On a Monday night I’m usually curled up on the couch, but tonight I find myself in an unexpected place: a florescent-lit, sweat-scented gym. The court at the dome is littered with green and black balls and bustling with swift-moving adults in bright Casco Bay Sports shirts. Some grin wide, toothy smiles of unselfconscious pleasure, while others wear steely looks of determination as they prepare to throw their soft missiles at the opposing team. A few players watch from outside the court, nursing pints of beer supplied by gym-adjacent sports bar, Turf’s. This is adult dodgeball.
The game is organized by Casco Bay Sports, a company that runs social and athletic events for adults. Founded in 2008, Casco Bay Sports originally offered just two activities—dodgeball and basketball—but has since grown to include a wide range of sports, from soccer to inner-tube water polo. “When my wife and I first moved here from Boston, we realized immediately that there wasn’t anything quite like this here,” explains Pat Hackleman, founder of Casco Bay Sports. “Sport and social clubs exist in markets around the country, but there wasn’t a central company that organized co-ed adult sports for people in Maine.” Sensing a gap in the market, Hackleman decided to start his own business.
Judging by the scene at the Dome, Hackleman made the right call. “I was fairly confident that my idea would work because Portland is such an active town,” he says. In the past three years, the business has seen an annual growth of between 10 and 15 percent, although Hackleman does note that growth was swifter when the company first started. “Now, I think our growth reflects the changing demographics of Portland,” he says. “As more young professionals move into the city, more people find us.” The next step, he says, is expanding their geographic range. Soon, Hackleman hopes to be serving communities throughout southern Maine, from Brunswick to Saco.
While dodgeball is one of Casco Bay Sports’s flagship activities, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Currently, Casco Bay Sports works with over 6,500 participants who play 12 different sports (if you count people who play in more than one league, the number of players goes up to 9,500). Soccer, Hackleman says, is their most popular activity, with softball coming in at a close second. “I’ve realized that the traditional sports are really what keeps people active and coming back,” he says. “Joining a sport like soccer, basketball, or softball is actually a lot like joining a gym. You play once a week. You have a set time and a set practice. It becomes part of your routine.”
For some players, Casco Bay Sports provides a way to practice the athletic skills they honed in high school and college. “I have always played sports throughout school and in college, but had really missed being part of a team and having regular competition,” says Jesse Patrick Colfer, a 38-year-old marketing professional who plays basketball, football, softball, and dodgeball with Casco Bay Sports. “I tend to get in a funk when I don’t have an athletic outlet.” Although he signed up as an individual rather than part of a team, Colfer found it easy to make friends through his athletic leagues. “The exercise and social aspect are really important to having a good balance in life,” he says.
On the basketball court or on the softball field, the players are a little more serious than the dodgeball teams at the Dome. Casco Bay Sports operates out of several different venues, including the East End Community Center, where I went to watch the first night of basketball league playoffs. “Things can get a little intense at playoff time,” Hackleman warns me as the game begins. However, once action gets underway, it becomes clear that the competitive energy is brightened by the players’ good humor and excitement. As the game flows from one end of the court to the other, athletes trade high-fives and words of encouragement. Although there is definitely a drive to win, these teams display good sportsmanship, passing the ball frequently and trading positions easily. “Hey, you want in?” yells a female player from the center of the court, and a green-shirted man runs to take her place.
Later, I learn the woman’s name: Katie Hodgdon, a 29-year-old designer for L.L.Bean and frequent player with Casco Bay Sports. Like Colfer, Hodgdon has played on multiple leagues, from cornhole to basketball. “For a lot of us, we played sports through high school and college, and after graduation it stops,” she says. With frequent games and happy hour events, Casco Bay Sports provides more than just a place to exercise—it gives Hodgdon the athletic camaraderie she was missing as an adult.
Often, team camaraderie turns into something else, like friendship or even romance. According to Christian Rodriguez, there have been at least a dozen marriages between Casco Bay Sports players. Rodriguez joined Casco Bay Sports in 2009 and now works with Hackleman in the Portland office as one of three full-time employees (the payroll also includes one part-time employee, and several umpires and referees). “I was playing five sports a week and I asked Pat [Hackleman] if I could get a discount, and he thought about it and suggested that I try being a ref. And now I work here,” he explains in between sips of beer.
“One thing I love to see,” says Hackleman, “is the brand loyalty. I think the fact that people keep coming back and playing new things means they enjoy what we do, but also that they’re willing to try new things.” Rodriguez is a perfect example of this. A former college athlete, he now runs several of the “fringe sports” for Hackleman, including dodgeball, cornhole, and inner-tube water polo.
These offbeat sports are some of the most interesting on the Casco Bay Sports roster. While soccer may have hundreds of players each year, sports like inner-tube water polo pull in many one-time players, thanks to the sheer novelty of the game. “We try out some of our stranger sports with something called drop-in play,” Hackleman explains. Instead of paying between $60 and $80 for a ten-week league—Hackleman aims to keep costs under $10 for a “single night of play”—prospective inner-tube warriors can drop by the gym on the night of the event, pay $5, and hop in the pool.
Right now, Hackleman is particularly excited about a new addition to the lineup: human foosball. “I went down to North Carolina this fall to see a friend of mine who owns a sports and social club,” he says. “There, I tried out this crazy game, and I thought it would be such a cool thing to bring to Portland.” He pulls out his phone and shows me some images of the tabletop game made life-sized. After returning home to Portland, Hackleman worked with some of his employees to build their own human foosball arena. The four-walled rectangle measures 10 by 24 feet. “We’re going to start out slow, but soon we’ll be bringing this around everywhere,” he says. “Schools, fields, maybe even to company events or outings.” It’s hard to imagine a group of lawyers lining up to play human foosball, but after watching dodgeball, I realize Hackleman’s instincts are probably dead-on. Everyone likes a little ridiculousness every now and then—even serious, successful adults will drop their professional personas given the right circumstances.
Even with the more traditional sports, there is a certain element of playfulness in the proceedings. It’s rare to see adults behave this way, and it feels refreshing. While alcohol and happy hour can be part of the experience, Casco Bay Sports events do not revolve around drinks, food, or other staples of post-college socializing. “When you’re 18 years old, you look forward to your Fridays and Saturdays,” Rodriguez points out. “Now, people in their twenties and thirties look forward to their Monday night dodgeball league.”
Both Hackleman and Rodriguez work hard to make sure that first-time participants feel welcome. It’s important to them that joining Casco Bay Sports isn’t an intimidating endeavor. “It’s really nice to see the guy who shows up here for the first time not knowing what to expect. But then he leaves with a bunch of phone numbers and new friends,” Rodriguez says. He gestures over toward a middle-aged man who is currently ducking and dodging, one of the last three players on the dodgeball court. “There’s a guy like him almost every night,” Rodriguez says. “He’s new, but he’s already looking forward to next week. And he knows his team is looking forward to seeing him.”