Depending on whom you talk to, adult kickball is either cool, lame, a reason to drink, an excuse to act like a kid, welcoming of all, frighteningly homogenous, or a waste of a perfectly good softball diamond. But one thing is undeniable: It's really, really popular.
To wit, no fewer than four different kickball leagues will stage games on Seattle-area fields in 2007, including a new entry that's giving extant local leagues pause: the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA), which will begin play here in April after years of unsuccessfully attempting to secure fields.
The Washington, D.C.–based behemoth, which in 2006 had 32,000 players register for teams in 21 states, comes to town with all the trappings of a large corporation—including the baggage of a high-profile legal battle. In 2006, WAKA filed a lawsuit in the Alexandria, Va., U.S. District Court against DC Kickball, accusing the D.C.-area rival's founder (and former WAKA volunteer), Carter Rabasa, of copyright infringement for using WAKA's coed kickball rules without its permission, including the mandate that "players must be at least 21 years old" and "the clearly unique requirement that there must be 4 men AND 4 women at a minimum to play." WAKA also accuses Rabasa of defamation, for calling it "the Microsoft of kickball" in a 2005 Washington City Paper story. WAKA is seeking $356,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
"We don't have any updates on the lawsuit," says WAKA spokesperson Tiffany Ficklin. "Right now it's still in the filing process, is my understanding." (Neither Rabasa nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.)
WAKA has also contacted at least two other kickball leagues, in D.C. and Little Rock, Ark., warning them about taking its intellectual property. These actions have created a WAKA backlash among kickballers: On MySpace, the Anti-WAKA Kickball Alliance boasts 86 members (groups.myspace.com/radicalkickball).
"I will notify my legal defense team to be on 24-hour alert," jokes Shawn D. Madden, the self-proclaimed "ambassador of fun" of Seattle's Underdog Sports Leagues, which began offering kickball in 2002.
"How did [the D.C. suit] even get to federal court?" Madden wonders. "Isn't that where they prosecute serious stuff? If WAKA's case prevents one serious sting from reaching federal court, that would be the saddest thing ever. It seems like a bad Saturday Night Live skit or something."
But sharing a city with WAKA doesn't guarantee litigation. For instance, Scottsdale, Ariz., bought a kickball starter kit from WAKA for its inaugural season of adult kickball this winter, and city recreation leader Sam Kelly admits he drew from WAKA's rules when trying to devise his own. Even though he wasn't aware of WAKA's lawsuit at the time, he says he was careful not to crib too much. "It does seem like they're trying to be the source for kickball, like a monopoly," he says. "In that sense, I did fear trying to use everything from their model." So far, Kelly has not heard any objections from WAKA.
In San Francisco, WAKA arrived in 2002, long after the Golden Gate Sport and Social Club (GGSSC) had already established its own kickball leagues. Since the first-to-market GGSSC has better access to city fields, General Manager Michael Murphy says he doesn't keep tabs on WAKA. "When they came into town, everyone was like, 'You really gotta bust them up,'" he says. "But I'm like, 'Let them do their thing.' There's enough for everybody."
GGSSC also copyrights its rules for all of its sports, though Murphy says he'd never bother taking legal action if someone started using them. "C'mon, it's a kickball league," he says. "Are we going to go after the Jewish Community Center because they play five-on-five basketball? To me, it seems preposterous."
This won't be the first time WAKA has ventured into the Pacific Northwest: In 2003, WAKA established a Portland division, promising a grand kickballing experience to volunteers like Colleen Finn. But according to Finn, WAKA basically offloaded all work to the volunteers, who ran the league with little support from the association's paid staff in D.C.
"We went out and scouted the fields, met with parks, got the sponsors," Finn recalls. "We were sort of doing all the work, and the resources we were building weren't even staying in Oregon. All the money was going to some mysterious bank account in Washington, D.C. It was just really silly."
Finn says the teams didn't receive their T-shirts until midway through the season. This, despite WAKA rule 2.01: "While participating in WAKA kickball, players must properly wear and fully display the official WAKA athletic clothing designated for their use. Teams with players who fail to abide by this rule forfeit that game."
The 13 pages of game rules, as well as company procedures such as filling out expense reports, struck Finn as antithetical to the spirit of kickball, and she says the big-brother mentality didn't go over well in a DIY town like Portland. "The way they do things just didn't fit here," Finn says. "In the Pacific Northwest, I would think they're going to have a hard time getting any brand awareness."
After that first season, WAKA folded its Portland division, and Finn and others broke off to form their own league, now called Recesstime Sports. So far, Finn has yet to receive a cease-and-desist letter from WAKA. "I have changed addresses, though," she says, chuckling. "Maybe I've been lucky."
WAKA hasn't been back in Portland since 2003, but spokesperson Ficklin says it's learned its lesson: WAKA has hired a paid, Seattle-based representative to handle administrative tasks for the Emerald City division.
Of the existing Seattle leagues, Underdog Sports is the largest, boasting about 300 teams and 4,000 players. Underdog charges $625 per team, which pays for, among other things, fields, equipment, T-shirts, umpires, three annual player parties, and salaries for seven full-time employees. Its profit margin is slim, but Madden says he's paid little attention to WAKA. "A wise man once told me, 'If you've got no competition, either you're just getting started and nobody's figured it out, or you're in the wrong business,'" he says. "If I got worried every time someone said they were going to start up a sports league—or actually started up a league—I'd just worry all the time. We have bigger fish to fry than WAKA, but if they cause trouble, they'll get trouble."
When asked why WAKA specifically targeted certain leagues (the University of Arizona intramural kickball program, for example, also has a four men/four women rule), Ficklin explains that WAKA now offers a free license to organizations that want to borrow its rules. "Anyone can use them, but they have to use the WAKA copyright on them," Ficklin says. "That's what we're asking. These other leagues did not."
Underdog Sports' kickball league director, Lawrence Martin, remembers hearing about WAKA in college and thinking they were awesome. "They were sort of independent then," he says. "They sound like a Microsoft now. I think they've lost their way.
"Kickball isn't something that someone created within the past 10 years," Martin continues. "Everyone's played with different rules because they had different elementary schools and different P.E. teachers. Maybe there are some P.E. teachers that should be making bank because of their rules."