Alicia Luciani receives a pass on the left wing and runs toward me. As I try to steal the ball from her, she switches to her left foot. I can hear the collective sound of exasperated voices behind me. Luciani is gone, forcing me to chase after her in an attempt to stop her from scoring.
It’s a Friday morning, just past 9:00 am at U of T’s front campus, and a group of relative strangers are playing a 90-minute game of pickup soccer. This is all thanks to OpenSports, an app that allows users to organize and play pickup sports.
Co-founder and CEO James Gibbons believes OpenSports, launched in June 2016, can best serve people transitioning into unfamiliar territories. It was created after Gibbons graduated from the University of Waterloo, when he and a friend realized they weren’t as physically active as they had been in the past.
“So we started to look around and there was Meetup which was more structured events and there was Facebook which was predominately your friends, and the idea that if you can get an Uber… basically anywhere in the world on-demand, you should be able to get a soccer game or someone to play tennis with on the go,” said Gibbons to The Varsity.
The app can provide users with the sense of a structured community. The Back Campus Fields serve as one of the main locations to host soccer matches, the primary sport utilized by its base of 5,000 users.
“Alicia has led the focus in the soccer demographic. We saw that soccer is this up and coming sport, we saw people coming to Toronto but they don’t know that many other people and soccer is this universal language for people to come together,” Gibbons added.
As Marketing Director and Co-Founder, Luciani has utilized a multi-channel, multi-platform marketing strategy, balancing the central aspects of interacting with users at games and posting games on various social media platforms.
“We’ve really been running with that idea and building the soccer community. That’s been a huge part of the process, and then learning from the on-the-ground engagement with people who use the app and create and join games and play,” said Luciani, who holds a Master’s in Kinesiology and Exercise Science from U of T.
“We can post links to those games on different channels like Facebook or Kijiji or Reddit or BlogTO, and so that brings in people who are searching for sports. So we’re sort of hitting them directly where they’re searching, so we’re always trying to increase our digital marketing efforts,” she added.
While the next step will be an expansion into different regions, the co-founders are still adamant about addressing the issue of female participation in sports, a problem they’ve seen illuminated by OpenSports.
“We’re trying to see how we can have more women-only events because there’s this huge drop-off in female participation from high school to uni,” Gibbons said.
Luciani added, “In general, women are always less represented in the sporting context, and so you can see it at a co-ed soccer game that I’m hosting that I’ll be the only female or me and somebody else and people want to see more women out there.”
Following the match, I’m too tired to address Luciani’s quick turn or even recount the two embarrassing occasions I was nutmegged. The conversations around me flow as new and old friends discuss previous and future games.
“There was actually this funny story [about] these two guys going on a cycling journey from Mexico City all the way through to Canada; Toronto was their very last stop,” Luciani recounts. “They covered 3,500 kilometers in one month and I’m on the field playing a pickup game that was organized through OpenSports at back campus one night… these two guys come on the pitch and they’re not even wearing proper soccer gear, but they’re pretty good. And so afterwards, the lights go out and I’m hanging out with them a little bit and I’m hearing about their story and it’s unbelievable that they made it here, their whole journey is about sport and inclusion and diversity and they saw that perfectly manifested there on the field at U of T.”