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The Sport of Socializing

December 14, 2011
How and why Baltimoreans use sports to form their own sense of community

By Krystina Lucido

There is a collection of people that will never understand sports. They will never take the time to learn the difference between a field goal and a foul shot, but they know, for example, to wear purple on Fridays. They probably know the name of the quarterback in their city -- guaranteed if he has been involved in some salacious scandal -- and will root for him with their friends and colleagues.

Why? Because participating in sports culture makes them feel a part of a community. They don't have to know the ins and outs; they don't even have to know enough to carry out a knowledgeable conversation. They just want to be a part of the club.

Translate that to the field, tap some beers and you wind up with sports and social clubs.

Sports and social clubs have been formed in Maryland and Baltimore since about the early 1990s, although a definitive start date or preliminary club cannot be confirmed. Chicago seems to be the place most individual owners of clubs either first heard about or played in sports and social clubs. But the idea is pretty simple -- get groups of people together, play sports, drink beers. It has surely been going on without a name for decades. (See Local Sports and Social Clubs

Sports have the ability to unite people, dependent on one's affinity or perceptiveness. There are certainly incidences of sports ostracizing people and causing rifts, even dangerous situations, for people of conflicting sport affiliations. But, for the most part, people bond through sports and a shared love of the game.

Sports are, by nature, a social atmosphere. People watch together, play together, discuss the status of their favorite teams -- real or fantasy -- which is why it's surprising the idea for a sports and social club took even this long to become a reality.

Perhaps it is because the social landscape changed so drastically in the '90s with the introduction of the Internet, but sports and social clubs in Baltimore sprang up and have grown like wildfire since.

Mike Cray started the Baltimore Sports & Social Club Inc. in 1998 and, according to him, it was the first of its kind in Baltimore. During his first season, he had 16 fall football teams and 200 people in his database. By fall 2011, 210 teams played co-ed touch football, which translates to 6,000 people per week playing sports, and Cray has more than 40,000 people in his database.

Jay Rendin played with the BSSC when he moved to Baltimore in 2000. He felt parks in Federal Hill -- Swann Park, Riverside Park, Latrobe Park -- were being underused, so he started SoBo Sports in 2002, playing co-ed football with 14 teams at Swann Park. He started spring football and summer softball in 2003.

Rendin played college sports at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. When he moved to Chicago to work for IBM, he became involved in sports there, volunteering with the Chicago Sports and Social Club. Many participants, like Rendin, have a desire to continue playing sports after graduating from college.

Zac Fisher, a Perry Hall resident and teacher at The Crossroads Center, started playing in sports and social clubs in 2005 when his dad's friend asked him to be on his team. He had recently graduated from Salisbury University and something to do that would keep him active, but wasn't too serious.

"I'm back at home," Fisher said, "You don't have the serious, organized team sports anymore. In college, coming from very organized sports, coming back and just playing pick-up type games with your friends is a lot different. The club's a step between those two things. So instead of just playing pick-up games or trying to actually train for a sport during the week, you can go do this and it's organized."

Fisher started with football for a couple years, then played softball for a season and kickball for a couple seasons. He didn't initially join for a social experience, but ended up getting something out of it.

"At first, I wasn't really sure what to expect about the whole social atmosphere," Fisher said. "I thought it was just going to be: 'That's cool. I'll get together with some people I don't know and play.' But that's a good social aspect, getting together with people you don't know and you do meet a lot of people. So the more I played with it, the more of a draw it was."

A social experience was not a motivating factor for Mandie Boardman, a Baltimore City resident and assistant director of communications for the University of Maryland Alumni Association. She started playing eight years ago with a group of friends who wanted to find a way to socialize with one another that wasn't necessarily going out to dinner.

"It's something that's a little more active and a little more fun," Boardman said. "Most of us were into sports anyway. Most of us are runners and some played sports in either high school or college, so we just wanted it as a way to keep moving around and not getting too sedentary."

Boardman and her team play kickball with the BSSC and softball with SoBo sports. But she said a program through Baltimore City Parks and Recreation worked for her as well because she didn't necessarily need a social atmosphere created for her. She said she enjoyed meeting new people, but had her team of friends, which is competitive and likes to play hard. She said she joined the Parks and Recs league for its looser structure.

"BSSC is organized," she said. "You don't have to worry about anything, which is kind of nice, versus Parks and Recs, which is kind of 'Do your own thing,' which, as long as you have the time for it and have someone who wants to take the time, it's better."

>> Article Continues On Page 2 

Issue 168: December 2011