Biz populates L.A.'s varied sports teams

HOLLYWOOD — Psst — here’s an industry secret an awful lot of people are in on: The real weekend action is on the athletic fields.

More networking takes place on softball diamonds around Los Angeles than at Sundance; the breaks come faster on the basketball court and the hockey mask was big in Hollywood long before Jason donned one.

There’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who straps on skates every Sunday to chase hockey pucks at the L.A. Kings’ El Segundo training facility with his team, the Bad Boys; Tony Danza and Billy Crystal, who’ve turned out on Saturdays for years to field fly balls in the Showbiz Softball League; and Woody Harrelson, Michael Rapaport, Ice Cube and Coolio, who suit up in official NBA togs to shoot hoops on Sundays in the association’s Entertainment League.

Beyond those, there are hundreds of executives, producers, writers, actors, agents, managers and film crew who swarm the grass every weekend at places like Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills and Balboa Park in Encino to play softball on teams sponsored by major studios, networks, agencies and TV shows.

For most, team sports appeal as an escape from the pressures of the industry.

“You can’t think about the business while you’re on the ice, ’cause you’d get killed,” Bruckheimer says. “The game’s so quick, you’ve gotta keep your head up and keep moving.”

His hockey teammates have been getting together for games for the past nine years, depending on who’s in town, and have included Cuba Gooding Jr., Kiefer Sutherland, Canadian Mike Myers and, on one occasion, Tom Cruise.

Inevitably, there can be perks to kicking it with Hollywood players. Writer-producer Sean O’Byrne, who plays weekend ice hockey for the L.A. Hawks alongside television kingpin David E. Kelley, wound up collaborating with Kelley on the script for “Mystery, Alaska,” a Disney feature about a rural hockey team that hosts the New York Rangers.

Still, O’Byrne insists, “it’s really about the camaraderie and the game. If work happens out of it, that’s fine, but we’re here because we love to play hockey.”

TV players

The most widespread action by far is in entertainment softball leagues. The co-ed Prime Time Softball League, which plays Saturdays and Sundays at parks such as Valley Plaza in North Hollywood, fields 48 teams comprising current employees, cast and crew of shows including “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The West Wing,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “24,” “Alias,” “Boomtown,” “That ’70s Show” and “The Drew Carey Show.”

Westside Entertainment League, also co-ed, plays Sundays at Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills and includes teams sponsored by Warner Bros., New Line, DreamWorks and various agencies and production companies.

The Showbiz Softball League, begun in 1979, plays all day Saturdays at Balboa Park in Encino. The league’s dozens of teams have included the Coney Island Whitefish, founded by Crystal, Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest; teams sponsored by William Morris and other major agencies; and players like Michael Keaton, Mark Harmon and Danza.

For some, team sports are a way of finding community within the larger entertainment community. Ice hockey tends to draw Canadians and Easterners from cold climes; soccer holds tight to the heartstrings of Europeans and the British.

When DreamWorks moved nearly 200 staffers from its London office to Los Angeles in 1994, the Brits formed a soccer team as a way to adjust in their new home. The Fox & Hounds Pub on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City became their clubhouse; games are played at Griffith Park and at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

Today, the team is highly competitive, playing in the first division of Los Angeles city’s Super Metro League. Participation by DreamWorks employees is down to about 20% of the 50 members, according to manager Jeff Callan, but other teammates associated with the industry include actors Alessandro Nivola, David Gail and Chris Gilbert.

Biz goes pro

For the select few who get invited, there may be no greater joy than donning the uniforms of the Lakers and other pro teams to play in the NBA Entertainment League — which includes a few producers, directors and writers as well as actors from movies and approximately 35 current TV shows.

“There are no official tryouts — before each season we send out 160 invitations, based on us coming up with a nice mix of positions,” says Zane Stoddard, commissioner of the league and head of entertainment marketing for the NBA. “It’s difficult because there are hundreds more who are interested in playing.”

Even globetrotting film buyers and sellers need their athletic outlet. Playing soccer has become a high point of the annual Cannes, Mifed and AFM markets for participants on two teams loosely organized as Europe vs. the Rest of the World, with the division based “not on where you’re from, but where you live,” according to British-born L.A. resident Peter Wetherell, captain of the World team.

The players face off on fields ranging from Mifed’s Arena di Milano to Santa Monica City College.

“It’s fabulous,” Wetherell says. “We always have a party afterwards, and a lot of them say it’s the best night of the market, because it’s a time when they can completely relax.”

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