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A Sporting Shift

2014-02-01, Feature, by Carrie Madren

Pickleball, a court sport that combines elements of tennis, ping pong, badminton and wiffleball, has exploded among adult recreation enthusiasts in recent years. Adults have long turned to local leagues and recreational sports to exercise and let off steam. In order to keep programs fresh, creative and enterprising recreation staff are listening to players’ requests — and introducing new ideas to their communities. As a result, adult sports programs across the country have shifted to accommodate tighter schedules and new activities.

Many of these trends — such as mini soccer and Ultimate Frisbee — also reflect the desire to get potential players into a game more quickly, with less equipment and sometimes fewer people required for a game. Other trends reflect time constraints and pressures of working adults: The new trend of “Baggo” or “Cornhole” beanbag-tossing games reflects a more lighthearted and less athletic approach to time spent after work, and the shortened seasons particularly popular on military bases reflect the tight schedules of working adults with families.

All of these trends create new recreation possibilities — new leagues and expanded opportunities — and put more dollars in recreation coffers.

Although we’ll always see community softball, volleyball, tennis, basketball and soccer, evolving trends in adult sports — from mini soccer to themed runs — are getting adults moving in new ways.

Mini Soccer

Soccer has been a longtime favorite of both men and women, but playing takes planning, as games require a certain number of players, a large field and referees. Enter mini soccer, a scaled-down version of the international game. Popular in the UK for more than 40 years, mini soccer leagues began springing up across the U.S. about five years ago, with leagues growing in cities such as Miami, New York City and Dallas. Alan Georgeson of Constructive4 Sports Group and Soccer 5 USA thinks all cities will have mini soccer fields within the next five years. 

An agreement with Soccer 5 USA has been cost-effective for the Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation Department, reports George Parrado, park operations superintendent. The deal worked out so well that the department expects to have mini soccer at four parks by June 2014. In addition to revenue, mini soccer has extended the opportunities for older soccer players in the community who want to play but no longer have the stamina to play on a full-size field. 

Popular with children as well as adults, this smaller-scale version of soccer uses fewer players per team and a smaller field, meaning individual players get more ball time. Games can be five-versus-five, six-versus-six or seven-versus-seven.

One mini soccer field is less than an eighth of the footprint of a full-size soccer field. So, in half of a full-size field where 11 adults would play per team, four small fields can accommodate 40 or more players. Adults find it faster to grab five or six friends and start a game than to organize teams of 11 players and have a referee, Georgeson explains. 

“It’s so much easier to get into a game,” he says. “And with a smaller group, it’s more of a social game.”

Shortened Seasons

In order to accommodate busy adults, some recreational managers are cutting back the time commitments required for some leagues. Shortened or abbreviated seasons are in demand, explains John Prue of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation department at Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago, Illinois. In response, staff cut some traditional 12- to 16-week seasons to four to eight weeks in length in order to accommodate the transient sailor population as well as the more permanent residents who wanted more time to devote to family and other activities, Prue explained in an online NRPA Connect forum. 

Likewise, one-day tournaments have drawn more players to sports such as kickball and dodgeball at the Naval Air Station Oceana/Dam Neck Annex in Virginia Beach, Virginia, according to Fitness Director Michael Morris, who noticed dwindling participation in certain leagues and multi-day tournaments before the changes. “Being a base with a lot of students who have mandatory physical training, trying to get them to stay or come back to our facilities can be challenging,” Morris says. At the Navy base, he continues, military personnel have less free time than they previously had and can’t commit to a team for an entire season. 

In an attempt to further boost participation in volleyball, beach volleyball and basketball at the naval air station, staff also organized abbreviated games of 45 minutes or shorter that were held during lunch. “We try to accommodate them as best we can,” Morris says. A shorter time frame “lets the active-duty member participate in a sport and get back to work or class in plenty of time,” he continues. In addition, the base began offering smaller team sizes — such as four-on-four volleyball — to help draw more players.

The shortened time frame has increased participation, Morris notes. Last year, only one team signed up for outdoor volleyball, but this year, with the abbreviated lunchtime schedule, six or seven teams have already signed up. 

Old Games from Left Field 

Across the country, adults are taking a trip down memory lane by unwinding with games they remember from childhood or decades past. Dodgeball, pickleball, wiffleball, kickball and others have all made a comeback with adult players. 

Kickball and wiffleball adult leagues have especially gained popularity across the country in the last decade. Last year, the Des Moines, Iowa, Department of Park and Recreation’s wiffleball league had 14 teams of six people, which was double the participation of the year before, reports Marketing Supervisor Jennifer Fletcher. “I think it’s cool to see these sports that we enjoyed as kids on the playground during recess are making a comeback,” Fletcher notes. 

At the Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, tug-of-war and dodgeball have been offered for three years, Morris says, and have drawn many younger sailors.

Another new organized game hails from backyard picnics and tailgates: beanbag tossing, called “Baggo” or “Cornhole,” in which two teams toss beanbags toward a tilted board with a hole at one end, trying to sink their beanbag into the hole. Such leisure games attract participants who may not have time for more dedicated, serious league play and practice. 

These low-pressure recreational leagues also draw members of the community who lack the athletic prowess for the more competitive basketball, volleyball or tennis leagues. Additional participants and leagues raise more revenue for recreation departments — often with little cost for equipment. As a bonus, most of these games don’t require custom spaces: Kickball can take place at any baseball field or open field, and Baggo can take place at any park. 

“We are finding it is a way to reach out to new participants and...those who might not otherwise participate in sport,” says John Stutzman, recreation supervisor for Bloomington Parks and Recreation in Minnesota, which is planning a Baggo league.

For many of these recreation leagues — such as kickball — the social aspect is just as important as winning, and going out together for some post-game beers is considered good sportsmanship. 

“The bottom line is that people are looking for alternatives to be outside with their friends or for a night out,” Stutzman says. “Maybe it isn’t the team environment or a traditional sport, but they’re looking for those alternate, unique things to do.” 

Creative Twists: Inner-Tube Water Polo

This trend involves putting a unique, fun twist on a more serious athletic sport. The level of athleticism required for water polo may be too intense for many, but when you add an inner tube, the game becomes playful. 

Rules are similar to regular water polo in that players pass and shoot the ball toward the opposing goal, but players must sit in the inner tube and paddle with their feet and hands. 

Considered easier for novices, inner-tube water polo lacks the demands of treading water and physical contact required of traditional water polo. Teams often head to happy hours following games. 

While programs start out just covering costs, Stutzman is confident that the expanded programming will bring in new revenue for his department. He played the game himself in college at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and just launched a league in Bloomington, Minnesota, last month. Larger cities across the country, such as San Diego, New York City, Raleigh and Boston, already have organized leagues. “It’s had some popularity in colleges and universities, but hasn’t quite gotten [into the mainstream] yet,” he says. “I still get funny looks when I tell people about it.” 

Ultimate Frisbee

Ultimate Frisbee — a sport still dominated by college-age players — has grown steadily over the last decade in popularity with young adults who have graduated college. According to USA Ultimate, membership has swelled from just shy of 20,000 in 2004 to more than 35,000 in 2012, although millions of adults play unofficially throughout the U.S. 

Jason Tryon of North Carolina’s Indian Trail Park and Recreation Department has noticed increased demand for field space for Ultimate Frisbee, a year-round sport in the state. The surrounding county has leagues as well as pick-up games. In response to the demand, county recreation managers have designated certain parks and fields for daily leagues as well as open play.

Ultimate players use the honor system instead of referees, and players emphasize good sportsmanship. The sport draws both current participants of other team sports and new segments of the community, Tryon explains. While many use Ultimate Frisbee to stay active in the off-seasons of other sports, other new recreation participants from the community who are drawn to the game may want to relive happy memories of throwing a Frisbee when they were younger. 

Much of Ultimate Frisbee’s draw comes from its simplicity. “It’s easy to start,” Tryon says. “You don’t need equipment such as goals, a ball or netting. All you need is open space and a Frisbee.” It’s also somewhat of a unique sport, he continues, in that it’s a hybrid of other similar team sports such as lacrosse and soccer, so skills from other sports easily translate into the game. 

In addition, Ultimate Frisbee is a simple game that can be played year-round — especially in southern states and indoor fields — creating additional revenue for recreation departments through league fees, according to Tryon. 

Themed Races 

5K and 10K races have always attracted runners, but new twists and trends are adding creative challenges and elements to today’s races. These themed runs often bring in people who play other sports or who don’t run regularly. 

Mud-filled runs such as Run Amuck, Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder continue to draw thousands who want to test their limits as they complete a course filled with obstacles such as wall climbs, fire leaps and mud crawls.

For participants, “It’s unique, something that they’ve never done before,” Tryon says. “It gets your adrenaline pumping and gives you a sense of adventure in your hometown without having to travel.” 

Color runs — in which white-clad runners are covered by clouds of colored corn starch — add whimsy to athleticism. The concept, inspired by Holi (a Hindu spring festival of colors, in which celebrants throw colored powder), offers a less competitive and more lighthearted alternative to traditional races. Two popular organizers, The Color Run and Color Me Rad 5K, have brought their carefree 5K events to communities across the country. 

Columbus, Ohio, held its second annual Color Run in July 2013 when the city’s recreation and parks department partnered with race organizers to hold the run during the annual Jazz & Rib Fest. More than 13,000 runners showed up for the 5K dressed in white as volunteers tossed colored corn starch — one color at each checkpoint — at the runners along the route. At the finish line, a final color launch greeted runners before they entered the festival.

“It’s a very upbeat, fun race — the community has embraced the event,” says Karen Wiser of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department’s special events office, who notes that the Color Run has brought new financial opportunities to the Jazz & Rib Fest. Since this race is not for profit, the event receives a donation from the race entry fees as well as a boost from food and beverage sales bought by thousands of participating runners. In addition, many of those runners and their supporters patronize area hotels, restaurants, parking lots, shopping and other local businesses.

For the Electric Run, held in more than 30 locations in 2013, runners complete a night course with black lights, glow sticks and colored lights. “It was more of a younger crowd — and it was extremely popular,” says Tryon, who says some 1,000 people participated in Charlotte, North Carolina’s July race. 

Other challenge events include biking courses or small-team activities where participants compete in physical or mental challenges over an extended course. 

Such challenge events have soared in popularity because they’re unique and different from traditional races. While fun, “These can be pretty chaotic — there’s no saying what the weather conditions are going to be like,” says Tryon, who adds that, for instance, some events may require jumping into a lake.

Challenge events and themed races tend to attract droves of community members who wouldn’t normally participate in recreation events or leagues. “Challenge events are bringing in a new population,” Tryon says. In many cases, new participants come to support the event’s sponsor, such as a breast cancer awareness foundation or a leukemia research organization. Other new participants are able to spend a few hours one Saturday, but can’t commit to an entire league or season. 

“These are one-time events people can just show up for,” says Des Moines-based recreation consultant Teva Dawson. “These are community-building events — they’re good for physical health as well as our social connectedness.”

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer in northern Virginia.

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