Our surprising startup marketing hack that helped us meet pickup soccer groups in NYC

The elaborate attention-grabbing hacks, the first encounters, the insights from the organizers, the hilarious initiations, and the footy😅⚽️

This story was written by Alexandria Lamontagne and Alicia Luciani. Published April 24, 2018.

Crazy, Funky Ideas: Outreach Hacks inspired by Jimmy Fallon

Part 1: Written by Alex

Sending videos to strangers through their email or Facebook for most people would be absurd and creepy, to us at OpenSports it’s just a Wednesday.

For quite some time, we’ve been trying to come up with clever ways to engage with pickup sports organizers and showcase our platform, but let me tell you: it’s not as easy as you think. We tried cold calling, sending out emails with clever subject lines, and even faxing people (yes some people still do use faxes believe it or not). We had some success, but nothing that seemed to have any real impact, until now.

Although we are based in Toronto, we’ve been rapidly growing in the United States, which sparked an idea: Why not travel to some of these cities and meet some of the group organizers that are using OpenSports? Surprisingly, James didn’t jump out of his seat and run to the airport to catch the next flight to Philadelphia (and yes he would do that, he’s that passionate!). Rather, we thought this idea through.

But if we were going to travel to the US, how could we meet even more organizers and groups on the ground? How could we reach out to these organizers and get their attention? We thought long and hard until we had a solid idea:

Why don’t we create personalized videos for pickup sports organizers and send the videos to them through their personal FB accounts?

Internet Scraping and Facebook Creeping💻🤓

We sifted through about 6,000 groups — yes 6,000!!! — in order to find all organizers in New York, Philly or San Fran that have pickup soccer, volleyball and basketball groups. The final idea was this: On camera, I will ask Alicia if she’s heard of the Group and their lead organizer, but I will slightly mess up the name of the group…here were some of my ideas:

We packed up bags full of silly props, spent hours trying to find a room around Ryerson University to sneak in to set up our “film studio”, and brought in our amateur lighting and camera equipment.

Setting up “Studio 11” and “Studio 12” was always an entertaining and patience-testing time!

And Action🎥!!

Thumbnails from each of the sports that Jake, Alicia and I created videos for!

On the first day of filming, our star studded actor Gigi (Alicia) and I were in front of the camera while James filmed and on day 2, Jake joined me while Alicia took the back seat behind the camera. After a lot — and I mean a lot — of laughs and giggles, we shot 35 videos and were all super happy about how things were shaping up. Jake and I divvied the task of cutting and editing the videos, slapping on the thumbnail photo that said #THANKS[NAME], and exporting them so that Alicia could start sending them to the organizers.

The inspiration behind our #THANKS[NAME] thumbnail was this Jimmy Fallon video thumbnail!

Will everyone think we’re creepy!?

We sent the videos along with a short message about our upcoming road trip to the key organizers through Facebook Chat and waited to hear back. For the next two days, Alicia would freak out and launch her laptop into my hands every time she received a notification in her FB inbox, so that I could read the response first. She was worried that people would think we were being creepy…

Left: Me holding Alicia’s laptop. Whenever she would receive a FB notification, she would make me read it first because she was afraid people would reject her video/messages! Right: A preview of actual responses from some organizers. Most people were super nice and only one thought we were weird!:)

Fleeing Canada with barely any warning🙈🚙✈️

Alicia and James talked about visiting NYC, Philly and San Fran for a couple of weeks to start making more personal connections with our main organizers. No one was really sure when exactly they would leave, but the day that it happened came quickly. I got home from soccer on Sunday and received a message from Alicia: “Hey Alex, I won’t be in on Monday I just booked my flight to NYC.” Alicia unexpectedly faced a great opportunity to meet a wonderful pickup hockey and charity tournament organizer named Gabriel and head to the Barclays Centre to kick start the big trip!

I was so happy to see that things were starting to come together…

Toronto → NYC

Part 2: Written by Alicia

There is SO much pickup soccer in NYC. In Williamsburg alone, there are 7:30am games 3 days a week, 9am games, 10am games, noon games, etc.

I arrived in BK Monday afternoon, with two concrete events on my agenda: Gabriel’s big hockey scrimmage at Barclay’s Center Monday night, and Pickup Soccer game Tuesday morning at 7:30am. I tried making it to so many games in NYC… here’s a snapshot of a few, and the organizers behind the group:)

Kyle — First Touch FC: Morning soccer in Williamsburg

Unable to get out of bed at the unfavourable time of 6:45am, and forgetting to pack a toothbrush for the trip, I arrived at Kyle’s game, which was already in full swing, twenty minutes late. I hoped that somebody on the pitch would see my “soccer-y” Adidas backpack and call me on as I strolled by, but no, this was one hour of highly organized pickup with a hard stop of 8:30 am, and everybody’s heads were fully in the game.

Kyle is a pickup soccer organizer veteran in New York. Running 3 games a week for 6 years for the earliest of early risers, this guy has developed something beyond what he ever imagined in Williamsburg, BK, and knows how to run a tight ship!

I did manage to get Kyle’s attention and chat with him after the game. He had been expecting me that morning, based on mine and Alex’s outreach. After a very friendly hello, he took the time to open up about his painful experience using Meetup and overall challenges he faces running games.

He mentioned that it has always been hard trying to figure out numbers, explaining that, “We’ve been brainstorming, for years, about the best way to try to figure out who’s coming, how many bibs to bring…” at which point I mentioned that collecting payment before a game will help especially with no-shows. “But even with electronic payment,” he goes on, “how do I know who paid? Do I want to sit here with a clipboard and be like, ‘Joe, Tre, check check.’ That’s another 20 minutes. I don’t want to do that either.”

When suddenly he had an idea: “I think the way around it would be to do electronic payments ahead of time, and then basically assign everybody a team ahead of time: team A, [B, C, or D], so when people show up, they know that ‘Hey I’m on team A’. If there’s people that don’t know what team they’re on, that’s because they didn’t pay!” Eureka… I thought this was a great idea, especially given that you can create custom teams before a game on OpenSports!

Kyle made sure to invite me to the upcoming game if I was still in town, and I did manage to make it Thursday morning. It felt nostalgic to re-live the morning games that I played in 3 years ago when I first visited Brooklyn — the very games that inspired me to kickstart a morning pickup soccer community back home in Toronto. Kyle, after seeing you in action, both organizing and playing at such early hours, regardless of rain, shine, or snow, and irrespective of a turnout of seven players or forty, I will think twice about complaining about hosting 9am games. Please don’t hurt your body by playing 3 games a week! :)

Mike — New York Soccer Project’s Pick-Up

Mike B (top left) and some players from the group Wed morning!

“There’s no system. I’m laid back. It’s an honour system,” was Mike B’s response to me when I asked how he keeps track of players’ payments as I watched him collect 3 one-dollar bills per person. I immediately pinned Mike as an easy going and affable guy, when I met him Wednesday morning at the same field that Kyle’s group plays at, in Bushwick Park. His response when I asked if it was okay if I took pictures at the game: “Sure, but you should just play and have fun!” So I put my phone away.

Mike helps run the group called New York Soccer Projects, a charity pickup game started by his friend Greg Pinel, which supports Wishi foundation, a Charity that is building housing/schools/recreation facilities in Ecuador. Charity Pickup games are a concept I’ve been hearing more about, and I have becoming increasingly intrigued by the model: People play a soccer game, pay a bit of money ($3 per game in this case), and that money supports great programs like Wishi.

On the topic of the laid back payment/honour system, Mike continues, “If people come repeatedly and never pay, I’m gonna know. It’s generally the same guys. Some people will just give me $20 and that’ll cover a bunch of games. This is low key, it works, and you know, sometimes people give a little extra.” I appreciated the level of trust that Mike had for all of these (mostly) guys — most of them, it seemed, were “regulars”.

Mike’s laid back approach was reflected in the easy going nature of the pickup game. I immediately felt at ease as the 6 other guys on my team introduced themselves: I’m James, I’m Sasha, I’m Alvaro, I’m Carlos, I’m Pedro, I’m Beau... I love when this organically happens in games because it allows me to immediately bond with my teammates, and before long, many of the players — especially Juan— would say things like “great pass, Alicia,” which was greatly appreciated as a newbie to a pickup group. All the while, one wound-up player spit out more profanities than I have ever heard in a 1 hour period, the most PG of the cusses being “F**K ME!”, and we all bonded over laughter and had a fun time.

Mike, thank you for taking the time to run a group that supports a wonderful cause. I am excited to check back in on the progress with the Wishi Project, and I certainly am interested in learning more about how to integrate charity Pickup games with my free non profit kids soccer program in Toronto!!

Celebrating finally making it to a game😅

John — Downtown Pickup Soccer

Oh oh oh, I love experiences like this.

On a very sunny Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, while thinking that spring must be coming early, John embraced me with a welcoming hug, before asking me where the other people are. I looked at him with confusion, rummaging through my brain to remember if I told him I was bringing more people. I suppose he expected Team Canada superstar Alex Lamontagne to have accompanied me, based on the video message campaign, but sadly, I was riding solo this time!

3 out of 4 amigos that organize Downtown Pickup Soccer: John, Nico, and Mark!

John quickly introduced me to Mark and Nico, all co-organizers. These were three of the four guys that started this group in 2011 when they met each other through soccer leagues and mutual friends. They host pickup games every Saturday morning /afternoon at a hidden little turf field in Columbus Park nested within Chinatown, and they play in several leagues together. I immediately sensed a familiar vibe at this game — this was run by a group that was a bit like family to each other, a tight knit group of friends — similar to the group I always play with back home in Toronto.

John wasn’t playing because he had a flight to LA to catch a few hours after the game, and he didn’t want to get too sweaty. On the field, the guys utilized me as a key playmaker linking the ball from the defence to our striker who seemed to have a never ending streak of goals.

After an exciting and close game, John asked what I was up to for the next little while. I hesitated…I was supposed to go to another game right after…but when he invited me out to the bar that sponsors their pickup games for a “pickleback shot,” I could not resist.

We sat at the bar, Whiskey Tavern, and joked around about the nuances of running soccer games. We shared stories about “regulars” feeling entitled and thinking they can run the show better than the actual organizers, and about how co-ed soccer is more fun and social. One of them added that “guys are babies when there’s no girls playing”. hahaha…

John treated us to pitchers of beer and soon after came the highlight of my New York trip: the Pickleback shot. With Oh Canada playing in the background and a flaming marble pickle-shaped “structure” in front of me (watch the video), the guys handed me a piece of paper that said “Downtown Pickup Soccer welcomes OpenSports to NYC.” Oh, the joy I felt as this wonderful group of new strangers welcomed me to NYC.

If John and his co-founders can, they would love to run this group full time, with a focus on Co-ed leagues. One of the main barriers they face, as with many organizers I’ve spoken to, is the shrinkage of field availability.

John eventually decided to leisurely leave for the airport, his flight departing in an hour, which made most of us cringe! I was sad to see him go, as I could tell that his leaving would initiate the next sweep of goodbyes.

As I said my goodbyes, I gushed to Nico about how much fun I had, to which he responded, “its all about people having fun,” a sentiment that was reflected by every organizer I met on this trip, which made me so thankful to be able to meet all of these passionate people who just want to make sure others have fun.

I wish you all the luck expanding your pickup offerings & eventually leagues, John, Mark, and Nico! I think so many people would benefit from experiencing more of your games!

And now for all of my failed attempts at pickup in NYC…

And so I left NYC with a few pickup games under my belt, a few more pickup games missed, and a lot of great learnings. As for those video campaigns? It’s been a pretty cool cycle, seeing the project go from idea to boots on the ground in NYC. Kudos to the amount of preparation and research we did — especially you, Alex! Thank you to all the groups who welcomed me to their games, to the organizers who took the time to speak to me, and to those who at least responded to me on Facebook messenger😊

The next city we reached on this epic roadtrip was Philadelphia. Read about our experience meeting our biggest group here.

Please reach out to me alicia@opensports.net if you want to show share some love for OpenSports! ❤

Alex, I will miss you at OpenSports!! We were so silly. Good luck with professional soccer and Go Team Canada!