Who would've thought that getting people involved in games they last played in grade school -- if ever -- would be the cornerstone of a new social network?
Chris Wessely, for one. Wessely is the founder of the Grand Rapids Sports and Social Club (GRSSC), an organization geared mostly toward 20- and 30-somethings that has more than doubled in membership since its initial co-ed dodgeball season in 2008.
Here's the deal: all teams play at the same location. Afterwards, they all meet at a nearby sponsoring bar or restaurant. Pretty simple, but it works. Says one dodgeball player: "The first night I came here I knew one person. In a few weeks, I knew thirty-five."
The GRSSC currently promotes two sports -- dodgeball and kickball -- and is setting up for three more -- golf, Frisbee, and flag football. Entry fees range around $50 to $60. There are refs or officials involved, but all sports also rely on player honor.
The age range is from 21 -- the minimum permitted to play -- to a few who will admit to 40. The average age is 31. Teams are identified by different color tee-shirts featuring the league sponsors and a team name on the back. Team names range from the party-inspired Here For The Beer to more euphemistic word constructions that leave little to the imagination.
If You Can Dodge a Wrench...
For Chris Wessely, a little imagination was all it took. It was early 2008, and he was faced with taking a new direction in his life. The sales and marketing firm he worked for let him go "after the second round of cuts," and the then 29-year-old was looking for something new.
Joblessness was not as daunting to him as it might have been for some. It freed Wessely to pursue a long-time passion, cooking, which led him to enroll in Grand Rapids Community College's culinary arts program. There he met a fellow student who'd spent time in Baltimore and who told him about the night life in that city. One of the topics that caught Wessely's attention was sports clubs.
"I did some research," Wessely recalls. "I wanted to see how other clubs worked and it gave me an idea that it could work here."
It started with dodgeball, the ages-old playground game that recently got big-time attention in the movie of the same name. Wessely chose it because it required little capital outlay, fitting into his initial budget of around $200. He used his marketing background to raise awareness and draft members.
"I used Facebook, YouTube, meetup.com, word of mouth...I had management interns from local colleges passing out flyers," Wessely says. "I did everything different -- it was really guerilla marketing."
Wessely had talked about 30 of his friends and friends-of-friends into joining. By the time a dodgeball schedule was set, the number has risen to the 70s and a site, MVP Sports Spot on 32nd Street, was chosen. The La Cantina restaurant signed on and has been the official GRSSC dodgeball league sponsor since.
The site and sponsor are important elements of the package. The emphasis is on places that are close to each other, typically within a two-mile radius. They should also be local. Wessely checks with operators to see which nights they could use more business, and sets up schedules accordingly.
"We want to have local sponsors, local bars and restaurants," Wessely explains. "The idea is to help out businesses."
In turn, sponsors offer specials and discounts to GRSSC members, making it "like a rented clubhouse," Wessely says.
The first dodgeball season was a smashing success...literally. "A few people got nailed pretty good, so we had to take a look at the equipment," Wessely offers. A kinder, gentler ball was introduced this season, a nerf-like ball with an epoxy coating.
"But you can still grip it and rip it," Wessely adds.
Growing in Leaps and Kicks
As summer 2009 approached, the GRSSC started a kickball league with Aberdeen Park as the host field. Nearly 100 players signed up.
Wessely also started to get additional sponsors. Miller Lite became an official GRSSC sponsor, as did Xyience sports drinks.
This season, the kickball league is expanding to accommodate more than 200 players, with the Sazerac Lounge in Grand Rapids serving as league sponsor.
Wessely is also looking at putting together a golf league with Indian Trails Golf Course as a home base, but with a twist to differentiate it from the numerous other leagues available. "It's going to be a scramble league," Wessely says with a smile. "You'll be part of a new foursome every week."
There are other events scheduled throughout the seasons as well -- post-tournament parties featuring local bands, scavenger hunts, paintball wars, and some surprises.
While GRSSC players may vary in skill sets, most agree that making connections with each other is the best part of the competition.
"I think we lost every game last year, but we got to the bar first," says Amanda White,
manager, coach, and cruise director for the dodgeball team, Here For Beer.
White, 28, an insurance agent in the daytime, sees the GRSSC as the perfect outlet for pent-up energy.
"I was searching for golf leagues and I found dodgeball," she explained. "I was looking for something athletic and I didn't want to go to a gym."
White also appreciates the easy camaraderie that accompanies the dodgeball league.
"It's not like softball, where you have to be on a team 10 years to get to play," she says. "We're not here to win. We get a trophy for the most social team."
Jeff Noall, 29, heard about the club from a friend and signed up for the initial session of dodgeball. He's played every sports season since.
"It's still social," he says. "But by the spring, when they started kickball, it started getting a little more serious. People get competitive. They want to win."
Practice...I Mean We're Talking About Practice...
Jeremy Bolker, 31, a marketing specialist for Clear Channel Communications, is intrigued by the choice of sports the GRSSC promotes.
"Part of the novelty of this (GRSSC) is sports you probably last played in middle school," he observes. "It's not like anyone has been practicing dodgeball...we're all on even ground."
Bolker adds "There's always a bond when you play sports...an adrenaline rush. It's a lot of fun. And a hell of a workout until you get used to it."
For Caitlin Tierney, 25, the club sounded "ridiculously fun" when she first heard about it.
Tierney, a produce buyer for a large local grocery wholesaler, was looking for a "a sport to keep me occupied" and to relieve the day-to-day job stress. The GRSSC was the perfect tonic.
"It's been gratifying," Tierney says. "When I first came, I knew one person. After five weeks I know thirty-five."
And while she is an experienced athlete -- she was defensive captain of her high school lacrosse team that won a state title -- Tierney admits dodgeball is not her forte.
"I'm getting better, though, " she claims. "I tell people every week that this is going to be my night."
GRSSC kickball and golf registration continues until mid May, and fall and winter sports signups will be posted later in the year. Wessely is looking to grow his staff to accommodate the additional activities.
"I have a staff of two people right now," he says. "My director of operations helps recruit and manage interns. I'm also looking for a sales guy and a web designer to help with the site...with videos and shirt design."
Even so, Wessely hopes the GRSSC will ultimately stand and survive on its own.
"My behind-the-scenes goal is not to own anything," he says. "I'm just trying to do something to help keep people here and be an asset to the community."
G.F. Korreck is a free-lance writer, editor, and voice talent living in West Michigan.
Grand Rapids Sports and Social Club (GRSSC) dodgeball league (4)
Chris Wessely (3)
Photographs by Josh Tyron -All Rights Reserved