The Horny World of Adult Recreational Sports Leagues

Where “playing the field” takes on a whole new meaning

adult recreational sports leagues

Sparks fly while playing Frisbee? Philly’s adult recreational sports leagues are the new places to find love. / Illustration by Beth Walrond

Not even the best-looking people look good in Muay Thai shorts. They’re not supposed to. When you’re wrestling while ostensibly hugging other people and attempting to knee them in the face — known in the sport as “clinching” — looking good is not the point.

So when Eleanor West first signed up for a class at Juniper Muay Thai in the spring of 2021, getting engaged wasn’t the point, either. West says she joined the South Philly gym, which offers separate men’s and women’s classes, in part to avoid being hit on by guys while she was working out.

Then, in a women’s class, West got paired up with someone who was as competitive as she was. Someone she was instantly impressed by. Someone who … rarely smiled. “Like, you would have thought she was a Swiss person,” says West. “I literally thought she wouldn’t have smiled under laughing gas.” As the two kept practicing at the gym, West kept making jokes to get her partner to crack a grin. Eventually, West’s clinching partner sent her a DM on Instagram asking if she wanted to meet up for a bowl of pho at Nam Phuong on Washington Avenue. “I didn’t know it was a date,” West confesses. “I thought she was going to dinner with me to tell me I was so bad at Muay Thai that I couldn’t keep going to the gym.”

It soon became clear to West that her now-fiancée had a big fat crush. Clinching and sparring had accelerated the connection between the two strangers in ways West says dating apps never could have. The pair already had a built-in common interest to discuss and a network of mutual friends through the gym. As a bonus, kneeing each other in the face, it turns out, had broken the touch barrier in ways almost no other context could replicate. Dating felt natural. The two began seeing each other — first in secret, so the gym community wouldn’t freak out, and then publicly — and got engaged at the end of last year.

“It’s really nice to just meet people who think the same thing you think is cool and hard is [also] cool and hard — but they still show up like you show up, and they do the hard stuff,” West says. “And in a relationship, you know, it’s doing the hard stuff with somebody else.”

West found a deep connection in a sweaty place where she wasn’t looking — off the apps, far from the (WFH) office, and beyond her typical social circle. She’s not the only one.

“You’re doing this other thing, so finding a person is not your main priority,” Katie Pilot says. “I think that takes the pressure off a little bit.” Pilot met her husband, Matt Carter, while playing Ultimate Frisbee at Edgely Field in Fairmount Park, through the Philadelphia Area Disc Alliance.

Pilot, a self-described “Frisbee hobbyist” who works in internal communications for Comcast, had only been playing for a year when she was placed on Carter’s team. Meanwhile, Carter lived and breathed Frisbee. (He was captain of his college team at George Mason University, he’s played professional Ultimate in Philly, and he now coaches the sport at Penn.) “He would still throw me the disc,” Pilot says of Carter. “And I would 50-50 drop it, because I was nervous and he was so cute.”

Pilot and Carter started to hang out before and after games multiple times a week, always within the context of Ultimate. They’d stretch — Carter asking Pilot to teach him yoga moves as an excuse to flirt — and listen to music at post-game parties. Their chemistry never turned into anything concrete during the season, since Pilot was seeing someone else at the time. Then, after a tournament in Wildwood — an annual ritual that PADA members describe like it’s a plot point in Don Quixote, an orgy and the Olympics, all in one — Pilot broke up with her partner, and she and Carter made it official. The two got married in September. At the wedding, they took a picture holding up a disc from the year they met.

Not unlike how I imagine our cave ancestors philosophized about romance, Pilot and Carter chalk up their Frisbee romance to the endorphins and magic that come from spending time running around with someone in the sunshine: “Once you play Frisbee with someone, you’re sort of just like, ‘Okay, you know me and like me at my sweatiest,’” Pilot says. “You play Frisbee all day in August, like, you’re just saturated.”

The tradition of Philadelphians canoodling in casual sports settings goes back at least a few decades. In the mid-’80s, my dad joined a rec softball team that played at Taney Park on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Going to Murphy’s Tavern at 44th and Spruce after the game, he recalls, was as fundamental to the ritual as any strikeout, sacrifice fly or RBI.

For players at Stonewall Sports Philly, part of the draw of joining the league is knowing there will be a safe space for queer people to spend time together off the field. After Sunday kickball games in Marconi Plaza, teams with names like “Three Dykes You’re Out” and “Sit On My Base” head to the league’s sponsor bars, Tabu and Tavern on Camac in the Gayborhood, to drink, talk and hang out.

“Especially in the LGBTQIA community, it’s not always easy to identify someone else who’s open and interested,” says Liz Hoover, who runs Stonewall Sports Philly’s communications efforts. She tells me the nonprofit’s dodgeball and kickball leagues each attract between 500 and 700 players every season. Stonewall also hosts bocce, bowling and billiards leagues (for folks who potentially favor noshing and drinking over fierce athletic competition), plus running clubs and yoga. All are welcome in the leagues, including allies, free agents signing up on their lonesome, those who have the hand-eye coordination of a walrus, and athletes so committed to their sport that they practice outside of game days.

“I think this is a safer space where you can explore relationships of all types. It’s a really great place to do that and know that you’re in a group of people who are very accepting and like-minded,” Hoover says.

I was 24, playing Heyday and also swiping on Tinder. I’m sure I looked across the field and was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen half-naked body shots of you. It’s like, ‘Oh, I swiped right on that guy, and now I’m playing kickball with him.’ Philly is not that big.”

Queer-specific or not, sports leagues have become gathering places for young Philadelphians who, at minimum, are united by the simple fact that they decided to get off their phones and do something in person. But Philly is, ultimately, a very big small town. And in some social circles, that network of sporty singles ends up looking a lot like the online dating pool — only everyone is wearing matching jerseys, and you can’t lie about how tall you are.

Taylor Lee says that when she started playing in Heyday Athletic leagues, the crossover between the sea of Philly singles on dating apps and the people who signed up for Heyday was noticeable: “I was 24, playing Heyday and also swiping on Tinder. I’m sure I looked across the field and was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen half-naked body shots of you. … It’s like, ‘Oh, I swiped right on that guy, and now I’m playing kickball with him.’ Philly is not that big.”

In 2019, Lee matched with her now-husband on Bumble after he noticed she was wearing a Heyday Athletic basketball jersey in one of her profile photos. The two bonded instantly over their mutual Heyday experiences and planned a first date at Barcade in Fishtown. In May of 2022, he proposed to her during a Heyday softball game while Lee was standing on third base.

Around the time Hillary Redisch signed up to play volleyball through Heyday last year, she matched with a guy on Bumble, and they met up for drinks and hit it off. It turned out they shared a mutual love of volleyball and had both joined the same competitive co-ed league that met on Wednesday nights at City School in Poplar.

Redisch was just starting out as a free agent, while her date had been playing on a designated team for years. Their connection grew as their teams played each other. (“Unfortunately, he’s beaten my team every time,” she says.) They became a couple, cheering for one another, introducing each other to their Heyday friends, and talking about spikes and sets, presumably not only as sexual euphemisms but as actual game-play commentary. “It was pretty great, because I had been longing to find a partner that shared the love of this sport,” Redisch tells me. “It’s a little bit more difficult to find a man that plays at a competitive level and loves it the way that I do.” The two have since split, but Redisch maintains that Heyday is a great way for active or athletically inclined Philadelphians to meet single people: “I certainly do not shy away from saying hi to the volleyball player that I think I might be interested in. Being athletic or being active is very important in my search for a partner, because you want to look for somebody who wants to do that with you.”

Matt Carter, the Ultimate Frisbee player, says he always assumed he’d end up dating another player, since he spent so much time dedicated to the sport. But playing on the same team as his now-wife let him see who she was as a person before discovering who she was as a romantic partner: “You get someone cheering for you or someone supporting you, or picking you up if you’re down but with you when you’re high. It’s a nice window to see: ‘All right, is this person a jerk? Is this person mean to me? Do they know how to communicate well? Do they want to include me in games and points?’ So it’s a little window into the soul.”

If dating apps streamline the experience of meeting new people, allowing Philly singles access to instantaneous matches whenever they want, meeting through sports spaces slows the process down. And maybe, in 2023, that’s exactly what Philadelphians want.

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Published as “Playing the Field” in the June 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.