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With help from overseas, Oberlin-based app WOOOBA aims to change sport

group of 5 men playing basketball, man in center facing camera has shirt that says "WOOOBA"
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
For Dan Lane (center), pickup basketball is a cherished way of life he's trying to share with the world.

Casual sport remains an immensely popular pastime for people all over the world. But in an age of isolation and increasing reliance on technology, it's become more difficult for some people to find casual group-play to unwind.

Daniel Lane and his cohorts refer to it as grassroots sports. And with his just-released app, WOOOBA, which stands for World One-on-One Ballers Association, Lane and company hope to bring pickup games to the masses and create a community at the same time.

Lane lives and works in Oberlin, Ohio, and is a fixture at basketball courts in the area where he plays his favorite game. I met Lane recently at his local gym, called Splash Zone, to shoot around and hopefully converse with some other pickup players.

Within moments of walking in the gym, a young man playing with his friends asked one simple question.

"Are you a hooper?"

A man named Herbert Ross was looking for players to join his game. His group needed a sixth to round out the sides and Lane was happy to join in.

man shoots over another in a game of basketball
Ygal Kaufman
Idseastream Public Media
Daniel Lane goes for a contested shot against Herbert Ross in a casual game of pickup 3-on-3 basketball.

I asked Ross if it was hard for him and his friends to get pickup games going.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes, yes. It's really hard actually, because it's nowhere to really hoop without having a membership, you know what I mean?" Said Ross.

It's part of the irony of a technologically connected world; we have more tools than ever to stay in touch, but getting together in-person feels harder than ever. That's why Lane created WOOOBA.

A love of hoops

As a boy growing up in small-town Colorado, Lane didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 12, when a friend introduced him to the sport by destroying him on the court.

"He was just clobbering me. I'd be, you know, just clueless. ... it definitely sparked something in you right? Where you're like, I want to get better," said Lane.

So he set about building his own basketball court in the dirt backyard of his house.

Lane worked assiduously to get better at basketball but at some point realized he would never go pro. Nonetheless, the excitement and vibrance of playing basketball with friends and strangers in pickup games on the grassroots scene had captured his heart.

"I first wanted to create a tournament that was just one-on-one. In fact, the original name was the International One on One Basketball Association," said Lane.

The birth of what is now WOOOBA started over a decade ago in England, where Lane was living and working. With a background in media production and a degree from Colorado State University, Lane fell into the tech sector and began a long successful career in software development.

Man with shirt that says "WOOOBA" stands in front of cluttered desk and computers with marker board behind him full of figures
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Daniel Lane is the founder and CEO of WOOOBA, which he works on from his home in Oberlin, Ohio, with co-workers scattered all over the globe.

"Fast forward to living there for, you know, over 20 years, checking out the basketball scene, wanting to have, pick up games there," said Lane. "I just really wanted to get people together to play basketball during my whole entrepreneurial career there."

International reach

While in England, Lane launched an earlier version of what is now WOOOBA and attracted the attention of one of the most important figures in European sport, Richard Scudamore, former chairman of the English Premiere League.
Though he's most associated with his tenure running the highest echelon of professional soccer in the world, where superstars like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo once answered to him, Scudamore's heart still beat for the casual players of the world.

"My real passion when I was growing up was grassroots sport. I was an administrator of a junior league when I was like age 23. And that was about getting people to participate in the grassroots game," said Scudamore.

In the United States alone there are roughly half a million players who have played some level of high school basketball, with roughly 25,000 of them going on to play in college and just 450 going on to play in the NBA. That’s out of 26 million people in the nation who identify as casual basketball players. It’s the 25.5 million that don’t go on to play at higher levels that Lane is after with his new app.

The idea is relatively simple: the app allows groups to organize pickup games, collect money for court fees, and even to track standings, stats and storylines. In short, WOOOBA is codifying the street game.

"The problem we started out trying to solve was just how do we get people more connected in basketball, right. Very, very basic," said Lane.

Lane started the app with his focus on basketball, but through development with Scudamore, who became the app's angel investor, they zeroed in on basketball and soccer as the two sports one can use the app to organize pickup games in.

Scudamore notes this is because they are the two sports most suited for the world of pickup play.

"There aren't many games that lend themselves to casual pickup. Right? It's pretty hard to suddenly organize people, to stick on a load of gear, to play gridiron, to play American football," said Scudamore.

man sits looking into camera smiling
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Richard Scudamore is the former chairman of the English Premiere League, and a devotee of grassroots sport.

An app for all levels

Lane may be a prolific hooper and the app is seeking to find those just like him, but it's also designed to be accessible.

"One of the first problems we're solving is just getting these people who are so active already in playing and organizing, and helping them out. They're kind of like the influencers in a way, if you would, because they're already doing it. But it's also built so that you don't have to be intimidated to find someone at your level," said Lane. "Almost like a platonic dating app, right?"

That connection is a critical part of the design.

"People play sport because it makes you it helps with your fitness. But also people play sport because it's a community thing you can do. I always say to people, nobody ever attends their first professional soccer match by themselves, right? Just doesn't happen. So the whole sporting world is populated with doing it with somebody else," said Scudamore.

That's at the heart of the WOOOBA team's hopes for success. The app isn't just a facilitator of play, but of gathering.

"Dan was just there going, 'I'm going to build an ecosystem. I'm not just building an app, I'm building a community. I'm building participation.' And I really identified with him," said Scudamore.

Strangers to friends

After a game, they chatted about the app, which Ross and his friends think could make their pickup game organizing better. Ross also loved the concept of being able to keep track of wins and losses and other stats within the pickup games.

man stands in front of basketball court
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Herbert Ross is 22 and has been an enthusiastic pickup baller since he was young. He plans to give WOOOBA a spin to see if it can help the grassroots sports community.

Lane played three pickup games with Herbert Ross and his friends. Though they were strangers to each other, when Lane sank a deep jump shot at a critical moment, Ross let out a cheer. Lane hopes WOOOBA will bring people across the world together in this same way, united by sport.

Ygal is a multimedia journalist for Ideastream who creates content for web, radio and TV.