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Sports leagues now play to win donations for charity

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Members of Channel 4 News Team watch from the bench as their teammates play against Case of the Mondays during a three-on-three basketball game organized by ZogSports at P.S. 198 in New York on Feb. 22, 2007. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Referee Carl Gaines, 33, prepares to make a call during a ZogSports three-on-three basketball game between Harry Fox and FactSet at P.S. 198 in New York on Feb. 22, 2007. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Members of Channel 4 News Team warm up before a three-on-three basketball game organized by Zog Sports at P.S. 198 in New York on Feb. 22, 2007. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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A member of Case of the Mondays prepares to pass the ball during a three-on-three basketball game against Channel 4 News Team organized by ZogSports at P.S. 198 in New York on Feb. 22, 2007. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

Players glistened with sweat, chests heaving, while teammates cheered on the crowded sideline at Public School 191 on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Misfits, a three-on-three adult basketball squad with more on the line than wins and losses, celebrated their third victory of the night, a feat that brought the team one step closer to winning a league championship and earning a donation for the American Cancer Society, its designated charity.

The Misfits flopped down onto the bleachers to rest as their opponents, playing for the Bide-a-wee Animal Shelter, stepped right back onto the court. At the other end of the floor, teams playing for the New York Food Bank and the World Wildlife Fund tumbled onto the hardwood for a stray rebound. The matches were part of 36 games on a recent Thursday night organized under the aegis of ZogSports, a Manhattan club where each contest serves as a self-contained fundraising event.

“Does it make you play harder because you're playing for charity?" said Will Murchison, one of the Misfits, while taking a slug of bright blue Powerade. "I'm pretty sure it does. You'll remind yourself in the middle of the game, 'Hey, we've got a pretty good reason to win this,' and try to make that next shot.”

Murchison and his fellow basketball players did not have to coordinate their charitable efforts by themselves. Hybrid organizations like ZogSports that bundle adult sports, socializing and philanthropy into a rounded recreational package are drawing in thousands of young professionals across the United States and Canada who might not otherwise have the time or inclination to thrust themselves into the realm of social outreach.

Robert Herzog founded ZogSports in 2002 with the goal of trying to attract working Manhattanites in their 20s and 30s who, whether due to employment or apathy, enjoyed few ties to their own community. It was his way of tweaking the limits of a familiar routine: Get up, go to work, go out with friends.

“That's the life I lived, and while some people will do charity work, most people are all about the job, their social life and maybe going to the gym,” Herzog said. “This was a way to force a group to have a conversation about charities they wouldn't ordinarily have.”

The sport being played--whether a winter sport like dodgeball or floor hockey, or a warm-weather pursuit like ultimate Frisbee or softball--matters less than an approach balancing the competitive side of athletics with the benefits of what Herzog called a “broader perspective on life.”

In Toronto, registration fees and donations from the 7,000 members of Not So Pro Sports Leagues, founded in 1995, have led to the construction of skateboard parks and the renovation of Lake Ontario coastline and helped send hundreds of children to local camps. The signature events of CitiesSportsConnection, serving Minneapolis and St. Paul, are a snow football tournament benefiting the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a beach volleyball event raising money for local children's groups. And ZogSports recruits corporate donors to support the chosen charities of the league's winning teams.

Unlike traditional community-based sports efforts like church leagues, participants have more control over where their aid is directed. If members want to organize a new outreach effort outside of the league, they have a pool of like-minded comrades to draw upon, or at least a good venue in which to publicize their activities.

“The big project right now is we're building a $125,000 playground in downtown Toronto,” said John Morrison, president of Not So Pro. “It's got to be more than simply, 'Here's your gym, now go play.'”

Surveys consistently show that more than 80 percent of Americans donate to at least one charity per year, but the percentage of Americans who volunteer has continued to fall since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in 2002. The 2006 figures show that 30.1 percent of women and 23 percent of men volunteered in the past year, but men from ages 20 to 24 (15.1 percent) and 25 to 34 (18.1 percent) were easily the least likely to do so.

While sliding, the numbers are mostly consistent with those predating the Sept. 11 attacks, after which volunteerism peaked in the United States. Yet it was the desire to perpetuate the collegial and collective spirit of those days that spurred Herzog, who watched his office in the World Trade Center's North Tower explode from the ground, to create his organization in the first place.

In four years, ZogSports' 30,000 participants have helped raise more than $235,000, a sizable amount of aid procured through otherwise unlikely sources.

“I'm not going to be out there volunteering at a soup kitchen or the Goodwill like some other people,” Murchison said. “I know I probably should be, but I'm not going to be. I'm not sure anyone on the team does, actually.”

Still, even one night a week of squeaking sneakers and measured jump shots in an elementary school is enough of a step toward the league's goal.

“We didn't want super-competitive, hyper, nasty folks to come out,” Herzog said. “We wanted people to focus on participating in something bigger than just the game. That's our motto. 'Play for your cause.'”

E-mail: baf2113@columbia.edu