Most people haven’t played kickball since about age 10. But in the past decade, that’s changed for a lot of gay men and lesbians thanks to the adult kickball league hosted by Varsity Gay League. Going strong since 2010, the adult kickball league attracts thousands of players each season, not just in Los Angeles, but across the country.
Kickball is one of several sports sponsored by Varsity Gay League, a seven-year-old adult recreation league catering to the LGBT community. Varsity Gay League (VGL) also offers soccer, tennis, beach volleyball, flag football and bowling. It’s providing a sporting outlet for gay men, lesbians and transgender people who like to be athletic and competitive, but want to do it in the company of other LGBT people.
“For anybody who’s interested in meeting new people, getting outside the house, being active, looking to enjoy Southern California weather and or just looking for something outside the bars, my organization, or any other LGBT organization, is a great way to do that,” explains Will Hackner, founder and head of VGL. “We build confidence, we have fun, and we forge great friendships.”
What started as simple sporting games among gay men has evolved into a full-time business for Hackner. In addition to leagues in Los Angeles, Varsity Gay League has expanded across California – now in San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento and Long Beach, with Palm Springs coming soon – and the entire United States – Austin, Orlando, and Boston are getting started with Dallas, Denver and Fort Lauderdale coming soon.
For many LGBT people, VGL provides a sense of community they haven’t been finding anywhere else. Bobby Beus, who has been playing kickball and flag football with VGL since 2016, is one such person.
“I was looking for a social life,” says Beus. “People talk a lot in West Hollywood and they kind of talk about how it’s not a true community in the gay community; there doesn’t feel like a lot of inclusiveness. That’s something that Will has created here . . . . It’s the perfect way to meet people, make friends and keep them.”
The camaraderie is strong and extends far beyond the playing field. Most teams go out drinking after games, frequently to Gym Bar in Boystown. Many teams make social plans outside of game time. And plenty of individual friendships have been forged.
“Here in LA, we spend so much of our time by ourselves in our car and we’re so spread out, so when you can have a community event where you feel connected to where you live and the people you’re around, it’s great,” says Shaun Klaseus, who has been playing in VGL’s bowling and soccer leagues for three years. “It’s a sense of sportsmanship that you don’t get in other places.”
Chance to be athletic
Many of VGL’s players played sports as kids. However, many others did not. Plenty of gay teens avoided sports for fear of being teased and shamed about their athletic abilities, especially since they were often also being harassed by schoolmates who perceived them as gay; no need to give your tormentors further ammunition to use against you.
Thus, a lot of VGL’s players are discovering sports for the first time. Or at least enjoying them for the first time in large part because they are in the company of other LGBT players.
Don’t feel like you’re athletically gifted? No worries. All skill levels are welcomed. Players readily help new players get acclimated and offer tips and encouraging words.
“We have people of every skill level, beginner to advanced. Everyone is encouraged,” says Klaseus. “We’ll help you out. We’ll support you. You want to play? Come play. It doesn’t matter how good you are.”
Harassing attitudes and negative comments are strictly forbidden
“We have strict policies on not being a douchebag. We literally call it the “No Douchebag Rule” or not being rude to your fellow teammates and opponents,” says Hackner. If other players complain about a fellow playing coming off too strong or being a jerk, Hackner will send that player a friendly email addressing the concerns and suggesting he or she tone it down.
Don’t misunderstand, the players are competitive. They are playing to win, but there is also an intense sense of respect among them. “There’s still a competitive desire to win, but there’s also this kind of support system. We all know when we were younger, there was a reluctance to even want to participate at all for judgment or fear of not being very good, but that’s not here at all,” says Beus. Klaseus adds, “The great thing is we can be competitive, but also empathetic. So you might knock someone over, but then you give them a hand to get up. We all understand what it’s like to be the underdog. We can be competitive and aggressive, but not assholes.”
The vast majority of VGL players are men in their mid-20s to mid-30s. However, they also have a good showing of people in their 40s as well as a few in their 50s and older. The sport tends to determine which age range turns out. Soccer skews younger. Bowling and tennis skew older. Kickball gets a good mix of ages.
Women make up about 17% percent of the overall enrollment. Although they play in all the VGL sports, women tend to play mostly soccer, bowling and kickball.
While the leagues are primarily made up of LGBT people, some straights play too. Hackner estimates about five to eight percent of the players are straight. Although some would like to see VGL be exclusively LGBT, Hackner wants VGL to be inclusive.
“My philosophy is, ‘Do not be prejudicial to them if you do not want them to be prejudicial back to you,’” explains Hackner. “We are an open community. I believe in inclusivity, not exclusivity. Anytime, in any of my organizations, anybody has an issue with that, I will tell them, ‘You are being absurd.’”
VGL leagues play on fields all across Los Angeles, but Poinsettia Park, on Willoughby Avenue at Poinsettia Place, tends to get used most often. The bowling leagues play at X Lanes in downtown Los Angeles, Shatto Lanes in Koreatown and Bowlmor in Santa Monica. Beach volleyball is at Will Rogers Beach in Pacific Palisades.
The cost to play in a league ranges from $45 to $200 per season, depending on the sport. Each season lasts eight to ten weeks, again depending on the sport. Playoff games are held in each sport at the conclusion of each season, with trophies and medals given.
VGL generally takes four to five weeks off between seasons, so players have some downtime and don’t suffer burnout. That way, when the next season starts, players are anxious to play again.
Kickball is played year round, as is tennis, which switches between doubles and singles tennis each season. VGL offers three seasons a year of soccer and bowling, while beach volleyball and flag football are offered two seasons a year. Hackner employs a dozen part-time people in the LA area to oversee the leagues. Each game has an employee on hand to troubleshoot.
Interested in playing but not ready to commit to a full season? VGL has ways to let people sample the sport before committing. Anyone is welcome to come to their weekly kickball practice, held Wednesday nights in Poinsettia Park, at a cost of $5 per person. The other sports have Facebook pages and Facebook groups where players often are looking for a substitute for a night. And of course, spectators are always welcome to watch the games.
VGL does not offer dodgeball, softball, basketball, hockey or rugby because other gay organizations are already doing those sports. If those are the sports you’re looking for, Hackner will readily put you in touch with those groups. “We’re all one big community and I’ll help you get to the sport you want,” he says.
Started with an impromptu game of tag
Varsity Gay League traces its origin back to June 2007 when Hackner and two friends went to Boystown for a night of bar hopping but ended up in West Hollywood Park swinging on the swings instead. On a whim, they decided to play a game of tag. Their game caught the attention of people walking through the park, some of whom joined in.
“We were just being foolish and we had so much fun,” recalls the 36-year-old Hackner, who grew up in Chicago and Maryland. “In that moment, it sparked the engine that soon became what this is. I realized how much fun I was having and how much vulnerability can have in that.”
Soon after, Hackner and his friend, Andrew Oldershaw, decided to organize a game of Capture the Flag in Pan Pacific Park. They spread the word among friends and when turnout was good, they did it again a month later. The next year they organized four or five Capture the Flag games. When turnout and enthusiasm continued to be high, they created Varsity Gay League, although at that point, it was still just a game here and there.
“I was selfish, I created the organization to fill a void in my life, and now I’m filling that void in other people’s lives,” muses Hackner, who moved to Hollywood in 2002 with dreams of making movies after graduating with a film major from New York University.
In 2010, VGL sponsored a kickball tournament that was met with such passion, the next year, they created a kickball league to play weekly games.
Turning a hobby into a business
By 2012, the response had been so good that when Hackner was laid off from his job, he put his severance pay into turning Varsity Gay League into a business. With kickball going strong, the next year, VGL added bowling and doubles tennis to the offerings. 2014 saw soccer and beach volleyball added to the roster. Then in 2016, flag football became part of VGL’s repertoire thanks to a partnership with Los Angeles Flag Football League. VGL also hosts a monthly trivia night at Gym Bar and occasionally does board game nights.
At the same time, they also started expanding to other cities. San Diego, in 2014, came first, followed by Sacramento and then San Francisco. VGL is now in eight cities, with four more coming soon. VGL offers kickball in every city into which it has expanded, but the other sports vary from city to city.
Ironically, Hackner was not especially athletic as a kid. He played some sports when he was younger, but by high school, he was shorter than the other students and was bullied. Consequently, he didn’t feel capable and gravitated to the school drama club. However, while at summer camp, he was forced to play sports. When he became a camp counselor, one of his jobs was organizing the games for the younger kids to play, a skill that would prove vital for putting together VGL.
“I’ve always loved organizing events,” Hackner reports. “I’ve organized nonprofit events for over a decade, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. I like parties, I like events, I like entertaining people. That’s why I got involved in entertainment. That’s why I was an actor before that. That’s why I’ve done events. That’s why I do Varsity Gay League. I love entertaining people and this is just a special way of doing it that’s very hands on.”
VGL has also taught Hackner how to be a salesman, who can now talk up his business as well as, if not better than, any of the entrepreneurs on “Shark Tank.”
“We’re more affordable than any other comparable sports league that is in LA,” he boasts. “So, we’re cheaper, we’re better, we’re more fun and we give more incentive. We give free water at games. We give Icees this summer. We give free beer at the bar afterward. We have free pizza once a month for players through Fresh Brothers, one of our sponsors. We have discount cards that give discounts at 35 businesses across LA. I believe the more that you give to the players back, not only are you creating the community, but you’re also enabling them to feel like this is theirs, like they are welcome. I don’t look it like my business. I look at it like a community enterprise.”
For more info about Varsity Gay League, visit the website: http://varsitygayleague.com/