THE WORLD OF INSIDER TRAINING; FAMILIES HEAD TO SPORTS FACILITIES TO GET PHYSICAL AND TO HAVE FUN

JUST THINK: You could kick around a soccer ball, slam dunk a basketball, hit a home run and go for a hole-in-one without ever experiencing the elements.

All it would take is a visit to one of the East Bay’s growing number of indoor sports facilities.

Indoor sports have existed since the first basketball gyms and roller skating rinks. Then, YMCAs catered to families with their extensive sporting options. During the ’80s, exercise clubs wildly proliferated, and their pumped up ’90s brethren encompassed aerobic studios, swimming pools and high-tech equipment.

The latest and largest to enter the enclosed world of multisports is Livermore’s HotShots Indoor Sports. Here, family entertainment is the goal. In one fell swoop, Mom can hit a birdie at a virtual Pebble Beach; Dad can sneak a peek from the sidelines to whatever big game is playing on the suspended Panasonic television screens; Junior can play sports-oriented video games while awaiting his turn at the climbing wall; and little Missy can dribble down the AstroPlay-padded indoor soccer field.

Appropriate to the name-branded world of sports, the recreation facility also houses an Adidas store. The pending concession stand will feature Round Table Pizza on the family menu along with the requisite cappuccino and juices.

Indoor multisports facilities didn’t start out so grand; Climbing gyms were one of the first to simulate the great outdoors. In the Bay Area, about 350,000 people have rappelled down CityRock’s faux stone walls since it opened in Emeryville 10 years ago. The first health club and climbing gym in California, and the third indoor climbing gym in America, the locale ran at peak capacity until competitor Mission Cliffs opened in San Francisco five years ago. Both are now under the same ownership, and the San Francisco facility has already reached peak capacity.

Today, there are now 350 indoor climbing gyms nationwide. CityRock just moved into its larger Berkeley digs at Ashby Avenue and Seventh Street, in the former Whole Earth Access building. The 15,500-square-foot space will open in late winter with the more industrial name Berkeley IronWorks. It’ll eventually feature a sauna, steam room, cafe, pro shop and aerobics studio.

According to Andrew Cohen, editor of the trade magazine Athletic Business, no one has accurate numbers of indoor facilities, since many are private enterprises. But indoor hoops and the in-line-anything craze seem to have spurred the trend. “We’ve only really seen a spike in the numbers since 1995,” he says.

San Ramon Sports has been around for about that long, offering a venue for indoor soccer, basketball and batting cages. Other facilities have opened in the past year in addition to HotShots. Concord Indoor Sports, like the San Ramon facility, is more of a straightforward facility: no showers, but soccer fields, basketball and volleyball courts, batting cages and a cafe and pro shop. The 61,000-square-foot Pacific Sports Center on Mare Island opened in December. Although less elaborate than HotShots, it does offer indoor soccer, basketball and volleyball courts, batting cages, locker rooms, showers and fitness center.

Fair-weather digs

Working out indoors makes sense in areas that deal with the extremes of frigid temperatures and stultifying humidity. But El Nio’s temper tantrums aside, sunny California has both the mild temperatures and variegated landscape to leave the outdoor sports outdoors. However, fair-weather residents prefer climate-controlled surroundings during the rains and when summer temperatures near triple digits. Even cities with more temperate climes than the Bay Area have made the inside move: San Diego has four indoor sports arenas and Sacramento recently opened its fifth.

Part of the indoor appeal lies in its unlimited playtime for ardent recreationalists, who don’t have to wait for weekend escapes in the SUV. “Most people who like to climb like to climb four days a week. You can’t really do that and have a job,” says Chris Bloch of CityRock, who also happens to be a four-time X Games medalist. More practice and conditioning also enhance the actual experience, he adds.

“Most people use rock climbing to stay in shape so that when they go rock climbing they don’t kill themselves.”

Golfing might not be as perilous, but obsession comes into play here as well. Golfers who tee off at the crack of dawn don’t have to endure much cold or damp at the Tilden Park and San Leandro golf courses. Multimillion dollar renovations in 1998 created a three-tiered, 70-stall driving range and video simulators at the Berkeley course, while the San Leandro one has a covered, double-deck driving range, heaters and four televisions.

Meanwhile, HotShots lauds its AstroPlay soccer surface: Springier than Astroturf, the field doesn’t have the potholes, slippery mud spots or intrusive rocks to trip up players. The indoor version of the game plays off the surrounding walls, which means a faster pace and higher scores.

It’s a competition

Such conveniences go far beyond longer operating hours. The facilities aim to compete with the health clubs and entertainment venues on a year-round basis. Multisports also means multifunctional, and that includes offering a place for corporate training, conferences and birthday parties.

More importantly, as businesses subdivide consumers into finer and finer demographic segments, fewer and fewer places exist for family entertainment. These mammoth play areas respond to the needs of the California lifestyle, where people work longer hours and have less quality family time.

“If they’ve got kids at an active age, Mom races home after work, Dad races home after work, and they pick up a kid and go in different directions,” says Rick Chartraw, whose $200 million Sierra Madre company Strong Side Sports finances large-scale sports enterprises throughout the nation. The indoor sports centers let them have it all in one convenient location. For example, CityRock in Berkeley plans to provide day care for up to two hours.

Mole people

The air-conditioned, secure comfort of insider sports might present to some the alarming prospect of an underground world where people never venture outside. But a recent CityRock membership survey indicates such fears might be unwarranted: About 80 percent who climb at the gym tried climbing at least once outdoors. As for trading grass for AstroPlay, HotShots co-founder Martin Hendren insists “it’s not taking the place of outdoor soccer. It’s an augmentation to indoor soccer in an increasingly shrinking world of venues.”

The perception that people need to be entertained during play does seem to derive from the shopping-mall culture. “I think people are just conditioned,” says Kip Quackenbush, one of the HotShots founders.

“We’re becoming an entertainment society,” Chartraw observes. “If you’re going to do really well in recreation, you better figure out how to throw that in there because I don’t think we’re really good at getting motivated on our own to do recreational sports and things.”

While Chartraw believes “it’s great that people are doing these things, because there’s a demand for it,” the former NHL player does worry for the “psyche of the country.” In his generation, every kid played baseball or basketball. Now, disturbing statistics indicate that the rate of obesity among youth doubled in the years between 1985 and 1996. He blames passive amusements like television, and the advent of computers presents a further threat to physical activity.

“Not only are kids sitting down, munching and playing computer games or watching television, but they’re also becoming introverted and, I’m afraid to say, antisocial,” Chartraw says. “It’s not because they want to be you just don’t develop the social skills sitting in front of a computer This is why parents are so desperate to keep kids in sports.”

Indoor sports facilities don’t just aim to get kids to come play, they want to get the whole family into the game.

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