Playing for good: Chicago’s young professionals take the field for cause

By Leah Hendrickson and Madison Ornstil

Mark Biery received a phone call from a friend asking if he wanted to join a soccer league in the summer of 2010. The individual fee was $110, which included a T-shirt should his team win the ultimate prize.

Ken Natoli, Co-Founder of LTS, plays dodgeball for Cerebral Palsy (Photo credit: Madison Ornstil)

It was then that Biery decided to try something different. Instead of playing for a T-shirt, he wanted Chicagoans to play for something they believed in.

“I wanted to change the way people play sports in the city,” Biery explained, “to where it’s not just about winning a t-shirt when you play, it’s about giving back and supporting charities and having the teams decide what charities they support.”

Biery, a DePaul University graduate student in Public Service Management, gathered ten friends together to discuss his new idea. After a long discussion, five of his friends signed on to help the project.

Live To Support (LTS) Chicago was born.

Recreational sports in Chicago

For years, young professionals have taken to the baseball diamond, soccer field, or volleyball court to release their stresses from the workday.  Or perhaps they simply seek a change of pace in their social routine.

Whatever their motivations, in the city Chicago, the opportunities to get out and mingle with other recreational athletes are plentiful. Chicago Sport and Social Club, Players Sports Group, Sports Monster, and All-Stats Sports League are the top recreational sports leagues in the area.  They feature sports competitions ranging from pickup basketball to floor hockey, soccer to softball.

Chicago Sport and Social Club offers up to twenty-six different sport options for young professionals to play in, including the less popular ping pong, broomball, bowling and tennis in addition to the tried and true football, basketball, volleyball and soccer leagues. The vast array of sport options appeals to the staggering number of participants enrolled in the leagues.

According to, Chicago Sport and Social Club has over 70,000 annual participants and rival league Players Sports Group draws in over 45,000 players each year with their programs for individuals and teams of all skill levels.

With individual entry fees of between $90-115, these leagues are an affordable way for urban professionals to stay active and social.

Money put straight to work

Despite its relative uniqueness to the Chicago recreational sports league arena, Biery doesn’t call his concept groundbreaking.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “There’s a lot of people playing in these sports leagues. Where’s the money going? It doesn’t cost a lot to run these leagues. If you do it the right way, you can still make money and give back at the same time.”

Chrissy McFadden (left) and Katie Williams (right) compete in the LTS dodgeball playoffs. (Photo credit: Madison Ornstil)

Biery’s ratio of financial distribution consists of spending fifty-percent of the team registration fee on field costs and twenty-percent on insurance. The remaining thirty-percent is then divided between business operations and the charity itself.

With a relatively low individual fee of between $80-90, each team (comprised of between 6-10 players) gets started by selecting a charity to play for.  Of this initial money, at least 7-10 percent of it goes straight to the charity.The winning team in a league wins $500 for the team they represent.

All this works out to about $45,000 donated to local charities through both LTS’s sports leagues and social events in under two years.

Charitable sports leagues in the nation

LTS is the only charity-driven sports league in Chicago, but it is not the only league of its kind in the United States.

Zog Sports is a similar program in New York City that promotes social sports leagues while maintaining a charitable mission.  With branches in Atlanta, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and Minnesota, Zog Sports has been urging young professionals to play for a cause since 2002.

Unlike Zog Sports, LTS Chicago plays an active role in increasing awareness for the 32 local charities partnered with the leagues.

“It took almost no time to recognize that the organization’s goals truly are focused on the nonprofit,” said Brian Bullington, Development and Communications Manager of America SCORES Chicago.

“From giving each team the chance to start games by introducing their cause to their opponents, to arranging happy hours throughout the season to provide more donation opportunities, the entire setup of the league is designed to focus attention on the charities being represented.

“This creates a unique feel to the league, and one that is highly appreciated particularly by our organization, which relies on the powerful potential of sport to impact the development of character.”

Just play for a reason

The organizations are not the only ones enjoying the concept of a socially-conscious sports league. The players are just as invested in the new way they can support their community.

“I wanted to play in a soccer league once a week with the office and I thought winning the money for charity rather than winning nothing was a better deal,” said David Berchem, a player for the Chicago Fire Foundation team.

But still, the charity aspect is not necessarily all that drives young professionals.

“I want to win no matter what,” Berchem explains. “I am competitive. If we win the championship, it is fun to get a picture holding a giant check.”

In a short amount of time, young professionals of Chicago have played the same sports they love, but have made tremendous impacts in the community around them.

Local charity Bin Donated has been partnered with LTS Chicago since 2010 and has raised over $2,000.

“That money went straight to funding their Hotel Hygiene program,” Judson Kinnucan, founder and CEO of Bin Donated said.  “That supplied over 4,000 hygiene kits.”

LTS Chicago has supported Urban Initiatives building consistent awareness and financial support since October 14, 2010.

“The money has gone straight to buying equipment and healthy snacks for the children,” Dan Isherwood, Executive Director of Urban Initiatives said. “The best experience for the kids is traveling outside their neighborhood to meet new friends, have new experiences, and be rewarded for working hard in the classroom.”

This unique recreation-for-charity approach does not come under appreciated by the affiliated charities.

“I was intrigued by how Mark took his passion for play and helped make it into a passion for pay for others,” said Ron F. Rispoli, case manager at the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education-Roosevelt (ICRE-R). “I am personally involved in a couple charity organizations so I appreciate his zeal.”

Biery’s socially conscious sports league is just one way young professionals can give back to local charities.

“Choose whatever [charity] you want,” Biery said. “Just play for a reason.”


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