When Travis Llewellyn moved to New Orleans in December 2006, the city was still very much in the midst of recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Not knowing many people here, Llewellyn was looking for a fun activity where he could meet people his age. He did a Google search for "New Orleans kickball," hoping to get a result. What he found was an informal pick-up game, but when Llewellyn and his fellow kickball enthusiasts got together, they realized they had the potential for much more.
"All of a sudden I was on a board. Then I was president, and now I'm in my sixth season playing kickball," he says.
New Orleans now boasts three kickball leagues with more than 50 total teams playing two seasons a year. The LA Crescent and LA Triumph leagues are part of the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA), a national body with teams as far as Hawaii and London. Kickball of the Crescent City (KOCC), New Orleans' other major league, is a purely local incarnation, also boasting a full schedule of social events unrelated to kickball.
Kickball is by no means a new sport. Ubiquitous in schoolyard playgrounds across the country since the end of World War II, kickball first grew a following among college-aged people in the mid-1990s, which spawned an adult following; WAKA was established in 1998. In September 2006, an article in The New York Times made the case that kickball's resurgence was part of a "rejuvenation" movement among America's young adults — people looking for a slice of childhood to cut through the tedium of everyday life.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, where opportunities to meet and interact with young adults outside of the workplace often seems limited to the bar scene, kickball has served as a tool for networking. According to Llewellyn, the reason he chose to play kickball, and the reason adult kickball leagues are so popular is that it's a kids' game — but the appeal is hardly nostalgic.
"We have all kinds of different athletic abilities out here," he says. "Anybody can play kickball, and being a playground game, it gives it a more casual atmosphere. You see people get really competitive in softball leagues and you don't see that here."
Indeed, these leagues have become social gathering points more than competitive events. But many a kickball player will point out that people still stay competitive — for every team that's content to relax with a few beers mid-game, there are teams out there to win. No one, though, seems to take it too seriously. Team names are often playful or off-color (Chocolate Salty Balls, Hooked on Tonics, Two Girls One Flipcup) and the WAKA all-star game on Aug. 5 featured a Jim Beam kickball and approximately 12 beers for every red rubber ball. Most kickballers who showed up didn't even play. Matt Mims, a cabinetmaker in his third year of playing, said kickball grows into a serious connection among the players.
"Everyone who plays kickball enjoys the city," he says. "I see people from kickball all over at bars and restaurants."
Bars are a crucial social epicenter for these leagues. Both WAKA leagues have bars that they meet at before or after games. Also, being part of a national organization means each season's winning team has the opportunity to fly to Las Vegas to play for the national championship. Don Quintana, a second-year player, went with his team in 2007 and found that the atmosphere at the national championships was very much the same as it is in local New Orleans games.
"At first we didn't really know what to expect," he says. "But we got there and found a good mix of teams that wanted to play and teams that were just there to have fun."
The KOCC takes the social and competitive aspects and kicks them up a notch. They host a prom and bowling night, as well as laser tag and karaoke events for all their players. In addition to all the social events, the league also hosts a full-blown draft for its fall seasons. Lesley White, who's been playing with the KOCC for four years, compares the draft to people who play fantasy football. While still competitive, White says, the kickball league differs greatly from other adult leagues in which she's played. "In softball, you play your game and you're done and you go home," she says. "With kickball, you play your game and stay out there for four hours and there's a lot of extracurricular activities."
White also says the KOCC is "more democratic" than WAKA in that the players collectively make decisions regarding the league and don't have to adhere to national guidelines. WAKA, though, is rapidly expanding with two 16-team leagues running on Thursdays and Monday nights. Llewellyn says interest has risen so high that they're considering adding another league or two when the seasons start again next year.
"It's really hard to get in, and our waiting list is long," he said. "We've thought about expanding to have a couple more weekend leagues to fit demand."
While kickball has seen a resurgence among young adults looking to have fun outdoors, it has also opened the doors for other young professionals looking for new athletic activities. PlayNOLA is a new sports and entertainment group specializing in outdoor sports for young adults looking to socialize and network with people their age. PlayNOLA plans to host social events like Saints game-day parties and mixers, as well as — of course — its own fall kickball league. But it also features more traditional adult recreation leagues like coed flag football and basketball, as well as sailing lessons and a free outdoor "bootcamp fitness" program.
Lavonzell Nicholson, one of the founders of PlayNOLA, says she and her business partner came up with the idea for an adult sports and entertainment group after looking at existing business plans across the country. Having played in an adult basketball league while living in Baltimore, Nicholson says she wanted to give the same opportunity to young adults.
"Our tag line is 'Meet, greet and compete,'" Nicholson says. "We want young people to be able to meet each other. Sports reduces all these other barriers that you normally have when trying to meet new people."
Among the programs offered, the introduction to sailing has been the most popular thus far. For $150, you're taken out on Lake Pontchartrain and are taught the basics of sailing. Nicholson says she came up with the idea because sailing is not usually something young people without much disposable income think of as a practical activity. The exercise boot camp, which is free, is also targeted to a young demographic as a way for people to escape the confines of conventional workout methods found in a gym or with a personal trainer.
"The opportunities like sailing or boot camp were just different things we knew young people might want to try but couldn't or wouldn't because they didn't have a partner or people to do it with," Nicholson says. "It's one thing if you want to sail, but if you don't even know how to begin to look for it, you can't. That's our premise."
To learn more about how to join a WAKA league, visit www.kickball.com. To learn more about KOCC, contact Chrissy Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kocckickball.org. To learn more about PlayNOLA or to register for a league, visit www.playnola.com.