On a balmy early summer’s evening they take the field, stepping as lightly as possible through ankle-high grass still wet from yesterday’s downpour, taking care to avoid the muddy patch in the middle of the field. For two hours they battle, six-a-side including the goalies, at first bursting with pent-up work-a-day energy but slowing to a jog as the sun inches toward the horizon.
On this day, the Awesome Possums, defending league champs, best the as-yet unnamed “Team 2” by a lopsided score before helping their former foes dismantle their portable net. “You guys are so awesome,” someone says encouragingly. Pats on the back all around.
It’s a typical day in the Halifax Sport and Social Club, a league with 370 co-ed summer teams in 19 different sports, nearly 4,000 Haligonians on pitches, beaches, diamonds, and courts from Prospect to Burnside, meeting and competing every week. Annually, the league averages 700 teams. It’s been this way since 2009, when league owner Nicki Bridgland expanded on her Ottawa Sport and Social Club.
Lael Morgan is the Halifax Executive Director. “Before 2009 there was no inclusive sport provider in Halifax,” she says. “There was no easy access point.”
For people looking to get active, but maybe not so into running laps or lifting weights at the gym, the existing sports leagues could be intimidating, a little too focused on competition and performance. Many of the teams in these leagues are made up of people who have been playing together since high school or earlier.
The sport and social club, as the name implies, takes a different tack to competition. It’s all about making new connections; sport is the junction where people meet. Players can enter full teams of friends or sign up as individuals or in small groups of three or four. The league then places them together on teams with openings, often resulting temporarily in team names like “Team 2.”
For people who are new to town, it’s a quick way to make close friends. No matter how meaningless the competition, there is something about uniting briefly, weekly, for a common cause against all comers that brings people together, overcoming social or political boundaries that might otherwise stand in the way. This is why many teams pay for distinctive uniforms and put their heads together to come up with clever team names like “Man Chest Hair United.”
HSCC aims to involve people who are new to sport, or are athletic but looking to try a different kind of game. There’s a league called “All Sorts of Sport,” in which teams compete in different games each week.
The league tries to provide more than one league in each sport, accommodating recreational players and the more experienced. All leagues are co-ed.
Most participants aim to get a little exercise and have a few laughs. They want to win, but they are fully aware of the irony of competing for prizes that include having a big plastic trophy in your team captain’s house and free t-shirts that say “league champions.”
To keep things on the level of fun, HSSC uses spirit points: teams score their opponents on a scale of one to five based on how much fun they were to play against. “The majority of games, 99 per cent, result in each team getting five points,” Morgan says. The league steps in to mediate if there’s any other result, to ensure that when the teams meet again they keep things fun and safe.
With games being self-officiated, safety is important. Especially for old bones. Players range from 19 to 65 years of age, with the majority coming in under 45. “I’ve seen at times coaching going on,” Morgan says of the age diversity, “from older players to younger players.”
On the Awesome Possums (my co-ed rec soccer team), we cover that whole gamut. On our team, the younger players tend to be faster, more skilled and good at letting us old farts share occasional glory.
I’ve learned to live on tap-in goals after my younger teammates deke out half the other team. Thus, the league is not only an entry point for people who want to try new sports but also a way back into sports for people who haven’t played in a long time, or a way to continue playing throughout life.
The focus on adults is simply because there are already a great number of sporting leagues, activities and programs, many of them municipally run, for kids. For adults, there was a lack of non-competitive options before HSCC. Many participants are parents and during summer months they often bring their children to watch or warm up with the team. Team members invariably joke, “Hey buddy, nice hit, you should take your dad’s spot in the lineup.”
This idea that healthy, active people builds a better community is reinforced every time a participant tells Morgan that HSCC is the best night of the week, or tells her a story of teammates connecting professionally or personally beyond the playing field, leading to a new job or even, in some cases, marriage proposals. A few times a teammate has proposed to another teammate on the very same baseball diamond, soccer field, or curling rink where the young lovers met. Now that’s a friendly sporting environment.
Sport is a strange and surprisingly divisive concept. Sometimes it’s overvalued, with municipal governments breaking their banks to accommodate billionaire team owners. Other times it’s discounted, participants generalized as dumb jocks.
The HSCC approach, with its reliance on Halifax’s most rugged and out-of-the-way facilities and its dedication to the social side of sport, is a different beast. “We believe quite simply that active, healthy adults make a strong and better community,” Morgan says.