q & a: john teel, king of co-ed sports, maker of friends

You think you have a lot of balls in the air. As owner of Cleveland Plays, this city's premier sport and social club, John Teel manages a dizzying assortment of moving parts. Launched in 2001, the organization maintains an active database of roughly 20,000 members who play a dozen different co-ed sports in 40 separate leagues at eight different locations on any given day or night of the year. In addition to providing some much-needed fun and exercise, Cleveland Plays may be the best unofficial dating enterprise in town.

Fresh Water managing editor Douglas Trattner pried Teel away from the sand volleyball courts just long enough to ask him a few questions.

How and when did Cleveland Plays come to life?

There was a Chicago-based sport and social club for young professions in about 25 cities around the country. During the Internet boom, they sold out to a larger national organization who pretty much ran a good thing into the ground. When they announced they were going bankrupt in 2001, me and my partner Doug Bielinski started the company.

What did you do differently from the start?

The company we replaced would mail out expensive brochures, had a staff answering the phones. I went Internet all the way, which significantly reduces costs. We use all-online registration, payment, scheduling… We're really an Internet company, that's why two of us can handle 40 leagues at once. Lately, we've been trying to switch over to texting.

Why do recreational sports players need a company like Cleveland Plays anyhow? Can't they just play touch football on their own?

You can't just pick up a phone and round up 2,000 people to play touch football. We are able to bring a lot of people together. Organization is another big factor. Members need to know where they are playing, when they are playing, and have the right players and referees there when they get there. The fields need to be ready to go -- somebody has to get up and physically do it. Members who have moved here from other cities tell us how much better organized we are.

What are some of the day-to-day responsibilities that come along with the job?

Something as simple as adjusting the volleyball net heights for various leagues. Prepping and painting the football fields. Grooming the sand volleyball courts at Whiskey Island. Providing most of the sports equipment. Hiring and supplying professional umps and refs. Picking up garbage. Arranging post-game parties.

Who is the typical Cleveland Plays member?

The players literally come from all over: downtown, the suburbs, East Side, West Side, Akron, Lorain… They are mostly young professionals aged 22 to 40. Many of them are new to Cleveland.

I've been told Cleveland Plays is a great way to meet your next coworker, boyfriend, girlfriend, even spouse. Any truth to that?

I've had countless people come up to me and say, 'I'm new to Cleveland and I've met so many new friends.' It's not just meeting people; you're meeting people with a similar perspective on the world. Young, mostly pre-family professionals in the business world. My partner met his wife through Cleveland Plays. The social stuff is what we're really about, the professional stuff just happens by osmosis.

What are the most popular sports and leagues?

You know, it's funny. Every city seems to have its own niches. In Columbus, soccer leagues are really big, and that goes back even before they got the Crew. In Cleveland, football is ridiculous, but there isn't much of a football league in Columbus. In Buffalo, it's mostly kickball. Chicago goes crazy for softball. During football season, we have 146 teams with 14 players each. In summer, Whiskey Island can see 400 volleyball players a night.

What other sports does Cleveland Plays organize?

Softball, soccer, kickball, touch and flag football, beach and indoor volleyball, dodgeball, indoor floor hockey, basketball… Everything is coed except a couple sports and leagues. Leagues are surprisingly competitive -- everybody wants to win -- but it's more about getting exercise and having fun. We try to separate out the really skilled, competitive players from the ones who just want to have fun. Nobody wants to go out and get their ass kicked all the time.

Any sports just not take off in Cleveland that you thought had a shot?

There are generally good reasons for when a sport doesn't succeed. Bowling just doesn't work for us economically. Cornhole doesn't generate enough revenue to merit a time slot. Ultimate Frisbee already has an organization that specializes in it, and I'm not sure my population would be that interested in it. The one sport that I want to try is Chicago-style softball. It's totally different -- they don't use gloves and there's a giant ball.

Cleveland Plays also runs Mulberry's in the Flats. Tell us about what goes on there.

It's a unique place with a bar, good bar food, live music. We use it for some off-beat indoor sports leagues. We used to have bar-game leagues with darts, wee bowling, flip cup, beer pong, Hula Hoop, cornhole. Now we just do those on specialty nights. I want to add Skee-Ball. There is a pretty fierce Skee-Ball group out there.

So, what do you get out of running a company that's fun for everybody but you?

In addition to drawing a paycheck? Seriously, it is very rewarding on two levels. It is a pleasure to see people having a good time. That might sound like a cliché, but it really is the truth. Every moment of every day, it seems that somebody wants something from us. I have an obligation to the members of Cleveland Plays to seal them off from all that so they can get away from day-to-day grind, reduce stress, and have a happy time. It is also very rewarding to see a business you started succeed.

So, are you a Cleveland sports fan?

1995 cured me of sports fandom. Since the Browns left I'll never be a fan again; I'll only be a cheerer. Before 1995, I had no problem paying for a ticket, parking, beers, rooting on my team. But when the Browns left, they made me see it only as a business. Now, when a local sports team loses, I sleep very comfortably. It's not there anymore. 

Photos by Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
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