All In the Game

Entrepreneur works to capitalize on play

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

All work and no play makes ... oh, you know the rest. The point is, just because you’re over 20 – perhaps way over – that doesn’t mean you have to limit your outdoor fun to, say, crawfish boils.

Lavonzell Nicholson has a better idea: Sign up to play team sports.

Nicholson founded PLAYNOLA for people who would like to get out and stretch their legs while having fun with other people who are doing the same. She has drawn thousands of adults around New Orleans into the action, and she’s itching to sign up more.

“For those who’d like to play but don’t have a team, or maybe they’re new in town and looking to meet people, we’ll help them find a team and a chance to get together with others,” Nicholson says.

She founded PLAYNOLA in 2009 with the hope of making some money while helping people stay off their couches. Since then, she says, the enterprise has become possibly the fastest-growing organizer of coed recreational sports leagues in the local area. PLAYNOLA’s softball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, dodgeball, kickball and flag football teams can be found kicking up the dust on fields and playgrounds around the city on just about any afternoon or evening of the week.

Based on a concept that has taken hold in some other cities, such as Chicago, PLAYNOLA aims to become a catalyst for social networking through recreation. It is a little like Facebook, except you actually meet up with friends in person and do something with them besides share pictures of kids and cats.

Surveys by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association show that interest in fitness continues to grow throughout the country, and individuals’ choices in fitness activity are evolving. Individual exercise such as running and cycling remain popular, and more than 50 million Americans now hold memberships in health clubs, the association says. But participation in organized fitness activities also is growing, as evidenced by proliferating yoga and Zumba classes.

Amateur team sports such as lacrosse, volleyball and rugby also are on the rise, the association reports.

Organizations such as PLAYNOLA aim to build on that momentum by giving a wide range of people an opportunity to belong to a team even if they’re not necessarily imbued with competitive fire.

People who sign up with PLAYNOLA can not only choose their sport, but also can select from several “levels of play,” which helps ensure that the gal who has never swung a bat before doesn’t land on a team with the guy who can’t stand to lose. The levels range from “super social,” designed for people who consider the fun more important than the game, to competitive, for folks who are in it to win.

Nicholson, who has a business degree from Johns Hopkins University as well as a masters degree in social work, says her first job was as a camp director for adults. “I guess I’ve come full-circle,” she says.

She based her business model for PLAYNOLA on a combination of fees and sponsorships. The fee schedule varies with type and number of events, but is structured to be affordable to just about anyone.

A person who signs up for softball, for instance, will pay about $60, which covers six “regular-season” games played against a half-dozen other teams, plus two weeks of playoff games. The fee covers the necessary equipment, a uniform (likely a T-shirt) and professional referees, with whom PLAYNOLA contracts based on their experience.

The company also invites sponsorships by local businesses, such as sporting-goods companies or neighborhood bars, that kick in at varying levels to support an individual team or a league, and put their logos on team T-shirts and host social events.

PLAYNOLA has a social networking component on its website that lets members create a profile and “chat” with people who have common interests, or “talk smack” before a game.

Close to 4,000 people have become PLAYNOLA team members, and Nicholson looks to expand that base through the addition of new activities and easy ways for people to “test drive” a team sport. A new series called “Summer Quickies,” for example, lets individuals sign up for four Saturdays of, say, dodgeball or grass volleyball. Coming in August is inner tube water polo and, possibly, ultimate frisbee.

Nicholson tries to emphasize the social aspects of PLAYNOLA membership as much as the sports themselves. “We’re really creating a social experience for people, and we try to think about what we can do beyond just playing sports,” she says.

That can mean organizing pre-season social events or occasional after-game parties. Some teams also plan outside events on their own.
In addition to Nicholson, three league coordinators take charge of planning schedules and locations for specific leagues and communicating with team members. PLAYNOLA contracts with more than a dozen referees. Game locations range from City Park to New Orleans Recreation Department playgrounds to indoor facilities at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside and downtown Marriott hotels.

While most teams and leagues are open to both men and women, Nicholson says high interest in softball has her planning for an all-male softball league, perhaps in the fall. She will also be looking for new ways to weave social opportunities into the sports schedules.

Pointing to one success story, she notes a young man and a young woman who met through PLAYNOLA and have played on its teams for the past few years recently announced their engagement. “Apparently, we’re doing something right,” Nicholson says.
 

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