How a thing for Skee-Ball started a $3.2 mil­lion busi­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - Thomas.heath@wash­post.com

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.

KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

Value Added THOMAS HEATH

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