5 Huge Questions to Decide When Starting a Social Sports League.

Flag Football League

You’ve decided to start a sports League – Amazing!

Only you know whether this is a part time hobby/experiment, or something you want to do as a business for the next 20 years.

There are some very basic questions: Youth or Adult? How many seasons? Rec league or more competitive?

But you will never make it 6 months unless you tackle 5 key questions that take years to understand, and some leagues never consider before they give up. They might be a bit complex, but learn from us so you don’t make the mistakes we have seen over and over again.

1) Price vs Proposition Simplifier Leagues

There are all kinds of games and leagues, but according to Richard Koch the author of Simplify – there are really only two kinds of businesses to think about, which we will apply from his book to the idea of building a long lasting sports league.

A Price Simplifier League – Your focus is on offering the lowest price for players and the most games. In exchange for that you will ask and require the players to do A LOT of “league work.”

A Proposition Simplifier League – Behind the scenes you do all the work to make the players experience easier, but this takes a lot more resources, and a lot more tech and investment.

Mr. Koch gives the example of Ikea when discussing price simplifiers. Everyone has a funny story about assembling some of random piece of Ikea furniture, because that’s the foundation of the company. In exchange for super low prices on furniture, you will need to come to the warehouse, walk around with a giant cart, and assemble it all yourself after YOU deliver it to your home.

Other companies like McDonalds are considered price simplifier businesses.

What does this have to do with sports leagues?

Many leagues take on the role of a price simplifier and push a lot of the work onto players. Softball leagues make you bring cases of softballs to the leagues for the umpire. A flag football league give you the address of a sporting goods store or a URL to buy your teams flag belts. A kickball league makes you choose two of your players every week to hang around and ump the next game! Heck, local pickleball leagues now ask you to make your own court reservations after you sign up to play in the league. Common ideas like providing your own umps and even self-reporting your own scores, are widespread throughout the country.

This is a great way to keep costs down, and to avoid hiring a huge staff and investing resources when you first start. But you can see the drawbacks. You’ve turned your league into a commodity, like a pack of 500 sheets of white paper you buy for your home office printer. You don’t care about the brand, you just want the cheapest price. Players like the sports you offer, but nobody really likes you. If you are just experimenting or running a hobby league, this is ok, but if you were hoping to build a long lasting brand, you’ve just made things a lot harder.

There can normally only be one low price option. Think a Walmart or Amazon. So once you go down this path. its very hard to build a premium brand, and also very hard to raise your prices later on.

There is often already an established competitor who has many of these same traits of low prices and making players do a lot of the work: Your local parks and rec league! Here’s the trickier part…they often have the inside track to the best fields and courts that you really need.

In many cases, it might be better to try and differentiate yourself from your already established local league instead of trying to beat them at their own game that’s probably been established for decades.

A proposition simplifier League allows you to try and build a premium experience.

Besides some leg work by captains to sign up the team, the sports league tries to simplify the experience by doing all the work for you. They hire and schedule refs, reserve fields, bring the gear, work on the schedule, deal with uniforms and shirts, and handle scores and photos. That’s a lot more work to deal with and needs a lot more office people and a lot more eyeballs and effort.

Take just one example: Team T-Shirts

Many new leagues love this idea because you can require people in your league to wear your league logo and your brand. Then when they go out after the game, or maybe throw it on to go to the gym, “Hey, free advertising right?”

The issue is that once you begin to scale, you might find you need someone part-time or full-time JUST to manage shirts. Orders, returns, inventories, how do you pack them and get them to the games.

This is the challenge of a proposition simplifier: Normally you need a lot of tech running behind the scenes (Think Google or Lyft) in order to make the experience as simple as possible to the end user.

Most leagues never understand this basic difference when they get started. They mix the two together, or choose the wrong one to start, and then several years later they try and switch back.

They realize they cant make enough money as a price simplifier, so they try and switch to a proposition simplifier, and anger all their current customers in the process. Or they realize they need to scale and expand their customer base, and so go after parks and rec leagues and lower cost options, and take away the reason people specifically signed up for your league in the first place – “I signed up to play, not to buy gear and be forced to learn how to umpire!”

Think about the idea between a price and proposition simplifier league and decide early on who you will be, so you don’t end up regretting a change in strategy years later as your business grows.

2) What Sports Are you Good At ? (Line Extension)

Small business is hard, but its not complicated.

The business takes on the character of its founder, often because the founder hires people like them.

Many leagues offer dozens of options, from soccer to basketball, kickball to dodgeball, card games, darts and pickleball.

But what are you good at?

Many founders launch their first sport with what they know and love. Maybe you played volleyball all your life and you know it forward and backwards. Awesome.

Start where you are, with what you know. But then when it works, be very careful about extending to what you don’t know, but you THINK you should try.

You will immediately feel pressure to go into sports with different cultures and different issues.

You can try and hire an expert, you can try and learn it yourself, but please don’t be surprised if you try and move from one sport to another and its hard as heck.

We don’t even mean different gear or rules, its even deeper.

We are crushing it at softball, lets start a kickball league.

Two totally different user bases, cultures, and even skill sets for the umpires you will need.

Your core leagues might end up suffering because you end up spending all your time trying to figure out why kickball players hate softball umps, or why basketball refs seem to normally make really lousy flag football refs.

This is the classic case of “line extension.” We are doing good in one spot, lets keep expanding!

In many cases you are better to start, and stick with, what you know, instead of falling into the trap of expanding into things you don’t know, but look really cool…aka kickball.

Volleyball crushing it? Add sand volleyball…then add grass volleyball.

Stick to what you know.

When the time is right, you will always be able to add new sports. But when you are first starting out, stay close to your knowledge center, because getting a new league off the ground, and dealing with problems, and complaints, and rules confusion will be a big challenge, even in sports you know best.

3) What is your HomeBase ?

Much like the problem of over expanding with offerings, new leagues also run into problems with over expanding into locations. Its a natural human reaction just like “line extension” when things are going good.

Unfortunately, we have seen so many new leagues spend too much time on things that feel great – social media posts, advertising, parties, shirts, awards and trophies.

Then their league loses momentum, or falls to pieces, because of one simple fact – They don’t have any place to consistently play.

They got an awesome field for the spring, but they couldn’t get it for the summer. They got an awesome court in the Fall, but in winter school sports took over and now they cant repeat the “league cycle.”

They were worried so much about building an 8 team league in a new location, that they messed up the 30 team league at the home location that is the foundation of their revenue base.

Starting out your are desperate for teams, refs, and people just knowing who you are and that you exist. That’s the way it always is…

But more important than any promotions, or social media likes, is finding a consistent home base. The last thing you want is to run great leagues, gain a following, and then have no place to put the teams and players that want to play with your league in the future on a recurring basis.

You need to find a home base to build consistency – you need to lock down fields for a year (or more) and not just a season. So teams can predict your schedule for the next season and plan accordingly.

You need to focus way more on consistent capacity then on what your website looks like, or how many followers you have on social media.

Find your home base, so that when you run a good league, you have a chance to keep building.

4) Train your Own Staff or Rent Hired Guns

Refs and umps are a huge part of the character of your league. So you need to decide early on how you will build your crew. Will you outsource the whole thing to a ref or ump association, or try and build your own staff from scratch.

Based on the sports you offer, do you even have the option to hire outside help?

Where do you go to get Kickball Umpires? To get Dodgeball Refs ?

Using veteran refs who are part of an association for your leagues can solve immediate problems – “I don’t have enough refs!” – but also comes with some drawbacks:

Are the refs and umps connected to your company and brand – or are they just hired guns?

Do they relate to younger players playing goofy sports or do they sometimes think the sport is silly and even “beneath” them ?

Are they “by the book” and so strict that they take the fun out of a Social Sports League?

Think about a high school football referee who has been reffing for 15-20 years. You get their submission in your email bin and you are absolutely thrilled. They want to earn some extra money, and you are desperate for some veteran leadership and people to fill holes in your staffing schedule. They almost seem “overqualified!”

They are overqualified. If you are running another high school league, which you are not. You are running a co-ed flag football league, with tons of new penalties like “flag-guarding” that they find silly…so they don’t really call them unless you are watching. And they keep getting the rulebook they have used for 15 years confused with your rulebook, so they often say the wrong amount of timeouts and stop the clock in ways your players find confusing.

Then — even more importantly — they are used to working with a crew of 4-6 other high school refs. So they don’t move much and have no experience with goofy plays where someone’s flags are crooked or they fall out. Even more, they kinda think co-rec flag football is silly, and so they always feel like they are doing you a favor by showing up.

Seem harsh? Sure.

But we have seen this story play out many times over 25 years over many sports – softball /kickball/ and flag football.

A veteran ref who has too much experience, and cant adapt to rec league rules or positioning and definitely cant relate to young players. They are used to just ignoring angry coaches and lecturing angry players. Then their style and effort rubs off on younger, new refs who are just getting started.

The flip side has its problems also. A crew of brand new refs who love sports and watch them on TV all the time but have never refereed in an organized fashion, except a few youth league games, where nobody even kept score.

Then in high pressure situations they freeze up, get talked into calls, and sometimes even just walk away from big calls that need to be made because they are so scared of getting yelled at or making a mistake.

Reffing and umping always looks easy when you are sitting on your couch watching replays in slow-motion.

How could that ref have made that call?

Easy – They are out in the 40 degree rain at full speed with a different angle then you have sitting on your couch eating chips and getting to see 3 or 4 perfect slow-mo replays in a row.

Imagine the customer service problems that a new referee can create when they ref to “get along” and avoid yelling and arguments.

We have also seen this many times over 25 years. Sports fans who ”want to try something new“ and have neither the temperament, habits, or communication skills to be a ref at any level…and that’s before conflict and controversy.

More than fields, schedules, and your gear, your staff of supervisors, refs and umps IS your product. It IS your league. Decide early which path you will go down. Maybe you even start with a hybrid approach of veteran refs plus new ones you try and build up.

But understand that reffing and umping is hard…and finding great refs and umps who can defuse conflict and deal with problems on the fly is even harder.

You can struggle for months and years to get teams, and lose them in a week if you end up with the wrong mix of refs and umps for the league you are trying to build.

5) How much confidence do you have?

When we first started running sports leagues, a funny thing would happen.

There were tons of phone calls and emails with questions:

What rules do you use?
How long is the season?
Do you have any extra players for my team?

But there was one question we got more than any other – over and over again. Through email and phone calls.

And it might surprise you:

How many people are signed up for the league?

When you are starting something new, you will always get a few early adopters. But most people are not trail-blazers, they are actually followers.

Think about how many times you have been a hardcore sports fan for your local team, and all of the sudden the team catches fire and starts winning every game. New fans literally appear out of no-where! “Oh I’ve always been a fan!”


This “bandwagon effect” is very common in sports, but also very common with new products and offerings.

People want proof that they are signing up for something that’s quality and fun, that they are signing up for a “winner.”

This is where the idea of “social proof” and testimonials comes from.

When people called the office and first started asking this question we were pretty honest:

Oh yeah, for that softball league there are two teams. Plenty of space for you.”

The response was normally something like:

Oh ok…thanks ..we will sign up later

And then of course they very rarely signed up later.

We quickly learned that this was happening, and instead of being so specific we would start saying things like “There is still space, you should sign up soon” instead of mentioning that a 12 team league only had 2 teams signed up.

The issue is with new leagues – like most new things – there is a certain self-fulfilling confidence. You see this often with economic panics or bank runs – The fear and panic creates new problems that prove the reason why there was fear and panic.

Your softball league isn’t quite so dramatic as the bank run in “its a wonderful life” – but the lack of confidence that you are going to have a full league or even a meaningful league will create that self fulfilling prophecy:

People are afraid nobody is going to be in this league, so they don’t sign up for this league, and now nobody is signed up for this league!

This is where terrible, dumb phrases like “fake it till you make it” come into play.

You don’t wanna lie, you don’t wanna fake it – If someone calls the office and asks how many people are signed up for your first new league and you say 10 teams and its 1, eventually that BS will come to light.

But we have also seen many leagues where they have space for 12/14/16 teams and end up with 6…and promptly give up!

6 is good! 6 is how you start building a following.

At some point in your sports league origin story, you need the confidence to stop marketing and advertising a league, and simply run the league.

Do you have the confidence to run a 6 team league. To run a 4 team league?

Many people don’t, but that’s how you will get started.

Everyone wants 12 or 16 teams – Do you have the confidence to run the league with 6 teams ?

Don’t lie to people – be honest:

Hey, we are just getting started. We hope to have more teams next season.”

At a certain point the most important thing you can do is run a league, so that you can run it again. Once you get momentum and run leagues good things will start to happen:

People will tell their friends they are busy on Tuesday Night because they are playing in your league.

People will invite subs to play in the league who didn’t know you existed.

You will get last minute requests for signups and week #2 starts once people see the “proof ” that the league is actually happening.

People will start recommending you to other people, because THEY will want the league to be bigger next season.

In a sense, that’s what marketing is: Make a product so good that people will tell 5 of their friends.

None of these benefits kick in if you lack the confidence to stop pushing the start of the league back a week or two, and simply run the league.

Sure you missed your sales goal, sure you wish you had more teams.

Run the league.

Show people that the league is running, that the league is real, and make darn sure the teams in the league have a good time.

Then you are on your way towards actually building a league that will last.