This summer, Tiana Theiss is back to doing what she loves — diving into the sand to bump the ball for her beach volleyball team.
She started a new league this summer for Players Sport & Social Group, which she joined five years ago. They are among hundreds of players once again packing Montrose Beach on Wednesdays.
It’s all so different from last summer, when the lakefront — and leagues — were shut down.
“Right now, I think people are just happy to be here, and they’re not as much concerned with winning games,” said Theiss, 33, of Wicker Park. “We’ve all had such direly different experiences from the pandemic, and we’re all kind of grieving what we’ve passed through and celebrating a resurgence of normalcy.”
Chicago Sports and Social Club, Players Sport & Social Group and Simply Social Sports all offer adult volleyball, kickball and softball leagues — and all weathered tough times during the pandemic.
Ben Shimon, founder of Simply Social, used the downtime to rehab his website, “which has been a huge help for new registration. The Delta variant is throwing a wrench in this a little bit, but teams are signing up like crazy. Half to a quarter of my teams are brand new. This summer, I now have the most leagues I’ve ever had, with 25 new leagues and 3,500 members.”
Sports is the best way to meet new people and make friends, many players say.
“Human connection is so vitally important and sharing a sport in common is one way to bring people together — it’s an automatic ice breaker,” said Jennie Berger, 42, who lives in the South Loop. “You get to know these people by having the love of the sport in common. It’s still a very divided place that we live in — our country and our world. So to have people come together in one space for the same purpose is wonderful.”
Berger, a real estate investor, moved to Chicago from Tennessee in November 2019. In June, she joined Chicago Sports and Social to play sand couples volleyball with her boyfriend on North Avenue Beach.
Chicago Sports and Social Club has registered roughly 25,000 members this year, with most sign-ups occurring since the city’s full reopening, according to president Chris Hastings.
This summer, Players had close to 20,000 participants in its volleyball, beach volleyball and kickball leagues. An average year, including all seasons, typically registers about 40,000 participants, said Dave Reid, vice president of sports and business.
“It definitely feels a lot more normal and you forget the pandemic while you’re out there,” said Jesse Sherr, 40, of Hamlin Park, in his 15th year with Players. “It feels like nothing has changed from a couple of years ago. It feels great to get outside and be able to do this with my friends, have fun and compete in sports.”
“Ditch all those apps,” said Simply Social kickball player Daniella Titone, 27, a Gold Coast resident. “To me, the best way to find a partner is through sports — you see what you’re going to get. I know people get nervous about meeting people, but sports really do bring people together. It’s just about being able to push yourself and put yourself out there and learn something new.”
It worked for Aldriene Estacion, 32, who met his wife in a Simply Social league. After 10 years as a player, he’s now a kickball umpire.
“People go to play a game and the real fun is socializing afterward,” said Estacion, who lives in Albany Park.
Games and bar activities after playing are not the only highlights of these leagues. Most offer special programs and events throughout the year, like Chicago Sports and Social Club’s recent Volleywood, a music festival and volleyball tournament on North Avenue beach.
“The moral of the story is people need to be connected to people,” Shimon said. “We need to see each other, touch each other and possibly hook up with each other. Chicago is the most fun city in the world and sports leagues are a rite of passage.”