In six years, Social Leagues has grown from a small bocce operation in Baltimore to offering a variety of social sports leagues in six cities with 100,000 participants.
The company continues to grow with last week's announcement of the acquisition of NYC Social, a New York-based social sports league, which will be merged with its existing operation, Play Big Apple.
Now its founder, Giovanni Marcantoni, says he wants to focus on increasing the number of participants it serves nationwide to 300,000 by 2020. He ascribed the company's rapid growth to the desire of young people to do more in the offline world as social interactions increasingly move online.
"We think that this industry is very much a young and new industry," he said. "People are living online, and there's not as many ways to get out there and meet people, or to just do something with your friends."
Marcantoni, 31, said the company began "as a hobby" in 2010 when he was trying to organize a bocce league in Baltimore. They added skee-ball, then sailing, and it grew from there.
It now offers sports that range from soccer to flip cup. People can sign up with friends as a team or as free agents and be assigned to a team. Fees for the spring season range from $36 (bocce and flip cup) to $160 (sailing), but typically are around $50 to $70. The money covers a T-shirt, equipment, field rental and Baltimore Social's expenses.
Social Leagues doesn't have an age limit, but many participants are in their 20s or 30s, drawn by a relaxed atmosphere that includes sponsorship by local bars where the players sometimes hang out and socialize after their games.
The social leagues are offered in Denver, San Francisco, Charleston, S.C, Seattle, New York City and Baltimore, where it serves about 29,000 participants as Baltimore Social. Marcantoni said he wanted to focus on increasing the number of participants in each city and didn't see any expansions into new cities on the near horizon.
"We quickly realized that growing horizontally was a lot harder than growing vertically," he said. "We're going to really grow big in each of these cities."
The company doesn't disclose annual revenue, and Marcantoni wouldn't disclose how much the acquisition of NYC Social cost.
Marcantoni has other goals, too: He wants to hire someone to boost fundraising for a free charity youth league called Bmore Kids Sports, which the company launched last year in Herring Run Park. Donations to support the free league have so far come only from the company.
The company also has a smaller operation running social games for corporate events, which Marcantoni also wants to expand.
With the decline of churchgoing in America, people have fewer outlets to socialize face-to-face, said Bill Tsitsos, an associate professor of sociology at Towson University.
"Community is harder to find in America these days in a concrete form, that's not virtual, that's not a Facebook friendship," he said. "To be able to socialize in person is worth something. The appeal will never go away."
Young people also are becoming increasingly health-conscious, which may be driving some of Social Leagues' rapid growth, said Mary Stuart, director of the Health Administration and Policy program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Fifteen years ago, if you asked a class how many people smoked, a lot of hands would go up, and now very few. And most students are either exercising or interested in exercising, Stuart said.
"There's been a lot of attention in the media to health related behaviors and weight and exercise and its affect on cardiovascular fitness," Stuart said. "At least at the college level, these young people are taking it seriously."
Marcantoni said part of the company's appeal might be that all the logistics are taken care of, so all someone needs to do to sign up is click a button.
"We're a one-stop shop of 'I'm going to meet people, and I'm just going to show up,'" he said.