Sofia Pirri, Special to the Daily Press

A basketball player since the age of 5, college athlete and high school basketball coach Amanda McGrew thought she knew what her life’s work would be. Never did she imagine it would involve helping other athletes find love.

Amanda McGrew launched Playoff, the only dating app for college and professional athletes, in December 2017. The app now has 50,000 users, including professional athletes from every major sport and several Olympians. Encouraged by the platform’s steady growth over the last few years, McGrew and her team hope to make a splash in Tokyo’s Olympic Village later this month.

McGrew began her athletic career playing basketball at Santa Monica’s very own YWCA, with her father coaching the team. Her talents on the court took her to the University of Rhode Island on a full scholarship, then to U Mass Lowell for a fifth year.

After graduating with degrees in finance and marketing, McGrew returned to Santa Monica and began coaching basketball at several middle and high schools in Los Angeles, including Windward School and The Willows.

The idea for Playoff came to McGrew when she took a break from coaching high school students and suddenly found her nights and weekends free.

“I thought, ‘I guess I should get a date!’” McGrew said with a laugh.

She considered several of the seemingly infinite number of niche dating apps available, but the former basketball player felt as though none of them resonated with her identity.

“I just asked myself, ‘if I had to identify with one group of people for the rest of my life, what would it be?’ And for me, I’ve always viewed athletes as my people.”

After this revelation, McGrew was moved to create a service for people who were more than just vaguely interested in fitness. She felt that playing a sport in college or professionally—belonging to a team, traveling, competing regularly—was a unique experience that deeply impacted how she and her athletic friends form relationships, handle adversity, and problem solve.

She ultimately developed Playoff as a space for athletes with these shared experiences and values to find one another.

Another powerful aspect of collegiate or professional level athletics, explained McGrew, is the sense of community. There is a real significance to the team mentality and environment, particularly for younger athletes.

“College students are kind of thrust into that environment to fend for themselves,” said McGrew. “It’s just an unbelievable thing, to have that immediate family.”

She considers Playoff to be an extension of that community.

“I got out of college and realized people want to have that kind of camaraderie again. They want to belong to that again, somehow.”

One of the merits of Playoff as opposed to a more generic dating app like Tinder or Hinge is that the users have a shared background. According to McGrew’s own experience, this common factor makes online dating a lot less intimidating.

“Behind the screen, it’s really difficult,” McGrew admitted. “You overthink what you’re presenting, it feels overwhelming, and it comes to a point where it’s not very enjoyable anymore.”

McGrew recently went on a first date with someone from the app, and the pair spoke only about their respective athletic careers for three whole hours. “I would need a second date just to get to know him!” she exclaimed.

Their shared athletic experience provided easy conversation material for what could have been an awkward first date had the two met randomly.

Somewhat less obviously, the shared experience aspect of Playoff holds a unique benefit for female athletes. McGrew explains that women in the athletic world often face certain stigmas or have to endure ridiculous pick-up lines by men. A friend of hers who is a professional sprinter has had men challenge her to a footrace, implying that her accomplishments on the field were less serious because of her gender.

Male athletes naturally have a better understanding of the rigorous training and lifestyle required to compete professionally, and often harbor a greater appreciation for their female peers.

“I’m 5’11, I’m taller than the average woman, and in college I wanted to be able to walk around in heels,” said McGrew. “As a college athlete, I always found that there was an immediate level of respect coming from the male athletes that I didn’t always feel from regular male students.”

Playoff can also be a safe space for queer athletes, for whom the athletic world has not always been very welcoming. After all, it was only last week that the first active NFL player came out.

“I’ve always looked at Playoff as a safe space for that,” said McGrew. “How cool to be able to move in silence, to meet who you want to meet even if you’re not ready to tell the world.”

Beyond the female and LGBTQ+ circles, Playoff has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the athletic community at large—so much so that the app’s widespread success is due almost entirely to word of mouth. Even athletes that are married or in relationships (often already with other athletes) are excited to tell their friends about the platform.

Even high-profile male athletes, who often have notoriously little trouble finding a date, seem interested. Their willingness to join the platform was an initial concern for McGrew, but she found that many of the more public athletic figures would actually love to date another athlete, it just is not that easy to do.

“A lot of people are convinced that’s not what they’re looking for,” McGrew said, “but I’m not even sure if anybody asked them. And honestly they might not have asked themselves.”

It also helps that high-profile users trust other athletes not to expose the fact that they are on a dating service. Once again, the idea of a shared interest and community seems to be what makes Playoff excel.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to marketing strategy, which McGrew explains is as simple as asking a contact to share Playoff’s link with their team. McGrew can literally see the word of mouth in action. when several people from one team, often all sitting on the same bus to a game, sign up and submit their verification photos at the same time.

“I kind of chuckle when a couple people will sign up in a row, and I’ll see five or six baseball players from the same team who are all very clearly on the same bus.” The thought brings a smile to McGrew’s face. “They’re all together right now and talking about it!”

Whether bringing in student-athlete interns to help with social media, hiring the father of a student she used to coach, or cheekily asking friends to distribute condoms with the Playoff logo in Tokyo’s Olympic Village later this month, McGrew has found the support and excitement of the athletic community instrumental to her app’s success.

It also helps that she has an athlete’s good, old-fashioned tenacity.