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'Picnic sports' grow up in Western Pa.

| Thursday, July 5, 2007

Sitting on a grassy bank next to a South Side ball field, Kelly Ogrodnik warmed up with her team.

But instead of tossing baseballs or softballs, the teammates sipped beer and joked with each other, talking strategy for the upcoming game.

Welcome to kickball -- a mix of competitiveness, fun, socializing, exercise and beer.

"We're all here to have fun. There's no 'not being good enough,'" said Ogrodnik, 27, of Wilkinsburg, the team captain. "Everyone here is very social."

Ogrodnik's team plays in the Pittsburgh Sports League, which this year is on pace to break participation records, thanks in part to the rising popularity of kickball.

"Kickball is a big picnic sport. People come to hang out, grill, bring their families and goof off," said Becky Reitmeyer, 27, director of the Pittsburgh Sports League, which organizes activities including softball, kickball and dodgeball.

The Pittsburgh Sports League had a record 9,300 participants in 2006 for all sports, and it's on pace to break that record this year, with 8,150 participants so far.

The growing popularity of kickball, which had 1,260 players last year, forced the league to organize three seasons. The first two attracted 1,097 players.

"I think there's a silly element to it. It's not difficult, everyone's played it before and it's a way to be social and be active. And there's no equipment. Most people have only played in gym class, so it's not as intimidating," Reitmeyer said.

League teams can field 10 players, four of whom must be women. That gives most teams gender balance.

"Most of us on our team, we work together," said Lee Melani, 25, of Bloomfield, who works for Nationwide. "It's fun to do and it gets you out on a Monday. But you still want to win."

Aimee Kimball, 29, of Shadyside, said she was recruited to play because her team needed athletic girls. She plays soccer, basketball and dodgeball.

"They recognized my talent," she said, laughing. "I played because I was on a soccer team. Soccer is more exercise, but kickball is more fun and laid back. It's competitive, but in a fun way."

Kickball is gaining traction nationwide, said Tiffany Ficklin, director of communications for the World Adult Kickball Association, or WAKA.

WAKA is a for-profit company based on the business of kickball. The company started 10 years and WAKA leagues now stretch across 25 states with more than 1,400 teams, said Ficklin, who plays on a team.

She said popularity has soared in large cities with high populations of young people such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Phoenix.

"People are always amused when I tell them I work for a kickball company," said Ficklin, 32, of Albuquerque, N.M. "But all it takes is getting that big, red ball in your hands and it whisks you back to fifth grade. We just help them get started."

Most kickball leagues describe themselves as a sports and social organization and an open air alternative to dating sites, like match.com . Teams often go to bars together after a game.

"I'm not from Pittsburgh. I'm from Rochester. I learned about kickball here through the Notre Dame alumni club," said Mike Ryan, 24, of the South Side, who works for Westinghouse and signed up, in part, to meet people. He also plays softball.

"Kickball is something everyone can do," he said. "For softball, you need a glove and a bat. Here, you just show up with your shoes on."

Softball still gets about double the number of players in the Pittsburgh Sports League's numbers.

"It does surprise me that kickball is so popular," said Ronald Dick, assistant professor of sports marketing at Duquesne University. "I think kickball may be a fad.

"Softball has withstood the test of time. But kickball is simple, inexpensive and can be played in the inner-city or suburbs."

Whether kickball is a fad or the new American pastime doesn't matter to the young adults playing.

"I haven't played since third grade, but it's fun," said Michelle Jackson, 25, of Dormont, who was playing right field in her second game. "All we do is work. This gives us something else to do.

"Besides, we won our first game."


BY THE NUMBERS

Breakout statistics for kickball and softball participants from the Pittsburgh Sports League:

2005

Spring kickball = 272 Summer kickball = 468 Fall kickball = 432

Total 2005 kickball = 1,172

Spring softball = 294 Summer softball = 1,025 Fall softball = 702

Total 2005 softball = 2,021

Estimated total for all leagues: 6,700

2006

Spring kickball = 396 Summer kickball = 432 Fall kickball = 432

Total 2006 kickball = 1,260

Spring softball = 510 Summer softball = 1,116 Fall softball = 756

Total 2006 softball = 2,382

Estimated total for all leagues: 9,300

2007

Spring kickball = 432 Summer kickball = 665 Fall kickball = to be determined

Total 2007 kickball = to be determined (1,097 so far)

Spring softball = 684 Summer softball = 1,386 Fall softball = TBD

Total 2007 softball = TBD (2,070 so far)

Estimated total for all leagues: 8,150 so far


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