City Paper is not for tourists
To some folks, “adult kickball” is oxymoronic to a cringe-inducing level. But, like it or not, D.C. is now the center of the adult-kickball universe.
Turns out our town is also now home to an adult-kickball war.
Last week at Walter Pierce Park in Adams Morgan, a league calling itself DCKickball opened for business with its inaugural set of games. Just under 400 people signed up to be on DCKickball’s 16-team slate, meaning the fledgling confederation was only a few players short of filling every roster.
“Opening night was a great time,” says Carter Rabasa, DCKickball’s founder and president. “People were coming up to me at the field saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for starting this.’ After all the work it took to get this off the ground, that was great.”
Not everybody on the local kickball scene celebrated the launch of his league. DCKickball’s rollout boosts our town’s adult-kickball-league count to two. And those allied with the other alliance founded in this area, known as the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA), weren’t congratulating Rabasa.
“We taught Carter everything he knows about how to create a [kickball league], how to run a league, and now he’s decided to do his own thing,” says Marisa Stanga, a regional care manager for WAKA.
Rabasa has high hopes for his new group: “It’s going to blow up, just explode. We’re going to be four or five times bigger next year,” he says.
Even if those lofty growth projections are met, however, it still wouldn’t be accurate to call DCKickball a rival of WAKA. It’s more of a bastard son, really. And while DCKickball is in diapers, WAKA is an adult-kickball behemoth.
Just ask ’em.
“The World Adult Kickball Association is the preeminent adult kickball organization and the world governing body of kickball,” is how the preamble to the WAKA rule book begins.
There’s cause for bluster. In 1998, four 20-something buddies started up WAKA as a way to provide what they called a “social/athletic” experience through kickball. The league boasted one division with eight teams and about 150 players in its first season, when all games were played on the Mall. From the beginning, WAKA’s founding fathers insisted they wanted to create an adult-kickball juggernaut, and so they have. For reasons that have far more to do with the social than the athletic—a drinking game called “flip cup” has assumed ritualistic significance among the WAKA faithful—adult kickball took off. Stanga says WAKA now runs about 100 different divisions (with as many as 400 players per division) in more than 30 states, plus D.C. Eighteen of those divisions are in D.C., a total higher than any state’s. (Virginia has 17; Maryland has five.)
Simply, there is no kickball league anywhere in the world that comes close to WAKA’s size. Even Rabasa admits he’s in awe of WAKA’s rise.
“WAKA should be proud. They went from a scraggly group on the Mall to a national organization in a short time,” says Rabasa, a Web developer when he’s not kickballing. “Now, they’re the Microsoft of kickball. They’ve got a monopoly. If you look at kickball as an industry, and it has become an industry, then like in any other industry, monopolies are bad.”
Rabasa once harbored nothing but warm feelings about WAKA. The Langley High School and College of William & Mary alum signed up to play kickball for a WAKA team when he moved downtown five years ago. He held several voluntary positions for WAKA, and by 2003 he had gone from captain of his team, called the Fockers, all the way up to president of WAKA’s Independence Division, which played its games on the Mall.
But Rabasa says that he grew disillusioned with WAKA as he rose in the local ranks, all the while helping and watching the group attain national behemothdom. His disillusionment had nothing to do with his being in his late 20s and still immersed in a game designed for second-graders. No, Rabasa was tired of being a cog in an operation that got, by his estimation, too big too fast.
“At WAKA, everybody who pays to play on a team is a customer, but the organization was forgetting to provide good service to the customers,” he says. “And since they had no competition, when there was a problem, such as no T-shirts being ready when the season starts or overscheduling or about a budgetary discrepancy between a division and [the national office], there was no recourse. As president of a WAKA division, I was getting screwed by WAKA all the time. But it was WAKA or nothing, and WAKA took advantage of that.”
As a WAKA division president, Rabasa says, he put in dozens of hours every week. He says the level of financial support from headquarters, given the amount of money his division was making for WAKA, also bothered him.
According to a D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs database, the World Adult Kickball Association was registered in April 1998 as a domestic nonprofit corporation based in the city. That corporation, however, has subsequently been dissolved. Meanwhile, according to a Virginia State Corporation Commission database, in November 2002, WAKA LLC was registered in the Old Dominion as a limited-liability corporation. That’s a for-profit entity. (Several newspaper articles about WAKA on the group’s Web site refer to WAKA as a nonprofit organization. I could find no mention of its for-profit status on the site.)
Founder Johnny LeHane declines to discuss why WAKA made the switch from a nonprofit to a for-profit venture. “That’s not something we talk about,” LeHane says. But Stanga says that WAKA’s four founders have made running the kickball league their full-time job.
“WAKA doesn’t have to show anybody any records anymore, like financial records,” says Rabasa. “But do the math: Players pay between $60 to $75 each, depending on if there is a fee to reserve a field in your league. [Mall fields are free. Pierce Park is not.] The players get a decent value from that fee, I’m not arguing that. But it could be a better value. All the labor to run a division, from referees to people like me who served as president, comes from volunteers. Every bit of it. That doesn’t include money that WAKA gets from sponsorships from bars. But all [WAKA officials at the national level] do is collect fees, provide T-shirts, and walk away.”
The cost of WAKA T-shirts, says a former division president, is covered by each team’s sponsor—generally a drinking establishment—and doesn’t come out of registration fees.
Stanga, who is a paid employee of WAKA, denies that the group’s growth has caused any disconnect between the headquarters and the field-level volunteers and players.
“We work hard to keep everybody happy, in the hope that all our players will continue to play WAKA kickball,” she says.
Though not in D.C. until now, WAKA competitors have popped up elsewhere. For two seasons, Brooklyn Kickball has drawn about 150 kickballers to McCarren Park in the Williamsburg neighborhood each Sunday. Founder Jens Carstensen says the New York league decided to stay independent of WAKA after looking at the D.C. group’s Web site.
“They had this overly comprehensive list of WAKA rules, about who could stand where and who could play and all these things that needed explaining,” says Carstensen. “We saw that and said, ‘This is exactly what we don’t want to do.’ People in our league are pretty aware that we are a bunch of adults playing kickball.”
The Brooklynites’ perception of those aligned with WAKA as overly anal was cemented when Brooklyn Kickball scrimmaged a WAKA team last year in Baltimore. The WAKA group, according to Brooklyn director Franz Aliquo, threw one of his players off the field for wearing nothing but a Speedo. “He always wears a Speedo when he plays kickball. That’s his thing,” says Aliquo. “This is supposed to be fun.”
Rabasa figured he’d try to base his new league in Adams Morgan because that’s where he lives. Finding field space was a major concern, particularly since the WAKA division in his neighborhood wasn’t in the locals’ good graces. According to Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mindy Moretti, WAKA lost its permits to use Pierce Park in 2002 after complaints about consumption of alcoholic beverages and public urination. The still-strained nature of the relationship was evident at the March 2 meeting of the ANC, where the commissioners passed a resolution stating: “Be It Further Resolved that the DPR [Department of Parks and Recreation] not issue any permits to the organization known as the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA) or any of its subsidiaries” to use Pierce Park. However, the DPR ignored the resolution, and WAKA is again permitted to use Pierce Park one night a week.
Rabasa cozied up to the locals, going to community meetings and telling anybody who would listen that if his new league were given a chance, its players would show proper respect. He says his lobbying efforts, plus a $2,800 check to the city to cover usage fees, helped get DCKickball the permits to play for two nights a week at Pierce Park this season. He made a deal with a neighborhood bar to become the official postgame hangout for DCKickball. He set a $50-per-player registration fee for his new group and a 10-game season—WAKA charges more for just an eight-game slate, Rabasa points out. He says he’ll spend “twice as much money per player [as WAKA spends] on parties.” He says he’ll be an unpaid worker for his group, just as he was for WAKA. He registered DCKickball with the city as a 501(c)(3) corporation—a nonprofit—and promised players that his books would always be open.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make this work,” he says. “I’ve got people who’ve paid their money who now depend on me.”
Rabasa alleges that WAKA has already tried to keep him down. He says that last fall he started asking people to help him start his league, by posting fliers around Adams Morgan and by putting a notice on his personal blog. He says he told everybody from the start that the name of his new league would be DCKickball. In February, when the feedback to his postings was positive enough to convince him his league would indeed eventually get rolling, he decided to start up a Web site dedicated to the venture.
Yet when he went to register dckickball.com, he found that domain name had been taken a few months earlier. By WAKA. Anybody who surfs dckickball.com gets a page that flashes “PLAY WAKA KICKBALL! the New American PastimeTM,”and is then redirected to WAKA’s main Web site. The welcome message at the top of the WAKA page warns readers: “Don’t be fooled by copycat kickball clubs.”
The Web address dckickball.com was registered by David Lowry, a WAKA founder who now serves as the corporation’s executive director, in September. Lowry says that he had “no idea” that Rabasa was going to start a new kickball confederation—by any name—when he bought the new Web site name to redirect.
The timing of his acquisition, Lowry says, was “just coincidence.”
“We didn’t know about his league until this year,” says Lowry, pointing out that he also registered floridakickball.com, virginiakickball.com, and texaskickball.com at the same time last fall.
In any case, Rabasa registered dckickball.org instead. A Rabasa sympathizer subsequently registered wakasucks.com and directed all traffic from that site to dckickball.org.
Rabasa says he’s been told that WAKA is now making division presidents sign noncompete waivers, something he never signed during his WAKA days. Stanga calls the pacts “division-affiliation agreements.”
“At the start, it always seemed to us [kickballers] that WAKA was about having fun and not becoming the Man,” says Maria Quan, another former WAKA division president. “They’re pretty much the Man now.”
Rabasa admits being more than a little scared that the Man will try to impede his upstart league’s growth.
“I fear their wrath. I fear WAKA retribution,” he says. “They’ll do whatever they can to hold on to their monopoly. Maybe they’ll make a deal with my bar and undercut me. Maybe they’ll get a jump on me and take my fields from me next year. I don’t know what they’ll do. But I know [WAKA is] a big organization. I do fear retribution. But spite is a powerful, powerful force for me here.”
Other than denying any nefarious conduct on WAKA’s part in the launch of the dckickball.com Web site, Lowry declined to talk about DCKickball.
“What isn’t coincidence is that [Rabasa] used to be a volunteer and run a division for us,” Lowry says, “and that is where the intellectual-property action comes into play. So I can’t discuss [DCKickball] now.”
Whoa, there. Intellectual-property action? About an elementary-school game that’s been around at least as long as red rubber?
“There’s legal action, and I can’t comment for that reason,” says Lowry.
Ah, litigation! Finally, somebody’s acting like an adult.—Dave McKenna