Tennis and golf get all the credit for being the sports you can enjoy your whole life. But bocce ball — another popular game among the retirement set — is carving out a niche of its own in the Washington area.
The local community of bocce players is growing, and the boom is being led by players in their 20s and 30s. Bocce ball involves two teams taking turns to roll a set of colorful balls close to a target ball.
“This idea that bocce is just this old Italian man’s sport, that’s definitely something we wanted to break out of,” said Sarah DeLucas, 34, who runs the DC Bocce League. “Anyone can play bocce. It doesn’t matter what your athletic skill level is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Age doesn’t matter. You can’t just look at someone and say, ‘That person is going to be an awesome bocce player.’ Anyone can be good at bocce.”
For DeLucas, it all started 10 years ago.
She and a group of friends, then in their early 20s, were hanging out one night when the topic of bocce came up. One of DeLucas’s friends had been raised playing the game, and convinced the rest of the group it was worth trying.
“So we all just gave each other titles,” DeLucas says. “It was like, ‘okay, you’re the president. You’re the vice president.’ It was kind of like creating The Baby-sitters Club.”
But what began as an inside joke has turned into a phenomenon. Running DC Bocce is now a full-time job for DeLucas. About 8,000 players sign up to play with the league each year. (Registration for outdoor bocce is open through April 4.)
DC Bocce also offers a bar league and a “glo bocce” league, which involves bocce balls that light up. The outdoor league includes some games on makeshift courts — a stretch of grass in the outfield of a Little League diamond, for instance — but also offers access to some of the otherwise hidden bocce courts cropping up around Washington.
You don’t have to be in a league to enjoy the District’s best known public bocce court, in Garfield Park near Capitol Hill. DC Bocce frequently uses that court and also offers access to some private courts.
“There are actually private bocce courts in the Highland Park apartment building in Columbia Heights,” DeLucas said. “They have two bocce courts in the courtyard, and we have exclusive access. They’re gorgeous.”
DeLucas says her league skews a bit older than most co-ed sports leagues in the area. Lots of bocce players are in their 30s and older, and have graduated from higher-intensity sports like kickball and softball.
“You can play bocce anywhere,” she said. “It’s a great way to get outside after work, meet up with friends, and have some friendly competition ... And we have a lot of people who met or are in relationships or got married through bocce.” (DC Bocce even has a section of its Web site devoted to these love stories.)
People can sign up as teams or individuals at a cost of $60 per person. At the end of the season, a portion of the registration fees go to a charity of the winning team’s choice. DeLucas said DC Bocce has doled out about $150,000 to local and national charities in the last decade.
Elsewhere in the District, Capital Bocce League has been around since 2010. Robert Albrecht, the founder and CEO of United Social Sports, said he was aware of DeLucas’s league and had noticed a number of bocce bars cropping up in New York.
“I just thought it was really cool,” he said. “So we’ve got the more tongue-in-cheek sports like bocce, skeeball, cornhole and shuffleboard, and then the more traditional team sports like softball and volleyball.”
Capital Bocce charges up to $49 per person per season and usually attracts a slightly younger crowd than DC Bocce, including lots of bocce players just out of college. But Albrecht says there are plenty of participants who are in their 30s — and even 40s and 50s.
“People who latch onto bocce and skeeball are people who don’t take themselves too seriously,” he said. “They’re willing to get a little bit silly. I think some people really like bocce, but most people love it because it’s social.”
The sport is a natural fit for area bars that have built bocce courts on their properties. The wine bar Vinoteca near U Street has a charming bocce courtyard out back. Vendetta on H Street is dedicated entirely to bocce, and features decor that pays homage to other aspects of Italian culture. “We do pride ourselves in being a bocce bar as opposed to a restaurant with a bocce court,” Vendetta co-owner Jimmy Silk said.
In addition to its two indoor courts, Vendetta is building a longer outdoor court that Silk hopes will be complete by the end of the summer.
“I find bocce completely relaxing,” Silk said. “It’s a sport you can play with a glass of wine or beer in your hand. I’ve played softball on the National Mall. I’ve played in kickball games. Those can still be a high-stress environment. But bocce itself has always lent itself to drinking and betting and socializing. It’s perfect.”