Violently colliding with a sweaty stranger. Exchanging some unkind words in their face. Giving that same person a high-five for their effort. Before the outbreak of coronavirus, I was paying good money to do this, in two separate recreational soccer leagues. Now, both of these leagues are in limbo, with the future of the organizations uncertain to both league organizers and players.
During a time when people are dying and the economy is shut down, the industry seems disposable by its very description: recreational sports. Offerings vary from bowling, to bocce, to "beer league" softball, to more intense basketball and soccer leagues.
But it is a huge business—organizations like Zog Sports and Basketball City support hundreds of teams at a time —and people look to these leagues to blow off steam from both their personal and work lives. But are these organizations equipped to handle a prolonged shutdown? Playground Sports told VICE they're expecting to return to play in 2021, while others hope to resume as soon as July.
Organized recreational sports have lots of variable costs: the more games that are played, the more field staff is required, the more field permits need to be attained. Some leagues, like Playground Sports, are relatively small outfits in one market; others, like Zog Sports, operate across the country. Another national organization, Volo, offers multiple sports, and its paid adult leagues fund a non-profit that runs free sports leagues for children. (I have played in both Zog and Volo leagues.)
When games are cut to zero, the support staff, just like comedy clubs, are left without work.
"I'd say our biggest concern right now is the reopening of all the facilities we use," Bec Williams, the founder of Eugene, Oregon's Playground Sports said. "That will be our biggest struggle. Because some of these facilities may not reopen if we continue to be shut down for too long of a period."
Specifically, Williams is worried about mom-and-pop bowling alleys.
Based on projections she's heard, Williams is thinking recreational sports might not return until 2021. Williams expressed a concern that once sports are allowed to resume, people will be hesitant to spend their money on recreational sports. In the meantime, she's thinking about other ways to provide entertainment and collect revenue.
"We are going to try to run a golf tournament, because all of the social distancing requirements can be honored," Williams said. "We're of course preaching [to] wash your hands a lot, because we are touching each other's balls, which is disgusting as it is," she said, letting out a loud laugh.
For Williams, her company is providing a service greater than just sports.
"[Playground Sports] is a big community thing for us here in Eugene. We're not a very big town and we have quite a few participants," Williams said. Not many people have requested refunds yet, she said, with over 2,000 participants across kickball, softball, and basketball per year.
Adolfo "Al" Morales runs the Yorkville Sports Association (YSA) in New York City, and 2020 marks his forty-first year working in organized sports. YSA offers flag football, golf, and softball. Morales said YSA had roughly 200 teams registered for the current season, and like Williams, noted only a handful have asked for a refund. Morales is the head of the United Athletic Association, which is an advocacy group for recreational sports leagues. As part of the UAA, he's been working with the city and state for potential solutions. Morales is no longer taking a salary, and has a PR consultant, Aurora Flores on hand to help field questions. Flores is also a music composer, and has written songs for Dora, the Explorer.
Flores notes the possibility of softball returning with players wearing masks, gloves, and no fans allowed in the bleachers, with sanitizers provided in each dugout, and no high-fives.
In his forty-plus years in rec sports, Morales has not had a situation like this, though he remembers in September 2001, when playoffs were followed by the 9/11 attacks. Roughly a week later, after much deliberation, YSA still held the final in Central Park. Morales notes it was particularly meaningful to return to the field, as some teams had players who died in the attacks.
Zog Sports furloughed its entire staff, and its CEO, Rob Herzog, has put up a GoFundme for "employees' healthcare, as well as maintaining existing overhead costs, unforeseen operating expenses, and reopening costs."
"Unfortunately, no amount of even the strongest, most accurate business planning could have prepared us," said Kelaine Conochan, national marketing director at Zog Sport. Herzog had never laid a single employee off in the 18 years Zog has been in existence, so furloughing everyone, including management, was a "quite a jarring step."
Still, Conochan is hopeful that people will be eager to return, and though she expects people are more price-sensitive, Conochan says Zog Sports isn't as expensive as a gym membership or boutique fitness session. "We don't have high margins. Our players wouldn't play with us if we were just making money hand over fist," she said.
"No Zoom happy hour can replicate the feeling of playing softball or playing soccer." Though she does not expect an instant rebound to the business, she is hopeful that people will be eager to return.
In the interim, Zog has experimented with e-sports events, and its sister company, Zog Culture is running corporate events, like digital scavenger hunts and team building exercises.
Basketball City, located at Pier 36, is a New York-based organization that offers basketball for both adults and youth. The leagues run year-round with over 100 teams playing during a season.
As part of the organization's mission, it gives back to the community. While their facility can't be used for basketball, they're still committed to giving back.
"We started meeting with the City, Office of Emergency Management and the Governor's office, FEMA, they were looking to see what type of inventory of what large spaces they have, because at that point, they didn't know what they're going to need," said Bruce Radler, CEO of Basketball City.
"We got some Masonite, covered the floors, and they're just bringing in these pallets of foods, each day, each night." Radler said. The National Guard is now using the space to store pallets of food, and the city is paying taxi cab drivers to make food deliveries to low income communities and the elderly, Radler said. One of the Parks and Rec workers on site, Radler said, is also a regular at Basketball City, so they've lowered two of the basketball hoops so he can shoot during his breaks.
When asked when basketball will resume, Radler is less certain.
"There's a lot smarter people than us. The NBA has no clue. MLB has no clue. So right now, we're just playing it by ear and day by day. [Looking at] bigger picture, we're just hoping that this thing gets under control. The number of deaths have been staggering. The number of people who have it has been staggering, it's a lot bigger picture than just getting back on the basketball court."