When we reopened our sports league, we brought back 1,250 teams, 15,000 players and even a couple of Arkells

When we reopened our sports league, we brought back 1,250 teams, 15,000 players and even a couple of Arkells

Over the last 25 years, Kristi Herold has grown Jam Sport and Social Group from a small local league into a massive operation with 150,000 players. After a year and a half of cabin fever, players finally returned to the field this month. Here’s how it went.

As told to Andrea Yu

“I’ve always wanted to run my own business. Back in 1995, I was new to the city and I thought playing sports would be a fun way to meet people. I heard about a club in San Francisco that organized recreational sports leagues for adults and I thought I should start something like that in Toronto. I thought it’d be a great way to combine sports and entrepreneurship—and meet new people along the way.

“I started the Toronto Sport and Social Club the next year. I set out with five sports: soccer, flag football, beach volleyball, ultimate Frisbee and basketball. I had 53 teams and about 2,500 players that first season. We grew steadily for 20 years, then rapidly from 2016 to 2019 as we acquired eight recreational sports leagues. Just before the pandemic, we were operating leagues in 11 cities in Ontario and Michigan. We had about 40 full-time staff, 350 part-time staff and about 150,000 people playing with us annually. Our players typically range between 18 and mid-40s. They’re usually young urban professionals—we have doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, business people, hospitality industry workers, entrepreneurs. Maybe they’re looking to make new friends, looking to meet a romantic partner, or it’s a way to keep in touch with university friends. We can attribute thousands of marriages and babies to our leagues and the people who met there.

“When Covid began, no one could gather indoors or outdoors, so our leagues shut down. We were working on two new acquisitions, which both got put on ice. We had to temporarily lay off 90 per cent of our full-time staff. When the wage subsidies kicked in, we were able to rehire almost everyone back, and by May 2020, we’d launched online bingo nights, trivia nights and speed dating. Businesses were hiring us to host virtual corporate team-building activities. We’ve since run 1,500 virtual events in the past year for companies in more than 23 countries.

“In July 2020, restrictions eased and we started up our season again. But we only got a quarter of the registrations in Ontario that we had in 2019 — 6,300 compared to 26,000. Then we got shut down again in September with the second wave. Meanwhile, the corporate events arm continued to build momentum, and we eventually rebranded the entire sport and social group as Jam. We host virtual escape rooms, game shows and scavenger hunts, in addition to our adult sports leagues.

Photo by Paul Perrier Photography

“Based on our discussions with the Ontario Science Advisory Table last winter, we believed that outdoor teams should be able to play by April. I thought we’d be able to start our spring season in May. Unlike a retail store, we can’t just open the doors. We have to get people signed up and put schedules together. It takes us a few weeks to get going. But the province didn’t open up as expected. I tried to stay positive for my team, but it was deflating.

“When reopening was finally announced, we flagged July 5 as our reopen date and started registration for the summer season. It was June 23 when the government announced that we were officially going into stage two a couple of days early. Our team has a daily seven-minute team huddle, and it always starts with good news. That was definitely the good news of the day. ‘We’re doing it! It’s happening!’ We have a pretty massive email database of 100,000 players who have played with us over the years. So as soon as we knew we were going to be able to open up again, we started emailing them and using our social channels to get the word out. We brought back about 15,000 players playing on 1,250 teams across 12 different sports.

“I was out at games for the first few nights of our season. First up, I went to ultimate Frisbee at Sunnybrook Park. People were so happy to be out playing. I saw people bent over on the sidelines, huffing and puffing, saying, ‘Oh my god, I’m so out of shape.’ I heard people saying, ‘Wow, did I ever need to get back at this.’ There were some teams who hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half. I also met a lot of people who signed up by themselves, playing a new sport for the first time and making friends. Some of our games got rained out that evening—people were drenched, but they still looked so happy to be out.

“After that, I went to Downsview Park, where we had flag football and soccer, and the next night, I was down at Polson Pier watching beach volleyball. I probably saw about 50 games that first week. I didn’t get to see the softball games happening that week, but afterwards, I looked at photos and recognized members of the Arkells playing with us. That was fun to see.

“We have protocols in place for safety. We’re encouraging people to stay six feet apart on the sidelines. But people don’t need to wear masks when they’re playing, and we don’t have any dressing rooms or change rooms open. After teams scored, there were a lot of elbow bumps instead of high-fives.

“It was amazing to see everyone back out and playing sports again. Many of our returning league ambassadors told me how happy they were to be back out. There were lots of smiles all around. It was fantastic. People were saying, ‘We’ve missed this so much. We couldn’t wait to get playing.’

“We have a long road ahead of us to build back to our pre-Covid numbers. Our July/August 2021 season had about 15,500 players in Ontario, which is about half of what we had in 2019. I’m hoping the two acquisitions we had in the works pre-Covid will still happen. Interestingly, in Michigan, where things opened back up sooner, we’ve had more people register than ever before—3,000 players compared to 2,500 at the same time in 2019. I think it’s a good sign. Once people feel less fearful and our facilities are fully open again, we’ll get back to the numbers we had before.”