January 12, 2017
The temperature sat at a mere 21 degrees in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia on Monday night. Remnants of the weekend snowfall lingered on the sidewalks.
Nevertheless, a game more commonly associated with summer barbecues was underway inside Urban Saloon, where a group of locals had gathered in a back room to play bocce.
It's a sport that traces its roots to ancient Egypt, and one that is still popular elsewhere in the world. Yet, it remains a niche activity in the United States.
But an upstart bocce league has gained popularity in Fairmount, where several dozen participants gather each week to drink beers, socialize and toss a few bocce balls.
"It's sort of deceptively simple," said Niel McDowell, a 49-year-old Fairmount resident who began playing in July. "It looks simple, but it's actually really challenging. It's not about strength. It's about subtlety."
The All-American Liberty Leagues launched last July with 90 players on 14 teams. Each week, participants played games on a grassy patch near the Philadelphia Museum of Art before heading to The Black Taxi for drinks. When winter arrived, the organization moved indoors and added a cornhole league to the mix.
Despite being indoors, the bocce league maintains the leisurely vibe of a friendly summer gathering.
Players sip beers as they await their turn. Rock music runs through overhead speakers. An ESPN telecast plays on a giant screen.
"This is something they can look forward to every week," co-founder Kyle Fernley said. "This is an opportunity to get out, to meet some of your local neighbors and to have fun while you're doing it."
But make no mistake — the players want to win.
Tape measures get pulled out to determine which bocce balls are closer to the pallino, or smaller ball that serves as the target. Teams that place all four of their balls closer to the pallino than their opponents — a rarity — receive candy.
"I'm not really a competitive person," Lena Nhek said. "But with this game, I really get into it."
Nhek, 30, of Fairmount, began playing bocce about three years ago, finding the social atmosphere preferable to other recreational sports, like kickball or softball. But many participants join without ever having played.
"It requires very little strenuous activity, but also promotes teamwork and competition," Fernley said. "It's also really easy to catch on to. I've seen guys who have been playing this game for years get beat by guys who have been playing for weeks. Once you catch the bug, you just want to play more and more."
Fernley and co-founder Sam Holloschutz formed the league after participating in a bocce league that disbanded last year. They recruited people from the old league, but also found success through Nextdoor, a social media network that enables neighborhoods to form private networks.
"I had never heard of bocce until these guys brought it up," said Sumit Patel, 30, of Northeast Philadelphia. "It's always a good crowd. You meet new people every time."
The success of the bocce league, which expanded to two nights in the fall, led them to launch a cornhole league this winter. Registration for the upcoming spring bocce league remains open.
For $52, participants play six regular season games followed by two weeks of playoffs. Everyone receives a league T-shirt and discounts at sponsored bars. Those who register early receive a $10 discount.
But Fernley and Holloschutz said the league isn't simply about making money.
Holloschutz, who sits on the Fairmount Civic Association, sees it as an opportunity to give back to the community. When the civic association hosted a neighborhood cleanup last fall, the league offered free admission into its winter league to anyone who participated.
And they herald the league's intimate atmosphere.
The league hosts a theme night once each season, when teams are encouraged to dress up to win prizes ranging from league discounts to Eagles tickets. The fall season, naturally, featured a Halloween theme night.
"We put a premium on putting a personal touch," Holloschutz said. "We don't hire anybody else to run the leagues — it's us."