Crowds now swarming kickball fields and bocce courts are the latest signs of Baltimore’s reemergence from the pandemic.
Rising temperatures and vaccination rates have meant that one of the city’s signature activities – organized adult leagues followed by a drink and nosh at a neighborhood spot – is back.
Restaurants and bars did what was needed to survive the past year, and so did companies like Volo Sports – the city-based sports league that can be viewed as a leading indicator of the recovery.
About 10,000 players have enrolled in soccer, volleyball, basketball and more for the spring. While that’s about half the pre-pandemic volume in Spring 2019, it’s an encouraging sign, said Giovani Marcantoni, founder and CEO of Volo Sports.
Volo had swelled its business and grown to nine cities before the pandemic, while also ramping up its non-profit free children’s leagues and continuing to serve as a way for young adults to grow relationships and even find a spouse.
COVD-19 halted all of that. Recreational leagues “came to a screeching halt,” Marcantoni said. “We had to furlough a lot of employees. It’s been incredibly stressful.”
Things are looking better now, though.
Marcantoni started the company in 2010, realizing that his pastime – bocce in a Federal Hill park – was a terrific way to meet people. What started with a $600 bocce equipment purchase has grown into a $20 million-a-year enterprise with participants from coast to coast. The name – Volo – is Italian for “flight.”
The appeal: when you get together for a low-pressure activity and put on a “silly” matching T-shirt, you let your defense mechanisms down and are open to new friendships, Marcantoni says.
What really sets Volo apart, though, is its non-profit arm that provides no-cost activities to children in Baltimore. The Volo Kids Foundation was launched after the 2015 uprising sparked by the death of Freddie Gray.
Marcantoni decided to turn his access to quality fields and parks and a pool of potential coaches and organizers into an outlet for kids. Then a councilman before becoming mayor, Brandon Scott got on board, and the venture blossomed.
By 2019, 4,400 kids were participating in what Marcantoni says is the “largest free organization for youth in the city,” run by Volo participants who receive no-cost membership in exchange for volunteering.
“It is our real mission,” he said. “The whole Volo purpose is using our adult network to create free kids league.”
The social element of Volo is what’s badly needed as the pandemic wanes, though.
“It starts with sports but that’s just the beginning,” said Greg Sileo, Volo’s managing director for Greater Baltimore.
The leagues partner with local bars and restaurants, offering specials and a gathering place when the competition is over for the evening.
Freshly single in early 2018, Nicole Jones signed up for kickball and flip cup at the urging of one of her friends.
She soon bonded with “Coach Bowers” on her team, who was quiet but kind and competitive. “I knew I liked him when I fell on the field, and he ran over to make sure I was okay,” said the 30-year-old school psychologist who lives in Glen Burnie.
They started dating the next season, and the coach (actually, Nick Bowers) proposed in August 2019.
They wed in a small, coronavirus-shrunken ceremony last August, joined by some Volo friends, and posed for photos playing kickball, with Nicole running the bases in heels.
Through organized sports leagues, she said, “we’ve also continued to make many new friends and extend our friend groups.”
Volo is using technology to make it even easier to connect. Their app allows members to drop in on leagues with available spaces by paying on a per-game basis, and also join games if they are travelling in other cities – such as Denver, San Francisco and New York. So friends can be made in cities throughout the country.
Says Sileo: “We talk about creating genuine human interaction.”