Dave Esteves and the recently formed ALKU basketball team had never won a game, but they set lofty goals for this season.
"We plan on going undefeated, first of all," said Esteves, captain of a squad that entered the year with an all-time record of 0-18. "When the first win comes in the first game of the season, we're going to go out to one of our favorite Chinese restaurants in Arlington and go a little crazy with our favorite bartender, Al."
If you assumed that ALKU is a college with a fledgling hoops program, you'd be mistaken. It's actually a technology consulting company in Andover, and it is among the growing ranks of local businesses sponsoring athletic pursuits for their employees — everything from basketball and softball to unusual offerings, such as Ping-Pong and cricket. As with school sports, the aim is to build a sense of community, earn bragging rights over rivals, and make work a little more fun.
"Camaraderie is lacking in many corporate environments these days because so many employees are isolated by deadlines and the high demands of their industries," said Nancy McGeoghegan, sales and marketing director for the Boston Ski & Sports Club, a popular recreational league organizer. "I think these companies are saying, 'We can't burn our employees out. We have to give them some fun, or they're just not going to last.' "
Participation in BSSC rec leagues has doubled in the last decade, to more than 50,000 people, with much of the increase from corporate teams. Nationally, recreational adult sports league participation is up 20 percent over the last two years, according to the Sport & Social Industry Association, a trade group for businesses that manage such leagues.
Those figures don't capture less formal activities, like the annual cricket tournament between portfolio companies of North Bridge Venture Partners of Waltham. Many North Bridge-funded businesses, like Boston health care communications company NaviNet, employ people who grew up playing cricket in India and other countries where the sport is popular.
They also employ American workers who have never picked up a cricket bat. Though some of NaviNet's American workers stick to sports they know — the company also has basketball and softball teams — others have challenged themselves to learn cricket.
Briton Jignesh Bhakta, a technical team leader at NaviNet who also leads the company's cricket team, said practicing for the tournament is a bonding experience because it requires employees to work together and learn from one another.
And for some who moved halfway around the world, playing cricket serves as a reminder of home.
"Definitely for those that spent most of their time in India before moving to America, I think it's very helpful," Bhakta said.
While company sports can help workers hold on to something familiar, they also can encourage people to branch out. At Christian Book Distributors in Peabody, a business with 500 employees, semiannual Ping-Pong tournaments have become an avenue for connecting co-workers who otherwise might not meet.
"We get situations where the president of the company is playing somebody from the warehouse," said Andy Starkey, a customer service team leader and tournament organizer. "You don't see that on a daily basis."
Even when there isn't a tourney in progress, the Ping-Pong table is almost always in use. But businesses that worry about recreation compromising productivity needn't be concerned, said customer service trainer Brian Silveira, Starkey's organizing partner. Bonds formed while having fun can actually improve working relationships, he said.
"There's that saying that a lot of business decisions are made on the golf course," Silveira said. "For us, a lot of work conversations happen while we're playing Ping-Pong.
Rivalries can develop among co-workers, but the stakes are higher when the opponent is a competing business. That's often the case in the Wicked BISSA softball league, which features tech giants Google, Yahoo, and AOL, as well as a cluster of advertising agencies, like Hill Holliday, Arnold Worldwide, and Allen & Gerritsen.
Players set out to win every game, said Matt Dowling, a media supervisor at Allen & Gerritsen who manages the company team. They save the trash talk for companies they vie with off the field, too.
"If we win a new business pitch, or they do, and we know we were both competing for it, we rib each other a bit," Dowling said. "All in good fun."
To see a video of a NaviNet basketball game, go to www.boston.com/topplaces.