Darkness was falling over the yard at Jesse Ketchum Public School on a wet Monday evening in late April, but the four teams of players on the soccer pitch at Bay and Davenport seemed not to notice—they were too focused on the games, their spring season openers. “Come on! Look around you, guys! Defence!” shouted a red-shirted player on the sidelines, a member of the Short Tempahs. He swore loudly at another lapse as a member of the opposing team—Man And Woman United—drove the ball wide of the net and out of bounds. “Sorry,” he said to a teammate. “I’m just intense.”
Minutes later, his teammate Siniša Colic, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering, drove up the centre of the artificial turf, deking back and forth, before suddenly striking the ball hard, a bullet into the upper right corner that gave his team a 1-0 lead.
At the other end of the pitch, filling in for an absent Short Tempahs goaltender, was IT engineer Dejan Dusic, usually a defender, who grabbed a ball that’d been fired at him and stared at his teammates. “Really?” he demanded, gesturing to the opponents who had just broken down the field unchallenged. “Really?” Though he did not allow a goal all night—the one-goal lead held up—none of the Short Tempahs were happy with the team effort.
“People take it really seriously,” explains Tanya Doroslovac, a veteran Short Tempah defender who works as a theatre producer by day. “Every game is like the World Cup—there are all these mini-World Cups every night in all different parts of the city.”
Indeed there are, as you might notice if you pass a schoolyard or park any night of the week. People of Toronto, especially those in their 20s and 30s, are out in droves playing soccer, ultimate Frisbee, volleyball, floor hockey, ice hockey, dodge ball, and various other sports in adult recreational leagues like the Toronto Sport and Social Club (TSSC), Extreme Toronto Sports Club (XTSC), Not So Pro Sports, and the Toronto Recreational Sports League (TRSL). Over the past decade or so, these leagues have emerged as major players in the city’s social landscape, building small communities in every corner of Toronto around shared interests and common goals. Now, with more than 85,000 people actively playing in such a league—on any given evening, more than 3,000 people are participating in TSSC games alone—it’s safe to say that rec league sports have grown into at least a $20 million a year business in Toronto. This doesn’t represent anything close to a peak in demand—organizers have barely advertised, and almost any popular sport that’s announced books up immediately. But the leagues have proven so popular that they are at capacity—there is no more space to play and, as businesses, the organizations have nowhere left to grow.
“Finding available quality spaces is the biggest challenge,” says TRSL General Manager Jeff Lerner. “If more spaces became available, we could fill them up fairly quickly.”
“There’s no shortage of people,” says Rob Davies, the TSSC director of operations, of the 75,000 active members of his club. He says there are 50-60 teams each season on waiting lists that cannot be accommodated, and because new registrations for popular sports and time-slots fill up online in less than five minutes, the league now runs a registration lottery to ensure all teams have an equal chance at playing.
The lack of good spaces means that many games wind up being played on far-flung and sometimes poorly-maintained fields that can make games less fun and less safe—compacted turf that’s hard on the knees, for instance. And moreover, many other people are denied the chance to play at all. There are some possible solutions to the problem, and one would think that in Rob Ford’s customer-service and private-partnership-oriented city hall, serving this demand might be a priority. But the truth is the city isn’t making more parkland available in any kind of hurry.
When we talk about civic resources or community-building initiatives—the kind of things that help people discover the city and meet their neighbours—many of us first think of official government-run programs, or activist groups, or neighbourhood associations who lobby governments for or against various changes proposed at City Hall. But in Toronto, sports leagues serve similar social purposes. They help people find friends, lovers, and business connections, and learn about the city.
When Tanya Doroslovac, 28, first moved to Toronto from Waterloo in 2006 while completing a co-op for Wilfred Laurier University, she didn’t know many people. She had played soccer all her life in school intramural leagues, and was hoping to find a way to continue. “It was the first time I didn’t have a team to play for. So I signed up with the TRSL.” It introduced her to different parts of the city. “It’s a good way to find out about Toronto—travelling along the TTC to all these different places for games,” she says. One game might be downtown, the next at Downsview, the next at Jane and Eglinton or Sunnyside Park. “It’s definitely a good way to meet new friends—I signed up as an individual, and I was put on a team of other individuals, and we wound up becoming friends—we formed a team that played together for a few years.” She once joined a team full of advertising executives on her friend’s suggestion that it could lead to romance. “That was a most awful plan,” she says. “I’m all sweaty and running around, shouting, competing.” However, she says there are people on one of her teams now who are dating after playing together.
It’s a story I heard from almost everyone I interviewed—the TSSC has even begun tracking marriages of people who met playing in their leagues. (They’ve counted at least a dozen so far.) Rob Davies is one of them. He joined a team of individuals called The Shaggers when he moved here from Kingston after university. Three years later, he married a woman who played on an opposing squad.
Davies also found a job on the field—with the TSSC. He was looking to make a change from his consulting work in 1999 when, at a game, he heard from a convener that the league was hiring. “It was exactly what I was looking for. I almost demanded to be interviewed.”
Because the demographic profile of the league’s players skews to young professionals, a lot of people see it as a networking opportunity—although not all the benefits are as straightforward as Davies’ direct hiring. Xtreme Labs, one of the city’s premier software development shops, has long had a soccer team that plays in the TSSC. “Our company sponsored the team as one of the perks for our employees,” says Boris Chan, Xtreme’s director of engineering, who has played a few years for the company side. He says it’s been a team-building experience for those who work and play together, and an especially great opportunity for interns and more junior employees to connect with the company’s executives. “You’ve got a lot of different people who do different things inside the company—this weird mix of people get to know each other and bond, go through the playoffs together, travel to games all over the city together.”
“It definitely makes the city a better place for me,” says Doroslovac, who now plays on teams in two different leagues at the same time. “Playing is one of the best parts of my week.”
When Kristi Herold founded the Toronto Sport and Social Club in 1996, the entrepreneurial sports nut was looking to start a business that served her own needs: “intramurals for adults,” she says. In the early-internet era, just getting organized was a struggle. “I called everyone in my address book—people didn’t really have email yet—and I remember saying, Can you fax me your address book, and I’ll call everyone in it? People were faxing me pages and pages of contacts.” She recruited Wilson Sports Equipment as a sponsor, then spent some months trying to find places for teams to play. At the time, she was surprised to find there was no central database of any kind listing venues available to rent from the city or the school board. She and soon-to-be co-founder Rolston Miller took turns piloting a used Dodge Caravan and a bicycle around the city until they found enough fields available for their original 13 teams.
In its first year, the league saw 100 per cent growth, then 50 per cent in the second year, and then 10–20 per cent growth each year for five years after that, all through word of mouth. Sitting in her Yorkdale office today, near the “Can You Imagine Wall” where her 12 full-time and 70 part-time staff suggest goals (“Can you imagine having 5,000 teams in one year,” reads one item that is stamped “DONE”), Herold says the league has 1,800 teams each season made up of 75,000 registrants annually. (There are four seasons played each year.) “We’re the largest sport and social club in North America,” she says.
This has inspired competition, of course, from rival leagues. Sam Selim, founder of the Extreme Toronto Sports Club, says he started the XTSC in 2004 because he was frustrated with some of the elements of the TSSC. At the time the league provided no nets, and all games were self-refereed by the players. He tried switching to another rival league, but found some of the same problems, and after a playoff soccer game ended in a rock-paper-scissors tie-breaker, he broke out on his own. From 16 initial teams, the XTSC has grown to 275—and about 3,000 players—this season.
For Selim and Herold and the other leagues, though, the search for spaces to play remains the biggest obstacle to their growth.
“There are more facilities now than when we started,” says Herold, “and whenever something new comes up, we snap it up,” she says. She also notes that the “pent up demand” for more leagues means that whenever a private facility plans to open, she can confidently guarantee them they will fill the space.
But the city isn’t really building new recreational spaces very quickly—something councillor Norm Kelly, chair of the city’s Parks and Environment Committee, says is directly related to fact that “land is very expensive.” He says the department will soon be reviewing its land acquisition policy but, as his parks committee colleague councillor Sarah Doucette notes, the city is simply running out of large open spaces. “One problem is just finding a new place to put a playing field,” she says.
Two new city sports fields opened up at Cherry Beach in 2008, and some private entities—U of T’s Varsity Centre, BMO Field, Lamport Stadium, and City Sports Centre—have been constructed or opened to rentals, allowing leagues such as the TSSC and XTSC limited access to field space. But it’s still not nearly enough to meet the demand of the adult rec leagues’ hunger for evening and weekend space.
The Toronto District School Board has pioneered one possible solution: At a couple of schools, public-private partnerships have resulted in the construction of all-weather domes that allow the fields to be used through the winter. The schools get use of the space all day until 5 p.m., and leagues like the TSSC rent them out in the evening and play right up until midnight. One such field at Monarch Park Collegiate will have eight simultaneous league games—frisbee, soccer, flag football, and indoor softball—playing at the same time every weeknight. Similar arrangements could open up the use of public parks year-round (through the installation of domes), later into the night (by adding lights), or just making currently unplayable places nicer (through more active maintenance).
There are some obstacles to doing many of those things on a larger scale, though. Kelly says that local residents often object to the domes because “they’re ugly”—and further notes that in most cases, parks planning will prioritize the needs of neighbourhood children over adult leagues. Doucette points out that when you put a dome on a field, whether it’s owned by the city or the school board, you restrict its use so local children can’t just come by for pick-up games at times when the space is vacant.
Similarly, objections from neighbours about noise and light pollution restricts the installation of lights on some city parks that would allow leagues like the TSSC to run late-evening programs as it currently does in the covered domes. Yet these kinds of concerns wouldn’t seem to be a problem at fields in massive parks like Sunnybrook, Riverdale, or High Park.
Both Doucette and Kelly say the city may begin looking more aggressively into those kind of solutions to the space shortage, and is otherwise open to innovative ideas. One change Doucette expects might provide more immediate permit space is that last year the city started charging for permits on parks that used to be free. Children’s leagues and other long-time tenants have been in the habit of “block booking” huge amounts of space they don’t need in order to have it available for practices at their leisure. Putting a price on that time may mean space is now available to serve the growing demand for adult rec league fields.
Regardless of whether the obstacles to growth can be addressed by the city or the private market, it strikes me—and both Doucette and Kelly agreed—that this is the kind of private initiative the city ought to encourage. In addition to the obvious fitness benefits of keeping people active in their adult years, the leagues get people out into the city to meet their fellow citizens, where they have fun and work together towards a common goal. It really is a kind of community building—the sort of civic function that in past years was served by bowling leagues, church groups, and member’s lodges. Only now, if you want to play in a league you’ve got to act fast to even field a team.
And that’s a shame, because playing on a team is an experience that can, as it has for Doroslovac, become a big part of what makes Toronto a great place to live. “That’s the social function for many people,” says Herold. “Just being on a team.”
This week, city council adopted a new Parks and Recreation strategy that Kelly characterized, as seeking to “pro-actively” get as many people using parks as possible. Reaching out to find ways to ensure more people get to participate in recreation leagues would seem to be a good place to start.
Hooking up with a rec league teammate: good or bad idea?
@George Brown College, waterfront campus. Photos: Christie Vuong/The Grid.
Aidan, 25, systems administrator
It’s a good thing. Isn’t that what people go there for? It’s good to meet people with common interests.
Jessica, 27, salesperson
It’s good because there’s a sense of belonging, which is a part of the Needs Pyramid.
Sean, 26, musician
You’d have a conflict of interest issue. Just like how couples face issues every day. But if the characters can handle it, sure.
Tracy, 38, counsellor
I’m fine with it. Toronto’s a hard place to meet people, and if you meet good people, I say, “Why not?”
Steve, 21, mechanic
It’s a good thing because you get to meet new people. I can’t see why it’s bad.
Coralie, 24, student
It’s not a big deal. Everybody’s free to do what they want whether or not you’re on a team.
Mark, 45, art director
It’s not good for the team. It’s not being a team player. You’re supposed to be a team of 30, not a team of 2.