to the downtown urban core,” Mr. Wade said. The growth has created so much demand for sports leagues that he is working with the city’s parks department to find more nearby fields to play on.

As with professional sports, social sports leagues often have commercial tie-ins. Mr. Hastings of Chicago Sport & Social Club said Corona beer, Wilson Sporting Goods and Chipotle Mexican Grill had been among the sponsors of his leagues.

Scott Robinson, the manager of events and sponsorships at Chipotle, said he had played in a social sports league and appreciated small perks like discounted beer at a “sponsor bar” — typically, a bar to which the sports leagues point their members.

Chipotle provides players with items like drawstring bags, sunglasses, eye black and lip balm. “It is a really good way to connect with people in a fun environment that’s not overly branded,” Mr. Robinson said. Chipotle began sponsoring Chicago Sport & Social Club last year and has since expanded to leagues in 12 cities.

Corona has sponsored a daylong beach volleyball tournament and party, said Rene Ramos, senior director of sponsorships for Constellation Brands’ beer division, which owns Corona. Connecting with sports league players in such settings can be very desirable, he said. “Engaging with their friends and family members, playing in a league, competing, it is personal to them,” he said. “For us to be integrated into a personal moment, that takes it to the next level.”

In Ms. Keenan’s league, there isn’t much emphasis on winning. The games can be fun, regardless. During that recent Sunday game, few players were even aware of the score: Kickers Gonna Kick lost by six runs to its opponent, the Free Ballers. The loss elicited a few laughs as the players hugged and then walked across the Mall together toward a sponsor bar.


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