Metro Detroit YPs Get Game

Just kickin' around on the 5 p.m. shift? Medaling in sloth? That won't win you any beer points with Justin Jacobs, founder and prez of intramural sports league organizer Come Play Detroit.

The DePaul University graduate moved from Chicago to Detroit in 2007 for a marketing position at ePrize and was unimpressed with how his peers passed their evenings. The chief downtime pursuit among the area's YP crowd was TV... and disconnect.

"No one was really socially engaged," as Jacobs tells it. "They weren't meeting people, they weren't having fun making the best out of being in their early-to-mid-20s."

So he used Facebook and word of mouth to assemble a basketball league among friends, and had 10 teams signed up within two weeks. By February of 2010 he had a recreational outlet – and the framework of a sport-and-social business.

Then his female friends wanted in. So Jacobs questioned the ladies as to their wishes, and, voilà! Kickball, by a landslide. Come Play Detroit was soon fielding 26 teams of 15 people each.

Jacobs modeled Come Play Detroit after a similar IM sports and rec league provider, Chicago Sport and Social Club, whose founder he credits with giving him the vision. In the past year-and-a-half, participation has grown to over 3,500, with anywhere from 10-15 leagues active at any time. Jacobs, who plays basketball, kickball, softball, volleyball, and bowls, says the spirit is recreational and not whupass competitive.

Leagues cost $40-$100 per player, or $550-$750 per team. Sessions last from 8-12 weeks, plus playoff time. Kickball gets the most takers, but players can vie at games from dodgeball to flag football to knockin' bowling pins. There's an afterparty at venues like The New Fifth Avenue Royal Oak, 24 Seconds in Berkley, or Detroit's Grand Trunk Pub at the end of each session.

Last year sales topped $100,000 and "this year will be well above that", he says. The bulk of the green is made through sponsorships from over 30 private Detroit businesses and other community support. "There are other models where you just charge [players] a lot but what we really noticed about Detroit is it's very price-sensitive... The key is to keep it as low-cost as possible so anyone can come and be part of it," Jacobs says.

Suburban leagues take the fields and courts at Birmingham Groves High School, Southfield's Inglenook Park, and other locales in Oak Park, Ferndale, and Royal Oak.

But the venue where Jacobs pushes hardest is Detroit's Belle Isle. Come Play Detroit now hosts a summer softball league on this underused island whose sport legacy includes the Detroit Triathlon, a lonely three-mile loop of the Detroit Marathon, and family picnic bouts of horseshoes and cornball. He plans to add a second softball league and some kickball, volleyball, and tennis.

"I need people to be playing downtown," Jacobs says.

As such, he's working with the likes of Quicken Loans and Compuware and other significant corporate presences in the city to make employees aware that after-work life in Detroit is more engaging than bars or the telly. That helps build bonds among professionals and keeps them within city limits, he feels.

"We've done a really good job out in the suburbs and we just have to take it to the next step and that's downtown. And once that starts to thrive, the number one thing that keeps young adults engaged in their community is social offerings," he says. "Once people start participating and working, that's when they'll really be more likely to make Detroit their home."

In fact, a recent survey, "Soul of the Community", conducted by the Knight Foundation, found that Detroiters cited social offerings as among the most compelling reasons to stay in an area.

Jacobs has hired a business development employee to help him reach out to corporate human resources and community relations departments. They've received good feedback from a dozen organizations so far, though Jacobs concedes it's been a slow slog. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Deloitte, and a team of University of Detroit dental students have signed on.

They've also visited young leadership groups at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University to tell students home for the summer of these activities. And an intern has been brought on board.

"The thing people don't realize is how many people are actually here," Jacobs, 28, says. "Everyone says all their friends have moved to New York or Chicago or L.A., because they don't do anything to see all those other people who are around."

Jacobs lives what he pitches. In June he moved from Bloomfield Hills to a 1915 house in Midtown, a couple of blocks from the Detroit Institute of Arts. Jacobs calls the home he shares with five others "a communal hub for young adults". The housemates throw 300-person-plus parties with plenty of neighboring folk and a spectrum of ages in tow. Even as we talk on a Friday morning, there's a male cacophony of door openings and background banter.

"What we figure is if we start with one house of young adults, we start getting more people that start moving around us and start creating communal hubs and dense pockets of young professionals," he offers.

One incentive he's involved with to perk downtown is "Pitch for Detroit" a softball tournament being held August 28 to raise $100,000 for the Live Detroit Fund sponsored by CommunityNEXT. Up to 25 young professionals will be selected to receive rent subsidies of $250 each per month to move downtown. Jacobs says the subsidies will last a minimum of one year.

Sports leagues and rent chip-ins do get people sticking around, yeah, but come-take-a-gander events don't hurt either. So in what could be a big vivid gob of togetherness as seen from the sky, Come Play Detroit is partnering with Detroit's Youth Connection to host (potentially) the world's largest dodgeball game, "Dodgeball in the D". Set for August 20 on Belle Isle, the match has been registered with Guinness World Records. Jacobs is expecting from 5,000-10,000 players.

"We're going to give half the people one color shirt and the other half another color shirt, put a bunch of balls in between them, blow the whistle, and let them start throwing them at each other," he envisions. Best shining behavior isn't optional – an army of volunteer refs will be handling calls of foul ball.

The current crowning game, per Guinness World Records online, is a 2,136-person affair staged last May by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and the Dodgeball Club at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. Guinness World Records did not respond to a request for comment.

At the very least, Jacobs' compadres have set personal bests. "Friends of mine...before these leagues had that routine of not doing anything every day, and now they're playing sports three days a week and they love it. They're having a better experience living in Detroit." And loving. He knows of a dozen relationships that've sprouted.

Jacobs calls for more clustering in the city and its satellites, whether of couples, teams, housefuls... or a flood of dodgeballs.

"I'll tell you this, I'm not goin' anywhere," he says. "I'm in, and I'm happy to do all this, and we're gonna continue to build."

Tanya Muzumdar is Assistant Editor at Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous story was Double Lives: Tim Kochenderfer


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