From dodge ball to Jenga, area sports leagues become a multimillion dollar industry

Anthony Walker, a professional recruiter for the staffing firm Robert Half International, takes the same approach in enlisting colleagues for his flag football team as he does with his day job.

In the professional world, he says there are certain signs he looks for in potential recruits: “How quickly they respond to e-mails and follow up with us, how proactive they are in getting involved. If we send out an e-mail and they don’t reply right away, maybe they’re not very excited.”

Walker has been playing on a flag football league organized by D.C. City Ball for five seasons. Fourteen of his team’s 17 members are co-workers.

“You really get to see how competitive people are,” said Walker, who is originally from Baltimore. “I’ve come to realize that leagues are really big in D.C. That wasn’t so much the case in Baltimore.”

Sports leagues — ranging from inner tube water polo (hosted by the Arlington Athletic & Social League) and dodge ball (Zog Sports D.C.) to more traditional activities such as softball and kickball — have become a multimillion dollar industry in the Washington area. As the spring season approaches, organizers say enrollment is on the rise, with thousands of young professional joining recreational teams every year.

“Congressional softball has been around forever, but the concept of social sports is a newer [phenomenon],” said Robert Albrecht, owner of U.S. Social Sports, a league based in Northeast Washington. “We have been growing exponentially. The more people who move to the city and are overworked, the bigger we get.”

Annual membership in Albrecht’s league has grown more than six-fold to about 18,000 since the company’s founding as a skeeball league in 2009. Business was so good that first year that Albrecht, formerly a real estate agent and Web master for the D.C. National Guard, quit his day job to begin overseeing the organization full-time.

Today, he manages 1,300 teams. Annual revenue is quickly approaching $1 million.

“It just kind of caught on fire,” Albrecht, 28, said of his business. “At the end of the day, we’re not in the business of sports. We’re in the business of bringing people together.”

The transient nature of Washington, coupled with the many Type A personalities that flock to the region, has created the perfect environment for competitive, organized activities, he said.

“A lot of the people who move here had strict schedules growing up. Tuesday was violin night, Wednesday was soccer practice, Thursday was something else,” Albrecht said. “As grown-ups, they’re looking to continue that trend.”

David Sack, commissioner of D.C. City Ball, which oversees leagues for sports such as whiffle ball and football, said enrollment has grown 20 percent in the past year.

But it’s not just sports. There are also organized teams that compete in karaoke (overseen by District Karaoke), Jenga (NAKID Social Sports), beer pong (Maryland Beer Pong) and hide and seek (U.S. Social Sports).

Area bars and restaurants, many of which sign on as league sponsors and host games such as cornhole and shuffleboard, are also benefiting from the influx of young professionals who come to play and stay to drink and eat.

Vinoteca, a wine bar in Northwest Washington, hosts D.C. Bocce League games most Monday and Tuesday evenings. Wine director Tim Galvin said sales on those days are about 30 percent higher.

“It’s better than having an empty bocce court at the beginning of the week,” Galvin said. “And [for the players], it’s better than just sitting at a bar, starting at a wall.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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