John Bykowsky has tried many different things in his life. He played football for Boston College. He tried to produce Woodstock 2. He drove a taxi. He worked as a New York City lawyer. He started his own law practice.
But it wasn’t until one fateful day in 1987 that Bykowsky finally discovered his niche in life. While trying to get his law practice up and running, Bykowsky found he had a bit of extra time on his hands, and he decided to use that time wisely: he started a sports league.
“You have to remember that in 1987, the city was a much scarier place than it is today,” recalled Bykowsky. “There were other sports leagues in existence, but most of them sounded very uninviting. Also, none of them were particularly well run. As soon as I began advertising the New York Urban Professionals Athletic League, the phone rang off the hook. The league took off like a rocket.”
A quarter of a century later, the NYUPAL is not only still around, it’s the biggest volleyball league in America.
“Fielding over 1,100 volleyball teams in the past year, we are the largest adult volleyball league in the country,” Bykowsky said.
Primarily a co-ed league, the NYUPAL fields somewhere in the vicinity of 800 co-ed teams, 125 men’s teams, and 200 women’s teams each year.
But as big as those numbers are, they’re only half the story: the NYUPAL is also a basketball league, numbering a whopping 1,500 basketball teams annually. Players in both sports typically hail from the ranks of “white-collar” professions (hence the name), but everyone is welcome.
“Our membership comes from every walk of life, and is a true reflection of the great city in which we live,” said Bykowsky. “What a great bunch of people. Perfect!”
The way that the NYUPAL works is that each team is classified as D-1, D-2 and so on, with D-1 being the strongest division. Each team plays one game per week, with the top four teams moving on to the playoffs. The winners of each division meet in the “quads,” where the D-1 winner plays the D-4 winner, and the D-2 and D-3 teams face off; then the winners of those matches play each other. The overall winner of the quad gets part of their registration fee as a prize.
Games are played year-round in four seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter), Monday through Thursday from 7-11 p.m., in college, high school, and middle school gyms around New York City. And with as many as 100 teams playing at any given moment, the NYUPAL has almost maxed out New York’s available playing space.
“There is a dearth of good gym space in the city,” said Bykowsky.
But an even bigger challenge than finding gym space is the sheer complexity of scheduling so many games. With more than a thousand teams playing each year—and some players being on as many as ten different teams—Bykowsky and his stalwart trio of full-time assistants have to navigate a complicated logistical matrix to ensure that a host of potential scheduling conflicts don’t happen.
“At one point,” recalled Bykowsky, “it got so bad that I gave it to my federal economist brother, who took it to his colleagues at Cal Tech. Their conclusion was that, lacking NASA funding, the human-driven, computer-assisted system we employed was the optimal means of tackling our matrix issue.”
But somehow Bykowsky and his team make the system work, and each year the NYUPAL grows. It is now the premier volleyball league in New York City—not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of value.
“Currently, there are four other volleyball leagues that I know of in the city,” said Bykowsky. “On average, they charge 10 to 15 percent more than we do. A returning team can play in our ten-game spring season for $1,145. One competitor, who started their business saying we were too expensive, charges $1,350 for the same number of games.”
How can the NYUPAL be the best league and the best bargain at the same time?
Three reasons: “Volume, efficiency, and a lower profit margin keep our prices lower,” explained Bykowsky. “We field as many as 30 divisions a season.”
With so many people in the league, the spectrum of competition is vast—from newbie to pro and everyone in-between—which means it’s possible for anybody to have a good time.
“Playing on the right level is the key to enjoying the game,” said Bykowsky. “We spend a lot of time determining the correct level for our teams. If you play against people on the same level, the game is great fun.”
And volleyball isn’t the only fun part of the NYUPAL. For many players, the social aspect of the league is just as important as the games themselves.
“One cannot overstate the extent to which volleyball is a social sport,” said Bykowsky. “Weekly volleyball means regular contact with your friends, whether it’s just in the gym or at the bar afterwards. It’s a great way to meet new people and stay close with existing friends. Playing volleyball and socializing afterwards with friends has become an important part of their lives. It’s addicting.”
The NYUPAL can also be a fiercely competitive arena. Michael Moser, a Wine Specialist for Christie’s, was an outside hitter at New York University before he joined the league.
“The team I play on for the men’s league is largely comprised of fellow NYU alumni,” Moser said. “Our team name, Los Mitch Kallickos, is in honor of our teammate, Tennessee women’s coach Mitch Kallick.”
There have even been a few professional players in the league, like Mike Salak, Jason Octave, Elvis Rodriguez, and Luis Mendez.
As for Bykowsky, he has no regrets at all about his eventual choice to abandon law for volleyball.
“I loved the law, but I love what I do even more. I especially love seeing people enjoy the league. My continuing goal is to run the best damn league in the country.”
Originally published in August 2011