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By: Rebecca Michuda

February 27, 2013

Driving down Lake Shore Drive on a summer evening – the azure lake, runners, bikers and dog walkers flood the path, and then there’s North Avenue Beach with rows and rows of volleyball nets and temporary sandy courts. Through the sea of people, you can make out spikes, sets, serves, bumps and dives. To many, this scene sums up summer in Chicago.

Enter Chicago Sport and Social Club, the organized sports league that fills up our beachfronts every season with 1,500 volleyball teams, reaching close to 20,000 people. “There’s nothing like being on the beach in Chicago in the summertime,” says President Jason Erkes. “You’ve got the skyline, the lake and thousands of people around you. The energy is contagious.”

With over 20 different sports and activities throughout the year catering to all skill levels, there’s something for everyone. While beach volleyball is the most popular in summer, other team sports

include basketball, soccer, flag football and softball. The newest additions to the list are co-ed rugby and futsal, a game similar to soccer but with less players and a smaller, heavier ball. Independent activities include kayaking, rock climbing and dancing. “We do pretty much everything you can think of,” adds Mr. Erkes.

Chicago Sport and Social Club activities cater to every type of athlete from recreational to competitive and everywhere in between. “Recreational is for the weekend warrior, someone who played intramurals or is familiar with the sport from gym class. The competitive level is for someone who has college playing experience,” says Mr. Erkes. “That way everyone fits into a pocket.”

Now for the social aspect. “We try to interject a heavy social atmosphere on and off the field,” explains Mr. Erkes. “We encourage people to go out and socialize with the people they just played against, win or lose.”

Aside from sports, about 100 separate social events are planned every year, ranging from ski trips to after-work parties to a Cubs or Sox game with 100 to 1,000 people. “At the end of the day it’s a great place to meet people,” observes Mr. Erkes. “You’re interacting with people on the social and physical arena, which adds a lot of fun to it.”

Many members are thankful for not only the incredible sports and activities they’ve experienced, but also connections they’ve made.

Grace Napolitano, account director, Michigan Avenue Magazine, joined Chicago Sport and Social Club, not to meet a prospective husband, but to bowl. She just so happened to meet her dream guy while playing on a winter bowling league at Waveland Bowl. “I joined because I really enjoy bowling, but none of my friends wanted to make the commitment to join a league,” says Ms. Napolitano. “So I did it on my own.” But to her surprise, she met Zack Napolitano who’d joined her team and they hit it off right away. He proposed exactly two years later.

Mr. Napolitano had just moved to Chicago and was looking to meet new people. But, like Ms. Napolitano, he never had intensions of meeting someone romantically. “Whenever Zack and I meet a young girl or guy in their 20s looking for love, we always tell them, ‘Go bowling!,’” she says. “The worst that will happen is you make a new group of friends.”

With over 5,000 teams formed each year, Chicago Sport and Social Club is the largest organized sports league the country, making it nearly impossible not to meet someone. “The beginning of people’s social network starts with us,” adds Mr. Erkes. “Every participant who’s ever played has walked away with friends.”

When Nicole Baich moved to Chicago after college in 2008, she wanted to meet people…fast. “I always saw people playing volleyball on the beach and knew I wanted to be a part of it,” she recalls. “Sports and socializing are my background. It’s what I do.”

She soon landed a part-time job at Chicago Sport and Social Club, overseeing scoring and rules for league volleyball games. But when a basketball team needed a female player, she volunteered right away. Since she started, she’s played other sports (volleyball, bowling, kickball) and has participated in numerous social activities.

“Year round, they’re putting together interesting outings I bring my friends to. The Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties are always great –never to be missed,” shares Ms. Baich, who admits even if she didn’t work there, she’d still participate on teams. “Chicago Sport and Social Club holds certain standards that you don’t necessarily find at other locations.”

As Chicago Sport and Social Club reaches its 25th anniversary next year, new friendships, connections and probably a few marriages will continue to be made. In the mean time, we’ll see you on the playing field.

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