In a move that privatizes San Francisco’s public reservation system for soccer fields, the Recreation and Parks Department has begun selling reservations to an app that turns a profit by booking fields and charging people to join pickup games.
The Recreation and Parks Department told Mission Local that the app, Just Play, has been obtaining permits since October to book fields at the Beach Chalet Soccer Fields in Golden Gate Park, as well as Garfield Square in the Mission District. It also books privately owned fields, such as those at SFF Soccer in Mission Bay.
Previously, at Garfield Square, Gabe Zitrin and some 30 soccer players would reserve the soccer field on Monday evenings. But, since November, it has been consistently booked. It was reserved, presumably, by the Just Play app, which shows that it has reservations at the park for the next two Monday and Wednesday evenings.
The app, which charges a $13.99 fee in San Francisco for each hour of reserved time, is both more expensive and less accessible than the public reservation system. By comparison, if two San Francisco residents have their residency discount approved and then book both halves of a field with lights, it would cost $98 an hour, or $7 per person if there are 14 players.
“We were perfectly happy renting the field from the city ourselves, and now the city is asking us to go through a private, for-profit company and pay them $14 an hour?” Zitrin said. “Who thought this was a good idea?”
The situation somewhat resembles the city’s 2014 saga with Sweetch and Monkey Parking, apps that would allow motorists to auction off public parking spaces to nearby drivers. With both apps, and with Just Play, public space is booked and then re-sold for a profit.
Rather than allow the two parking apps to continue operating, City Attorney Dennis Herrera issued a cease-and-desist letter to Monkey Parking in 2014, and stated he would do the same to Sweetch, calling the practice illegal and citing a police code that prohibits companies from buying public on-street parking.
The current City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the legality of Just Play.
Already, the Recreation and Parks Department rents out fields to both nonprofit and for-profit organizations, such as KICKIT365. For example, soccer leagues, such as those of KICKIT365, generally reserve fields during prime-time soccer hours, said Luis Saucedo, Just Play’s business development manager.
Just Play is generally able to make reservations without limit, Saucedo said. The exception is at Garfield Square, where the app has a trial, and reservations are limited to Mondays and Wednesdays, he said. But, according to Saucedo, if there are no complaints from the public, and the public enjoys the initiative, Just Play might be permitted to book other days.
The Recreation and Parks Department told Mission Local that “there aren’t any current plans to expand Just Play, and any expansion would be limited to areas with excess capacity.”
Saucedo said that the goal in San Francisco is to have pickup games available to all residents in all areas. Meanwhile, the app’s target audience is working adults who “don’t necessarily have the group of friends they used to from high school who used to get together, and want to play after work in those comfortable hours that are easy to access, after work, at 7 p.m,” he said.
According to Saucedo, there are some 2,000 people who use the app in the Bay Area. San Francisco has the largest network of users in the Bay Area, followed by San Jose and Oakland.
Saucedo said he calls the Recreation and Parks Department to book the fields around one to three months in advance, paying its for-profit field rate of $92, plus around $14 to $28 for lighting. Just Play promotes the games in a WhatsApp group and online through sites such as Meetup, encouraging people to download the app and join.
Then, people can choose a game by paying the $13.99 per hour through the app. That’s less than the app typically charges in cities such as Chicago and Detroit, Saucedo said.
“This company does nothing, they provide no service, they just take something public and resell it to us at an insane markup,” Zitrin said. “This is no different than taking your child to a public playground and having to pay a private company to use it, because the city has decided to let them operate that playground as a for-profit enterprise.”
Moreover, in order to use the app, the person must be able to read English, and possess a credit or debit card — a potential barrier for many Latinxs and other immigrants who play soccer in the city. Saucedo said that once the app becomes more established, it will be translated to other languages. But for now, while hosts may post in Spanish, the app itself is limited to English.
In contrast, the city’s own reservation website uses Google Translate, which offers translations in many languages.
The app’s users may apply to become hosts, who are unpaid and instead compensated with free playing time at the games that they organize. Hosts meet the pickup game players at the field, maintain the reservation list, ensure fair teams, and bring the ball and colored scrimmage vests. They’re also responsible for facilitating a friendly game and stopping any aggression and violence among players, according to the host application.
Saucedo estimates that there are some 30 hosts in San Francisco and 50 in the Bay Area.
The startup is two years old and rapidly expanding, Saucedo said. Some listed cities appear in previews without games, but it does offer games in Asia, Europe and North America. There are also categories for basketball, volleyball, badminton and yoga. However, in the Bay Area, soccer is the only sport with locations listed aside from yoga which, at press time, only has one person, the host, signed up at each yoga studio.
Saucedo said that the app’s intention is to promote the positive aspects of sports, healthy living in particular. When he moved to Chicago after college in 2021, he used the app to continue playing soccer and subsequently make friends and the connections to join a soccer league.
Asked about the reduction of access to public spaces, Saucedo said, “I understand the perspective that they have, that they think we are minimizing public spaces, but we are actually just organizing for the public.”