How a thing for Skee-Ball started a $3.2 million business
Robert Kinsler’s business is to create fun for others. That’s kind of ironic, considering that he spent several difficult years in foster care while his parents navigated personal issues. “I have had an untraditional upbringing,” said Kinsler, an entrepreneur who built a social sports and lifestyle company called DC Fray, a $3.2 million enterprise based in Northeast Washington that just expanded to Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla.
The 32-year-old developed a resilience and knack for survival that comes in handy dealing with the million headaches and incidents of unsportsmanlike conduct that come with running his unconventional sports empire.
Kinsler started DC Fray (originally called United Social Sports) out of his Brookland studio in 2009 as a Skee-Ball league. (Skee-Ball is that arcade game that’s sort of like bowling. You roll softball-size balls up an inclined lane toward holes bounded by raised rings.)
DC Fray has 11 full-time employees organizing adventures for thousands of weekly participants, including Sunday softball leagues in Arlington and Skee-Ball Monday nights at the Iron Horse Tap Room in downtown Washington.
The seven-year-old “fun firm” says it produced 27,769 contests of all sorts last year, with 3,267 teams competing. The Super Bowl, this ain’t. DC Fray’s competition includes many of the games we grew up with in the back yard: kickball, dodgeball, ultimate Frisbee, cornhole, snow tubing and even flag football. There are New Year’s Eve parties, goofy events called Hungry Human Hippo and an outdoor polar bear kickball league for hearty souls during winter. For adventure, there are river tubing excursions to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., for $75. They even have trips to Nationals Opening Day for $50. (The seats are in the scoreboard pavilion, close to the bar.)
The idea here is to have a good time.
“It’s recreation,” Kinsler said. “The social connection. It’s the opposite of Facebook. It’s real-life connection with current friends as well as new friends.”
The participants are equally split between men and women — do they ever pair up off the field?
“Yes, 100 percent,” Kinsler said. The dating prospects are “a huge part of why people join.”
Plus, it’s cheaper than golf. Registration for an eight-week season of Arlington softball runs $65. Seven weeks of Monday night Skee-Ball might run $49.
For that you get the bats, the balls, the nets, trophies, T-shirts and the venue.
“We supply everything except for personal equipment like softball gloves,” Kinsler said.
The company spends about $300,000 a year on equipment and another $500,000 on permits. DC Fray leases a 7,500square-foot warehouse stacked with dozens of wire shelves piled with equipment bags, cones, balls, bases, bats, first-aid kits, volleyball poles and soccer nets. The company owns three vans that move the stuff.
DC Fray has something going every night of the week and nearly every day of the year.
The company drafts rules to keep the competition social and fun, and the playing field level. If you steal second base, you must give it back. (There’s no stealing bases!) And not everyone plays nice. One sore loser punted the soccer ball over the fence.
A high level of logistics is involved, with elements such as reserving baseball fields, estimating attendance and dealing with procrastinators. Nearly half of the registrations for something like a softball or kickball league arrive the week before it begins, which causes havoc in the scheduling and rosters.
There are corporate events to coordinate, facilities to rent. There are T-shirt makers, food vendors and referees to pay, and players to herd to their games.
“One weekend, we might be hosting games and activities for a corporate client with our box truck while also hosting a dozen different sports leagues across the metro area,” Kinsler said. “On top of that it might have rained the night before and we might have to take our gas water pump down to the sand volleyball courts and manually pump them out, re-rake and sometimes pump again. The ice might have melted at a local skating rink that we are hosting an event at and didn’t get the message that the ice was gone.
“When you run a business that operates in the ‘fun’ space, some people expect our back end to be fun and laid-back, too. That’s not so.”
That means a staff that needs to be accessible by phone, email or in person nearly 24/7.
“We still get the occasional email or Yelp review that accuses us of just sitting back and hanging out on the beach, which is crazy,” Kinsler said.
Registration, advertising, corporate events, travel, fitness and sponsorships are the bulk of the revenue. Revenue for corporate events can run from $3,000 to $100,000, depending on whether the client is organizing an internal soccer league or hosting a field day with speakers.
Kinsler said the profit margin on the $3.2 million is less than 8 percent. Nearly all of that is invested back into the business with advertising, new personnel, software and computers, website development, acquisitions and the expansion into Jacksonville and Phoenix. The warehouse lease and utilities eat up $85,000 a year. Labor cost $1.2 million in 2016. He has even bought some small leagues to increase the footprint.
“Reinvesting is the right thing to do,” he said. “I am playing the long game. Our goal is to build value and become a sustainable business with revenue in the double-digit millions. We want to create a league people can count on.”
It’s an untraditional business. But like he said, Kinsler comes from an untraditional background.
Living with a foster family and then an aunt taught him independence and self-reliance.
After a couple of years at George Mason University, he tried acting in New York and Los Angeles. Along the way, he was a security guard, a police cadet and a junior real estate agent in New York, where his biggest thrill was a $25,000 commission for selling a commercial lot in Brooklyn.
From 17 to 25, he was in the D.C. National Guard, where he learned how to create and manage websites, which would come in handy when he launched his company.
He and a friend were going to start a restaurant in the Virgin Islands, but Kinsler left after he was robbed at gunpoint on his 23rd birthday.
He was selling real estate in Washington in 2007 when he had what he calls a “quarter-life crisis when I was 25.”
He read an article on Skee-Ball leagues, which prompted him to visit some local bars to see if they would be willing to host some competition.
Most said no, but a couple of locations agreed and he launched a league in 2009.
“It definitely was not meant to be a business,” he said. He soon expanded into kickball through online ads on Facebook and word of mouth.
“I thought it was fun, different, a little silly,” he said. “Kickball is not about kickball. It’s about being social and having fun with other people.”
The “aha” moment arrived in early 2010, after Kinsler decided to try a second Skee-Ball season. He had built a website over Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2009, but no one noticed. Then Jan. 2, 2010, arrived. By the end of the day, more than 400 people had signed up to play in dozens of Skee-Ball leagues. Thousands more followed.
Kinsler knew he was on to something: “There was a need for fun outlets and to get connected to others and have an excuse for people to get together.”
They soon branched out to softball, soccer, flag football and softer stuff such as cornhole and shuffleboard. DC Fray has grown into more than 15 sports leagues. It has served more than 300,000 since its inception.
Kinsler has settled into a traditional life after an untraditional upbringing. He is married, has two children and lives comfortably in Alexandria on a six-figure salary.
Robert Kinsler founded what now is DC Fray out of his studio as a Skee-Ball league. The business has expanded to Florida and Arizona.
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