Four months ago, Earl Ball and two partners opened Hatchet Alley, a recreation venue near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport where customers could come to throw axes, roll bocce balls and knock down pins with pigskins in a game called football bowling.
Then, in mid-March, the fledgling business — and similar venues around Austin catering to the city’s growing appetite for recreational league play — was forced to suspend operations because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now thousands of bowlers, pingpongers, dodgeballers, axe throwers, curlers, skeeball players and others have found their seasons postponed or canceled altogether, and the businesses that organize them are scrambling.
Ball, the co-founder of Hatchet Alley, hopes to ramp things up again on May 1, depending on city guidelines, but he’s not sure how long his business can hold on without generating income.
Play at the venue was put on ice two weeks into an eight-week season, and just as a new league specifically for workers in the service industry was getting ready to launch. Ball has offered refunds to league players, but so far most are just hoping for a temporary delay.
So is Ball.
Ball and his partners opened Hatchet Alley after noticing a demand for places where companies and small groups could hold events and birthday parties, and individuals could become part of a recreational community.
"I saw a continual need for a fun place to go with a nice, cool atmosphere where people could hang out," Ball says. "It just seemed like there’s plenty of space needed for that in Austin."
They rented space adjacent to Callahan’s General Store and employed 17 part-time workers. Now they’re struggling to figure out how to cover those costs while the business is shuttered.
"Right now we have zero payroll," Ball says. "We can’t give anybody any hours, so it’s definitely had an effect on our employees. For a lot of them it’s a side job, but for some people this was their A job, and their B job was also in the service industry. It’s really tough."
The hardest part, he says, is the unknown future.
"We don’t have any clue if May 1 is going to be the day or June 1, or what ripple effects are going to be. … Every day I wake up and we’re trying to solve a puzzle and the pieces don’t make any sense," says Ball, who is married and has two young children. He says he’s unsure how long he and his business partners can pay rent until they have to shut down for good.
"We’re trying to be optimistic about the May 1 date, but if that date gets pushed and then there’s no foreseeable expectation of reopening, that’s when we’re going to have to have those hard conversations," he says.
Players like Karen Hardcastle, who paid $130 for an eight-week season of axe-throwing at Hatchet Alley, say they understand the closure, but miss the sense of community that league play provided. Flinging axes helps her work out frustration.
"It’s something I always looked forward to every week, but I’m glad they’ve shut it down just for everybody’s safety," says Hardcastle, 31, a virtual reality producer who is between jobs. "I’m just trying to stay sane at home, doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles. One of my friends in the league has a target set up in her yard, so I was thinking of going over there and throwing."
The scene has repeated all over the city.
Highland Lanes, a longtime Austin bowling alley, has closed until at least May 1, and postponed league play, disrupting the recreational schedules of more than 2,000 avid participants. Officials will decide in April whether they’ll postpone the season or end it early.
"A lot of people are upset, not at us, primarily at the limitations," says assistant manager Luis Cantu. "It’s sad, because you want to come and practice. It’s not like basketball, where if you have a net at your house you can practice. Bowling, if you don’t have a lane you can’t bowl."
The venue has laid off 13 of its 16 full-time employees. "Hopefully this will blow over and every single one of those employees can walk back in the door and work again," Cantu says.
More than 25,000 people who play cornhole, pingpong, wiffleball, kickball, volleyball and other activities through Austin Sports & Social Club, which has been coordinating recreational league play in and around the city for 15 years, have put their seasons on hold, too.
"Everything is shut down," says chief executive officer Marc Tucci.
None of the company’s 15 full-time employees has been laid off, but Tucci said they could face a reduction in hours. "We’re taking things a day at a time, and doing whatever we can to keep people employed," he says.
As for the league play? "As far as we’re concerned, for the time being everything is just on pause. Nobody is going to have to lose any games, we’re going to try to just pick off where we left off," Tucci says.
The organization has not yet considered whether it will refund players if their seasons are cut short. "Our goal is to get back on the field and keep our employees working," he says.
» CORONAVIRUS IN AUSTIN: Our complete coverage