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  • Major League Bocce

    By Anthony Parente

    One of my fondest memories growing up was playing bocce with my Dad. It was one of his favorite sports to play next to bowling and morra. He went as far as putting a bocce court in our backyard so there would be a place to play during picnics and whenever the mood struck him. Each year he would put a team together to play in leagues. I even got to play on one of those teams, so you can say bocce will always have a place in my heart. When my wife shared a story on Facebook about a bocce league that takes place in Pittsburgh where we live I had to find out more about this league.

    I started to look into this league I uncovered something that took me by surprise and one that I needed to learn more about. As it turns out the Pittsburgh Bocce League is a part of a much bigger group called Major League Bocce. Major League Bocce initially started as the DC Bocce League in 2004 in Washington, DC. According to their web site the DC Bocce League was created by a group of friends looking to bring a different social and recreational experience to DC. Those friends were Richie DiFranco, Gabriella de Ocampo, Rachael Preston, Gautam Chowdhry, and Sarah DeLucas. The league was such a success that in 2011 they launched Major League Bocce in hopes of bringing their love of the game to other US cities. Their vision came to fruition and to date they have leagues in Austin, Bethesda, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Richmond and Washington, DC.

    I was so impressed with their concept that I contacted Major League Bocce and asked if they would be interested in talking with me about the league. I immediately heard back from Rachael Preston and this is what transpired during our phone conversation.

    IRUS: Rachael I am glad to have the opportunity to talk to you

    RP: It is always good to talk bocce

    IRUS: I found your site, as a result of my wife pointing me to your Pittsburgh league. I started looking into what you guys are doing and I thought it would be a great thing to write about. I am hoping this will get other people to see exactly what you are doing and to possibly spark some interest with other cities that might not have leagues. There might be people out there who want to start a league and you may be able to help them get something organized and get them enthusiastic and excited about the game like a bunch of other people are.

    IRUS: You could have picked all kinds of different sports why did you choose bocce?

    RP: That is a great question. We could have picked all kinds of sports and we did pick bocce for a couple of reasons very specific reasons. We came from a background of playing in a kickball league and we wanted something where people could be self-refereed. We feel that volunteers who referee in other sports take a lot of unnecessary aggression from players who are being competitive and maybe being a lit bit immature and mean to the referees unnecessarily.

    We felt bocce is something everyone can be responsible for knowing the rules. We organized our league in a way where everyone playing knows that and if there is a debate about the rules it should be a healthy mature adult debate not people yelling at each other because there will be nobody intervening on your behalf. We also picked it because we think it is accessible to the widest range of people from a physical ability stand point. It was really important to me doing this that we could have teams that we be all men or all women or a mixed gender and we wouldn't have to regulate that to try to balance the perception of fairness so we think that women can compete equally with men in bocce and that's one of the key things that drew us to it. I think the third thing for us was that for us that if you are doing something to meet new people this is one of the best outlets for doing that because everyone is standing together with their teammates and with their opponents and it is a natural conversation starter. Those are all the benefits that we attribute to bocce.

    IRUS: Well that is great! Those are all great points. It is something that any age group can play against each other. My dad used to have a league and I was 14 at the time playing against men in their 50's and 60's and I was able to compete with them.

    RP: I think it creates an outlet for people who might otherwise may be intimidated by sports and games where there is more a focus on physical ability. I think it is still skillful, but I think it appeals to a lot of people who are too intimidated to join a softball team or a basketball team or a volleyball team.

    IRUS: When exactly did the league get started?

    RP: The short history of Major League Bocce is actually from 2004 where we started as DC Bocce League in Washington DC. Five of us where playing in a kickball league and we were looking for something that met all of the requirements I mentioned, but that also we could play in neighborhoods closer to where people live rather than be limited to only athletic fields that are in limited quantity and have high competition to get those spaces. We had 50 players in our first season when we started. We just recruited all of our co-workers and everyone we knew that lived in the city at the time. Everyone had so much fun that we doubled the amount of players for the next season to 100 players. We operated only in DC until 2011. We introduced Major League Bocce at that time and we started adding new cities under that label. Same program and idea just not the DC name. We started in Pittsburgh in 2013.

    IRUS: Well that is great to hear. I am looking forward to possibly joining that league in the future. It will give me an outlet to have some fun there.

    RP: Were are actually in 10 cities now. We added 5 new ones this year.

    IRUS: Does the league run year round or is it specific to a certain season like spring, summer, winter or fall?

    RP: We tend to run a calendar season somewhat modified depending on the location, but we will play a winter, spring, summer and fall season. In Pittsburgh that calendar in 2015 will be set and stabilized. We did a winter league in 2014 at Mario's in Shadyside. We had pvc courts and played with glow bocce balls right at the bar and then we did a spring season also at the bar then a summer and fall outdoor season. Hopefully we will be back this winter and that will make us all four seasons. Our philosophy about bocce is to find the right fit for the audience in any particular city that we are going to play in. By in large 95% of everything we do is playing in a neighborhood park on the grass, we set up cones so it is like a pretend court concept. We play with regulation 110mm balls. When its fall and it is still warm to play outside but it is not light enough to be outside we switch to these glow bocce balls and stay out at parks. If it gets too cold and dark outside we do what we can to fit a version of bocce into bars or play at bars that have indoor bocce courts. We have done pvc courts that are about 40 feet long and we'll use more of a petanque ball or plastic glow bocce balls for safety and to accommodate the smaller court size. We also have done littler courts that are 20 feet long and we play with skee balls that are painted like bocce balls. They are safe, wooden and light weight and can be used inside. You can still kind of use the rules of bocce to play in a small area.

    IRUS: That is great that you are able to use other things and incorporate it indoors as well as outdoors especially in cities where you don't want to be outdoors in the winter time.

    IRUS: Let's say I live in a city that does not have a bocce league that I know of and I want to start one, what would I do?

    RP: Most inquiries come to us either through referral or through our website and into our email inbox. We get all of these inquiries from the most part through majorleaguebocce.com and what we do with them is send out some more information but a lot of it is on the website and we try to redirect people back to it about what the process is for setting thing up, why you want to do it and how we do things in the program. So mostly when we respond we will tell people a little more about the league and I refer to some of our partner leagues and their website so they can get an idea of what our Major League Bocce brand looks like in the different places we have partners. If they are still interested after they looked at the material on the website we set up a phone call so we can talk about what our expectations are of the league and about how many people it will take to make it successful and fun for folks and to get an idea in terms of locations to play and what their concepts are for running a league. We execute a nondisclosure agreement and then we talk about our online registrations system works and our partnership works. If they are still interested after we go through all that we sign a license agreement and get working together. I find the biggest challenge for people that contact us has been getting the word out about the league and marketing it.

    IRUS: That is the biggest challenge for a lot of groups and companies.

    RP: I think it is something that people overlook a little bit is that bocce for as much fun as it is for people who know about it is not something that everyone knows about. It is not like if you build it they will come. That doesn't necessarily apply to this concept.

    IRUS: So is there a lot of upfront cost then. If I was starting something would I need a lot of upfront money?

    RP: No, we are switching things up for 2015. We are going to start focusing more on working with folks who contact us from cities of a certain size and in those situations there is no upfront cost. Basically you become a partner with Major League Bocce. We provide the website and the training and we front the cost for everything, but we also collect all the registration fee and then we do a revenue sharing system. In places where we struggled to get some critical mass and through smaller markets that answer could be different for 2015. It is not to say we would not want to help foster people starting leagues in places they live that don't meet our requirements but it might mean that they have to maybe take on some of that risk up front.

    IRUS: Now you mentioned that you were in 10 cities is there plans for you to expand this summer?

    RP: We will be doing more cities. It is not clear to me at this moment. We are currently in Austin, DC, and Boston. We just started a league in Charlotte, North Carolina. We have a league in Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Richmond. I think if we add new cities in 2015 we may possibly look at San Antonio, Texas and then things that are a little further away like Chicago and further west cities.

    IRUS: I think you would like to do cities that are I hate to say this but, heavily Italian populated because it is an Italian sport and Italians love to play and it may help with getting the word out and getting the members that you need.

    RP: We have had mixed responses on that because a lot of strongly Italian communities have their own bocce infrastructure and they tend to think of it very traditionally. We don't always play on a formal court which is something I find that in a lot of Italian or Little Italy's think of when they think of bocce is you don't play on grass you play on a court and that's not what we are really offering people. It is true that for especially the younger generation Italian and Italian Americans this appeals to them because they did grow up with the game and it is kind of something very accessible to them in a place where they might not have other bocce outlets or infrastructure.

    IRUS: That's funny you mentioned about a traditional court because my Dad has his own court in the backyard.

    RP: We do play on traditional courts but they are just limited in availability.

    IRUS: You just don't see them. Not a lot of places have them.

    IRUS: I noticed in the Pittsburgh chapter that the top teams are awarded donations to give to the charity of their choosing is that something that all the leagues do or is that specific to Pittsburgh?

    RP: That's a long time element of our overall bocce program that started in DC and has expanded with each of our locations. The only change on the horizon for that is in places, which would not include Pittsburgh but would include Philadelphia, Boston and Washington DC where we have a lot of winners because we have a lot of divisions and players we are looking at switching to a charity partnership where we will still be supporting a charity it just won't be a charity chosen by the players, but it will be a charity that we will be working with year round. Organizing the 25 charities each season that we have been donating too becomes incredibly time consuming.

    IRUS: I think that is a great idea though and it would probably be great to associate with one specific charity.

    RP: I think there is some real upside to it as a benefit, but I think we want to try it out in one or two places and see how it goes and if it works out great. With social media there are so many tools available where we can get player input into what that partner would be without just making that choice prematurely. It could be a change but I think it will be a change that could benefit everybody.

    I want to thank Rachael for taking the time to talk with me about Major League Bocce. It was great to hear the passion and excitement she has for the game. I have to commend them on using bocce as a platform to help support numerous charities. It is great seeing them give back to the communities that have embraced them.

    The one great thing about bocce is that people from different age groups and abilities can get together and play on a level playing field. If you live in one of the cities that currently has a league please go to their web site and find out how you can join. If you are looking for a recreational sport to meet new friends and have fun this may be exactly what you are looking for. If you don't live in a city that has a league then don't hesitate to contact Major League Bocce and see what you can do to get one started. They have all the tools you will need. The only thing they need is you!

    Photos copyright © Major League Bocce. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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