Blending Sports and Social Activities

By Jeff Pugh Photos By Joe Simon

There’s an old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Watching the company you work for dissolve – your first year out of college – is a pile of lemons. Luckily for Brian Polark, he created a satisfying lemonade recipe.

After graduating from Xavier University in 2000, Polark took his passion for sports and entertainment and joined Sport and Social Clubs of the U.S. – a national recreation company. Funding for Sport and Social Clubs fell through after the dot com bust and Polark was left wondering how it went wrong.

“At the time, we watched as all 18 cities closed,” said Polark. “It was something that I had fun doing and made a lot of great networking connections through. From there, we took the concept and improved the business model and focused on one market.”

In 2001, Polark and two friends created Cincinnati Sports Leagues (CSL), a lifestyle marketing company providing athletic leagues, parties and social events for young professionals. In 10 short years, Polark grew CSL to be one of the largest social networks in Greater Cincinnati serving approximately 30,000 young professionals each year.

“Athletics is only one part behind CSL’s success,” Polark said. “Today we are four and a half times larger than Sports and Social Clubs was and offer 15 sports. When you start to gather people in mass, you realize it isn’t the sports that bring people together. People have that need to be social.”

That insight allows Polark and his team to stay ahead of very savvy demographic – young professionals 21-34 years old – and offer new recreational activities such as dodge ball, kickball and euchre leagues.

“There was a renaissance of the gym class sports in the past couple years that offering more of a social gathering than our traditional sports,” he said. “Not only is kickball one of our top three sports, but we offer more happy hours on Friday and Saturday nights for people to gather together.”

As CSL has seen a growth in the number of sports offered, Polark has seen steady growth in his professional life as well. In 2007, the president and owner of CSL created the Ohio Valley Tour to provide weekend beach volleyball tournaments to semiprofessional players and the goAgency, an on-site interactive marketing agency for consumer product goods companies.

Planting Solid Roots

Cincinnati is a special place for Polark, a Chicago native, since moving here in 1996 to attend college. Through CSL he has seen all parts of Cincinnati, met his wife and realized Cincinnati represents a region ripe with opportunity for young professionals to stake their claim.

“I was the perfect example of one of those people who bounced around and Cincinnati just grew on me,” Polark said. “The people always seem willing to help you out and we have so many great neighborhoods.

“Our goal is to provide that social base outside of work to help Cincinnati retain talent. CSL was the social network before Facebook and MySpace, and we want to continue those social networking opportunities outside of a computer.”

Creating those opportunities for others is what keeps Polark motivated. He and his business partners do their best to continue to analyze and evaluate what works. Polark feels that falling into habits and patterns leads to less evaluation and innovation.

“I operate best when the learning curve is steep. We focus a lot on the reasoning behind what we do and don’t like to make mistakes,” he said. “We constantly revisit our ideas and decisions to make sure they are sound. Through that your business model becomes stronger, better and more efficient.

“We are seeing a growing demographic in the 34-45 year old range because more people want to be active and play sports longer,” Polark said. “It gets a bit challenging because more people are specialized on just one sport and want to stay in a comfort zone. So our challenge is to appeal to that group and continue to grow the business.”

That’s where Polark’s newest venture hopes to make a splash. A partner in Cincinnati’s newest sand volleyball venue, Hahana Beach, Polark is energized to offer the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) a venue to truly reflects the nature of the sport – playing, watching and cheering from the sand. On top of the six sand volleyball courts, Hahana Beach will offer a year round full service bar and restaurant.

“Our goal is to provide entertainment to people,” he said. “Hahana Beach is a natural shift in offering people the chance to play sports then move right to the social side. We are very excited to bring this to the area.”

Drawing on Inspiration

Polark credits his father – among a list of many – for influencing his entrepreneurial spirit.

“My dad has always joked that he’s a recovering accountant,” he said. “His best piece of advice to me has always been to figure out how to best run the business, establish the best practices and the numbers will eventually fall in line.

“I was green behind the ears when I started, but he and a host of others gave me the confidence to go out and take chances and be aggressive.”

Polark credits those business relationships he started years ago with where he is today. Working with people that share that business drive to succeed and offer different viewpoints because of their station in life.

“Sometimes you just get lucky. If you position yourself as someone who can bring ideas to the table and deliver on that, you find yourself in good spots. Those opportunities will keep presenting themselves.”