SINGAPORE - Retiree Soh Poh Neo used to find it "frustrating" when some players from her regular badminton group, comprising eight to 10 people, did not show up for their weekly social games.
"As long as three or four players don't show up, we cannot carry on," Soh told The Straits Times, adding that they used to book three courts and play doubles. "It's frustrating because you don't know whether they will come or not, so you don't enjoy the game because there's no guarantee that people will come."
This, coupled with the difficulty of securing courts at community centres, prompted the 64-year-old to join Meetup in 2013. The platform allows users to organise online groups to host events that others can join and participate in activities related to their shared interests.
Besides sports, the activities include a wide range of interests including music, technology and travel.
Such social groups are in the spotlight after a man, who was listed among six community Covid-19 cases on June 26, joined 28 others to play badminton at Jurong East Indoor Sports Hall.
Joining Meetup has provided Soh "a lot more opportunities to play with so many other people" and also solved the problem of no-shows as there is usually a waitlist of players keen to be a part of the action.
She now plays four to five times a week, and has joined over 1,000 sessions via her 19 badminton groups on Meetup. She is also in three Facebook groups.
There are at least five badminton interest groups on Facebook and a search for badminton groups in Singapore yielded over 100 results on Meetup.
Though the coronavirus pandemic has led to lower court availability due to tighter restrictions on court bookings and safe distancing measures, Soh is glad to have found another avenue to play badminton.
"(The benefit of joining platforms like Meetup is) meeting friends and getting to enjoy the game," she said. "It's wonderful to play with the young ones and laugh with them. Many of them become (my) Facebook friends. At my age, it's very important to keep active and mix around with the young ones."
Soh is among sports enthusiasts here who have turned to resources like Meetup, Rovo and Facebook to participate in sport due to the ease with which they can find games to join or partners to spar with.
The advantages of using such platforms also include ensuring that there is a court or pitch available for games, sometimes for a fee.
MATCHING SKILL LEVELS
Ritesh Angural, co-founder and chief executive officer of Singapore-based app Rovo told ST the idea for such a platform came about because he had trouble finding fellow tennis players of a similar standard to spar with.
As such, the app, whose users hail from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and India, allows them to rate their skill level so that they will be matched with other players of equal or similar standards.
"We wanted to build something that will get people to be active and play more," said Angural, 33, who considers Facebook groups and private WhatsApp groups to be Rovo's biggest competitors.
"We had a lot of people who play tennis and also other sports telling us this could also work for yoga, football and so many different sports, and so we started expanding to include those sports.
"We want to make participating in sports easy - whether you want to find a partner, book a court, look for a tournament or coach, you can basically do it at your fingertips."
Rovo has launched a new platform called Workout Party for groups to work out together online. Its percentage of active users dropped by as low as 90 per cent at one point as a result of Covid-19, though Angural noted that numbers are "slowly going up".
CONVENIENCE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
Tennis player Nicholas Pua, who has been using Rovo since January, when he resumed playing tennis after a four-year hiatus, was drawn to "the simplicity of finding games".
The lowest joining fee he has observed so far is $2 for a two-hour session, while the highest was $15 for the same duration at an indoor facility.
The 30-year-old, who works in technology sales, explained: "When I decided to start playing tennis again, I didn't have a group of friends who were still playing, so the app was useful to find people to play with and the good thing is that you're able to see the standard of (other) players.
"If I really wanted to look for a game tonight, I can use the app. Typically, if you want to get a group of friends, you'd need a week in advance to book the court and (pin down) everyone's schedules. With Rovo, if you really want to play, you can find an available court easily if you're lucky."
Spencer Seetoh, who is serving National Service, agreed. The 21-year-old has been using the Stranger Soccer app, which is also based in Singapore. It allows users to join or organise football games, book a pitch or find an opposing team.
"It's very hard to coordinate a game with your friends as everyone's schedules is different," said Seetoh. "The app helps people like me who want to play soccer but can hardly find people to play with to 'match-make' us to a game and venue."
GOOD AVENUE FOR BEGINNERS
Such means of playing sport are also popular with those interested in niche sports such as Ultimate Frisbee. The Ultimate Players Association (Singapore) (UPAS) organises social sessions called "pick-ups", with details of these sessions posted on the association's Facebook page.
These sessions, which are now stopped due to the coronavirus, are "purely about playing", said UPAS' vice-president of affiliates Chew Jin Jia, adding that there is no score-keeping.
He said: "Pick-up games are social in nature and open to all players, from beginners to elite players. Participants take turns to play, with teams changing after every point. This provides all Ultimate enthusiasts with a platform to play. All they need to do is just show up.
"The social nature of pick-up games also means that beginners and novices do not feel intimidated. Next to learning to play Ultimate in schools, pick-up games are a starting point for many players, myself included."
NOT ALL FUN AND GAMES
But sometimes, tensions owing to personality clashes and differing expectations can arise in such groups.
Seetoh said he has observed "heated arguments" during football games when there is a foul and players lose their cool, while Pua has heard that "some of the (tennis) games can get really competitive".
For Soh, the "majority of them are friendly, fun and accommodating" but she has had the odd unpleasant encounter. While most have been polite and tactful in suggesting that she should perhaps join a group more suited to her standard of play, "there are a few who are unfriendly, rude and inconsiderate", she added.
How such groups work
Meetup first started in the United States in 2002 and as of March this year had 49 million users worldwide.
On this web-based platform, organisers pay to create a group. This can cost from US$4.99 (S$6.94) a month, which allows organisers to open three groups with unlimited attendees.
Players who wish to join the events hosted by the organiser typically pay a fee to cover the cost of booking, equipment, and/or to secure their place in the session. The cost of joining varies across different sports and time slots.
Meetup is not restricted only to sports. It is also used for a wide range of lifestyle interests, from music to technology.
Singapore-based Rovo, which started in 2016 as an app for tennis players, now allows its approximately 300,000 users to join and host other sports and fitness activities for free, including football, badminton and yoga. There are more than 30,000 users here, with its three most popular sports being tennis, badminton and football.
The app has also facilitated over 150,000 activities - such as playing a game that was matched on Rovo or booking a facility through the app - in Singapore.
The app is free to use, with a premium subscription, which allows subscribers access to additional features and benefits, priced at $2.90 a week.
This Singapore-based app allows users to join or organise football games, book a pitch or find an opposing team.
According to its website, the fee for joining a game starts from $14.40 while booking a friendly match, which will see users being matched with an opponent and provided with a pitch and referee, can cost over $100.
Victoria Lim, the organiser of Meetup group Ministry of Netball SG, recalled encountering a player who was "quite competitive" and would sometimes raise her voice at other players on court.
"How do I pacify this person while not leaving the other people discouraged? After all, I'm not a coach who is there to instruct, but I always (make sure) it's safe and people are encouraged to play, and not have that fear of making a mistake," said the 29-year-old, who works at a pharmaceutical company.
The group, which was started by Lim's friend in 2012 before the latter returned to her native Australia, has been managed by Lim since 2013. Participation costs $3 a head, and the group's most recent session took place before the circuit breaker.
Rovo's Angural noted that his app allows users to give and receive badges to and from other users they have played with, by way of providing feedback and "rating" the other player. This could help users avoid any potential conflict, he added.
"We do have a competitive badge ... there are players who want to play competitively, so if you are looking for that, you can look for players who can have the competitive badge, and if not, you can avoid those folks," he explained.
As organiser, Lim's main duties are booking the court, usually at the Kallang Netball Centre, and coordinating attendance but she has taken it upon herself to do more to ensure that newcomers are comfortable.
"I'll gauge the level of play and if I see that one team is too strong, I'll try to swop people around if they're all OK with it - you don't want to make it so uneven that people don't enjoy the game. I don't want beginners to come once and feel intimidated," she added.
Reflecting on how Rovo has evolved since having just 100 to 200 users when it first launched, Angural said: "People used to refer to us as Tinder for tennis. Now, they start referring to us as Facebook for sports."