Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Getting Their Game On: Why Should Kids Have All the Fun? Adults Are Getting Back in the Game and Taking to Sports Fields

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Getting Their Game On: Why Should Kids Have All the Fun? Adults Are Getting Back in the Game and Taking to Sports Fields

Article excerpt

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Kelli Marlow, 24, had just moved to Arlington, Virginia, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although she had a new job, a new apartment, and was enjoying her new city, she didn't have a lot of new friends. So she decided to join the Pirates, her cousin's softball team that is run by Fairfax County Adult Softball, a division of Fairfax County Park Authority. Marlow had never played the sport before. She suffered a pulled hamstring, and the Pirates ultimately lost more games than they won. Still, the season was a success. "I scored a run!" she says. "My goal was to cross home plate, and in the last game, I made it." She also scored a few new friends along the way--and a new nickname: Gimpy.

Marlow isn't alone in her enjoyment of adult sports leagues. Every year, thousands of teams recruit players and enter leagues for everything from softball to flag football to dodgeball. And with the downturn in the economy, which discourages adults from signing up for expensive gym memberships to stay in shape, many are looking for new ways to exercise that are fun and economical. It's no wonder that adult sports leagues are thriving.

"Our leagues are growing every year," says Al Harden, superintendent of sports and adventure services for Maryland's Howard County Recreation & Parks. "Participation seems to spike during a recession. In some ways, league members give back to the local economy because they usually go out after the game to continue socializing."

Harden oversees nine or 10 different leagues annually, with an average of 15,000 participants a year across all sports. Though the most popular is softball, soccer is quickly catching up in participation numbers, based on interest levels in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metro area. All the costs of the leagues are covered through registration fees, and Harden estimates it takes about two to three staff people to keep the leagues running smoothly.

To continue the success of his leagues, Harden must get new adults like Marlow interested in playing. "How do you get the person who played as a kid--and maybe wasn't that good but really enjoyed it--to come back out and try it?" he asks. His department is reaching out through email blasts and the Web. "Return business is important" Harden continues. "If people have fun, they'll tell their friends and come back the next year.

The department also promotes customer service. "Sports can sometimes bring out the worst in people," he says. "But if you can take care of a bad situation when it arises, people see that and want to play."

Grooming Good Sports

Making sure adult leagues are fun rather than competitive is a key element in convincing participants to return for the next season. With teams that have names like the Bottom Feeders or the Dirt Dogs, it's hard to tell how serious these players take their sport.

Arizona's Glendale Parks and Recreation is responsible for three different leagues--softball, basketball and volleyball--and staff members enforce the same code of conduct for adult players as they do for youth leagues. "If you don't have something in writing that staff can reference, it becomes very hard to enforce banning a team if there is a problem," says Chris Gallagher, the department's recreation manager. "We have a zero-tolerance policy. Therefore, we really don't have many problems:'

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One reason for the low number of incidents is the league's philosophy, explained to managers at their first meeting. "We try to put into perspective what these teams are playing for and show them that this is what they win: a plastic trophy," says Gallagher, who goes so far as to make light of the situation. "I tell them I've never had any professional scouts come out to any games."

Howard County's Harden uses a similar method, explaining that when the groundwork was laid for the adult leagues in the 1970s, the organizers decided that the leagues would not crown any champions. …

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