For someone who has more or less bet the farm on it, Benjy Toczynski has surprisingly little concrete to say about soccer-tennis, the hybrid sport that he and his roommates have designed a business model around by teaching it to junior soccer leagues. The word “fun” comes up a lot. As do “awesome” and “challenging.”
It’s less about inarticulateness than about ineffability. It’s clear, once you get him talking, that Toczynski, a Berkeley native currently living in Richmond, has actually thought a lot about soccer-tennis — essentially, tennis, sans racket, played with a soccer ball — and the ways it can be used to teach young soccer players the grammar of the game in new and exciting ways. “It’s a really great way to get kids comfortable with the ball, to show them the right techniques,” he said. He’s been playing both soccer and soccer-tennis since he was a young kid, and he and a couple business partners have now come up with a multi-part-lesson plan that they use with various youth soccer leagues throughout the East Bay.
Toczynski is one of a handful of local athletes and entrepreneurs who are recently turning mashed-up, reinvented, and otherwise new sports into hobbies, clubs, and side businesses. This is far from a new phenomenon: Berkeley’s been fielding its own unicycle basketball team, The Revolution, for nearly a decade; last year, the team took the world championships. Bike polo has a cult following in San Francisco, especially among the tech community, and farther north, hybridized snow sports — snow bike, ski bike — have been popular for years. And while all these ventures are about as different in form and substance as can be, there’s one pattern that emerges when you talk to all of them: It’s really, really hard to explain what makes them worth it. It’s just organic.
Take Greg Roberts. The Allentown, Pennsylvania native got into Frisbee golf when he was in high school. There was a course a few minutes from his house, and he and his brother started playing. “I just loved it,” he said, with the same shoulders-shrugged, matter-of-factness that seems to characterize most hybrid sport devotees. At the beginning of this semester, the UC Berkeley freshman founded Cal’s first Frisbee golf club, and he and the rest of the club plan to try to set up a course close to campus starting in the fall, he said.
Dave Aakhus — who lives in Oakland and works as both a personal trainer and at a solar-roof-installation company — got into circle rules football, a football-rugby-soccer hybrid played on a circular field with a large inflatable ball, while in college in New York City. A friend was using the game in an experimental-theater project and needed volunteers. Aakhus was hooked, and when he moved back to the Bay Area in 2009, he sought to start a league here. The game enjoys significant popularity in New York, he said, racking up corporate sponsorships, a small cult of fandom, and at least fifty players for its weekly games. Aakhus wanted to replicate that success out here, and a couple months after its founding, Circle Rules Football SF has drawn a steady crowd of players to its semi-regular games in various local parks.
Aakhus’ theory on what makes circle rules appealing is that it employs all the grammar of traditional sports in new and interesting ways. “Circle rules is an athletic sport, with aspects of soccer and football and running,” he said. “So even though it’s something new, it’s intuitive.” Roberts, too, said he got into Frisbee golf because it has the same element of concentration as golf, but is cheaper and less frustrating.
The same goes for David Depto, a San Francisco-based engineer and devotee of chess boxing — in which two players alternate between a timed chess game and a boxing match; first to knockout or checkmate wins. He’d spent years pursuing each side of the sport independently, having started playing chess in the first grade, and boxing at the age of sixteen. So when he saw a report on ESPN about the World Chess Boxing Organization and learned that the group was looking for American fighters to compete in Europe, it seemed like a natural way to combine two passions that had previously seemed about as far removed as can be. After a protracted audition process, he was on a flight to Germany for his first fight. He lost by checkmate, but was hooked.
For him, the appeal, as best as he can distill it, is in that challenge that comes from combining two games that require very different skills. “We tend to divide people into two groups: jocks and intellects,” he said. “Back in the Renaissance days, guys used to be good at everything — there was a premium put on being a complete person. But now, I think there’s very few people in the world who develop their mind and their physicality. But this is about demonstrating that people can be good at both.”
New, obscure, and hybridized sports are also more accessible, in that all the players are more or less starting from scratch. No one’s been going to summer camp for circle rules since they were six, and even adept Frisbee or basketball players have a lot to learn when they try Frisbee golf or unicycle basketball. To make the old cliché literal, everyone is on an even playing field. “Everybody’s new at it,” Aakhus said. “And because it’s pretty much in its infancy, people at all levels can play.”
Toczynski, too, said that one of the great things about soccer-tennis is that the rules are simple enough that anyone can play. He works with kids as young as four and five, but he and his housemates also regularly play on their own. In short, he said, “It’s a fucking awesome game” — nothing more, nothing less.