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An Online Service Helps Organize Pickup Games

An online service for organizing pickup games offers people a new way to meet their neighbors.

Ooc 1106 Ab After graduating from college, Andrew Holland relocated from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, to Milwaukee. An avid tennis and soccer player throughout high school and college, Holland was determined to stay active despite being miles away from his former playing partners.

In search of pickup tennis matches, Holland would venture down to the lakefront courts near his home, add his name to a sign-up list there, and return home to wait for a phone call. "You used to be able to walk down the steps, sign up on a chalkboard in the morning and get to play as much tennis as you wanted," says Holland. "I spent a lot of time playing tennis right down there by Lake Michigan."

A decade later, though Holland is back home in Akron running an Internet professional services company with two longtime friends, he still frequently finds himself on the lookout for an impromptu match. But instead of a sign-up sheet posted at a park, Holland now uses the Internet to find local action.

The brainchild of Holland and his business partners, GameSnake.com is a free online service that matches players with pickup games and teams in more than 100 sports. Once a person registers, the web site uses his or her age, gender, zip code and sports preferences to match him or her with games happening at area courts, fields and facilities.

"I was dismayed that as I got older, I couldn't find nine other people to play basketball with or even one suitable opponent for tennis," says Holland. "And with pickup games, the harsh truth is that socioeconomics becomes people's filter for friends. As we get older, it's all about where our kids go to school, where we live, what church we go to, what business we're involved in. That's what defines our friends, as opposed to potentially shared interests. So when we built this thing, we were envisioning what I'll lovingly refer to as an inclusion engine, a way to get people in the community to seek out other people based on their shared interests and love of sport."

GameSnake.com's eBay-meets-eHarmony concept is working, thanks in large part to the site's post-game peer rating process. "When people play, they're going to get rated by other players for their ability and their attitude," says Holland. "So if people are jerks, they're going to get voted off the island."

And there are plenty of people willing to fill the vacancy. "When I try to get an eight-on-eight soccer game, 380 invites go out," says Holland. "And we normally end up with four or five fields of eight-on-eight."

Such self-policing also helps ensure player safety. "Everybody wants fair teams," says Holland. "I'm old now - I'm brittle and I have to go to work the next day. So we set up games with no slide tackling. It's good competitive soccer, but no one gets hurt."

After launching in 2004 with a beta version targeting students at 30 college campuses nationwide, GameSnake.com now boasts nearly 50,000 members residing in communities of all sizes - from Corvallis, Ore., to Provo, Utah, to the Twin Cities. Holland anticipates he'll offer registration to the site for free until it reaches two million members, after which he'll charge a nominal subscription fee to help generate revenue.

In the meantime, because of their transient nature, college students and recent grads in "hyperactive" cities such as San Diego and Austin, Texas, continue to be GameSnake.com's target demographic. "We're finding these people are looking for connections with other people," says Holland, arguing that a busy, erratic work schedule shouldn't keep someone sidelined - or worse yet, couch-bound. "If you're a young professional, you're probably traveling a lot and it becomes hard to become a team member in a regular league."

Those who organize recreational sports leagues for a living may view GameSnake.com as a threat that undermines their ability to draw program participants. Nothing could be further from the truth, says Laurie Beisecker, director of parks and recreation for the city of Fairlawn, an Akron suburb. For the past two years, her department has teamed with a local for-profit entity, Towpath Racquet Club, which uses GameSnake.com to organize and administer instructional programs on Fairlawn's seven public tennis courts. The collaboration has revived Fairlawn's tennis programs, which previously suffered from lackluster instructors, many of them college students looking to cruise through summer work.

"We soon learned that a lot of them weren't instructor material, whereas Towpath actually has qualified instructors," says Beisecker. "Towpath also does all the registration and collects the money. We just advertise it in our program guide that goes out to our residents. Now, the programs are filled up. Our people love them and they're using our courts after the programs are over. In essence, Towpath is doing us a favor."

In turn, Towpath reaps its own benefits - both immediate and long-term. On one hand, for putting on the tennis program the club nets all the proceeds, which doesn't bother Beisecker one bit. "We don't want any part of the money from this," she says. "We try to get professional people to come in and do our programs so that our residents have quality programs at decent prices."

On the other hand, such collaborations are also seen as helping fuel the growth of a recreational tennis-playing public. Towpath owner Dallas Aleman lauds rec departments such as those in Fairlawn and Akron - which have allowed the club to use their courts to hold playing sessions and open tournaments at which GameSnake.com advertising signs are prominently displayed - for seeing past the traditional public-private barriers.

"GameSnake is a new animal and people don't know how to treat it," says Aleman. "There are some city administrators who see that we're a for-profit and ask, 'What's your agenda? Are you going to try to make money on this?' Or they look at the old rule from 35 years ago about signage - 'We can't allow everybody to put a sign up about an activity in a public park. There will be signs everywhere' - so there's no sign and then nobody knows anything about what's going on. I think that's the old school of thought. But where public and private entities collaborate, you get the most mileage and you have healthier communities. No one's going to make a million bucks off this."

At least, not yet. But if GameSnake.com's popularity among Akron-area recreational athletes continues to rise - in a year's time, the number of area tennis players registered on the site has quadrupled, from 80 to 320 - facilities like Towpath could see a similar membership increase.

Aleman will continue to offer activities such as Towpath's free Saturday-night Meet Your Partner events - which, using GameSnake.com, invite non-members to the club to play tennis and meet new friends. "The first questions a person who starts to get involved asks are, 'Where am I going to play? Who am I going to play with? And am I going to have fun?' " he says. "If I'm out there telling people, 'I want you to join the United States Tennis Association and participate in all these tournaments,' that's a barrier. But GameSnake, in a very unobtrusive way, lets people register and learn how to play."

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