It all started with Bruce Pearl.
Amy Leigh Hubbard was following Metro Pulse's Cari Wade Gervin on Twitter earlier this spring, when Gervin was posting about the former University of Tennessee men's basketball coach, who was in the news for getting fired—and making a lot of money out of it.
"I posted something about how we should play something like kickball and make a bunch of money," Hubbard says. "She replied she'd play kickball for no money."
It was all a joke, more or less, until it wasn't. And now the most memorable schoolyard game of the second half of the 20th century finally seems to have traction in Knoxville, several years after its initial nationwide resurgence, and Knoxville's urbanite population will have a chance to get its kicks out of a big red rubber ball.
A few more Twitter postings and an organizational meeting at the Public House followed that first exchange. Soon Hubbard, an administrator at the Joy of Music School and founder of the event-planning group Girl House Productions, realized that people in Knoxville had been waiting for somebody to step up and organize a league. Instead of just playing for no money, dozens of people seemed genuinely interested in paying to support an official kickball community. About 100 people have now paid a $25 entry fee (which covers the cost of league T-shirts, insurance, and rental of a playing field at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens) to join Hubbard's brand-new kickball league, which starts play this weekend.
Eight teams—Metro Pulse, two from Marble City Brewing Co., one made up of friends who met at Victor Ashe Dog Park, another of scientists from Oak Ridge and the University of Tennessee, and Hubbard's own group among them—are set to start the season, playing officially sanctioned kickball on Sunday evenings through July. Based on a recent kickoff potluck at Hubbard's house in North Knoxville, the average age of players is over 30, and women seem to outnumber men by a small but significant margin. Participation seems to be the most important factor, with competitiveness almost an afterthought. For most players, winning and losing ranks behind beer as a reason to get in the game.
"My husband and I were looking for something to do, and off the beaten path," says Erin Chapin, an online producer for the News Sentinel who has signed up for the league. "I'm not your exercise guru girl. I don't run, unless I'm running from something or toward a cupcake. The most exercise I've gotten in the past several years is chasing my kids around."
"I think people are excited about kickball because it is athletically accessible for most folks," Hubbard says. "We pretty much start from the place where most of us haven't played since the fifth grade. I'm sorta fit but have played organized sports one time since high school. That's it, and I feel completely comfortable exploring my potential for mad skills in kickball."
Kickball's recent renaissance started, quietly, back in the 1990s, when grassroots teams in major cities first started playing casual games on weekend afternoons in local parks. The game took a slightly more serious turn in 1998, when the World Adult Kickball Association was founded in Washington, D.C., and established formal rules for the game. It's essentially just like you remember it—co-ed teams of eight to 11 players on a softball-sized diamond trade tries at a round rubber ball for five innings, and you can't throw the ball at anyone's head. (One grown-up twist is that pitching is actually a factor in WAKA games. Bouncies are allowed, and there's a one-foot-tall strike zone above home plate, so a skilled or cagey pitcher can considerably improve a team's defense.)
It took the organization of WAKA, which became a for-profit company in 2002, to ignite a nationwide passion for a sport noted for its casual atmosphere and accessibility. By the middle of the 2000s—not long after the 2004 Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story invigorated interest in schoolyard sports as a serious pursuit for adults—kickball was a national phenomenon, especially among hip urban professionals in their 20s and 30s, and especially in big cities. It fit a current generation's nostalgia for its own childhood, and it's safer and cheaper than softball.
Hubbard's new league isn't the first organized local kickball effort. The YWCA and the city have Farragut have held weekend-long tournaments the last few years, and one Facebook group tried to get off the ground last summer. But this new Twitter-inspired undertaking is the most sustained attempt at an ongoing kickball group, and Hubbard finds herself trying to balance the bureaucratic framework necessary to keep it going with the sport's inherently laid-back attitude.
"Kickball isn't actually about kickball for me," she says. "It's about having fun, expanding the social circle, and community-building
The Knox Kickball League will play Sunday, May 22, from 1-5 p.m., and Sundays June 5-July 24 from 5-9 p.m. at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum (2743 Wimpole Ave.). for more info, go to: girlhouseproductions.com