Local entrepreneur riding surge in interest in bocce

Tom McNutt’s boccemon.com helping grow the sport both locally and nationally

Tom McNutt’s interest in bocce began a few years ago when he played at a barbecue. His interest became something of an obsession, eventually leading him to launch boccemon.com, which sells plans and materials for making bocce courts.

by J.J. Jenson
   Local residents these days are hardly ever surprised when they learn Bellingham has gained notoriety or cracked another publication’s “Best Places To…” or “Top 10” list.
   However, there are still a few activities around town that don’t show up on many Bellinghamsters’ radars.
   For example, some may not be aware that Bellingham is a bocce hub, according to Californian John Ross, president of the United States Bocce Federation (USBF).
   Indeed, players pining for some prime bocce action can be found around town nearly every night of the week at Sunnyland, Barkley Village, Fairhaven and Lummi Island courts. And the town’s Bellingham Bay Bocce Club is the only one in the state recognized by the USBF.
   One local entrepreneur, Tom McNutt, is taking advantage the game’sgrowing popularity,  and Bellingham’s bocce bonanza, by designing a
growing percentage of the country’s bocce courts. His love for the game is also fueling local interest.
   In bocce, a relatively simple game akin to curling, players take turns seeing who can throw their grapefruit-sized “boccia” balls closest to a plum-sized “pallino” ball.
   McNutt, 46, who moved to Bellingham from the San Juan Islands in 1992, formed the Bellingham Bay Bocce Club in early 2002, the same year he built his first bocce courts around town and founded his company, Boccemon, at his Carolina Street home.
   Since then, according to author and bocce aficionado Mario Pagnoni in his 2004 book “The Joy of Bocce,” McNutt has become one of “the big three in bocce court construction.”
   From his Web site, www.boccemon.com, McNutt sells, for about $25, instructions on how to build bocce courts, and, for around $2,000, the materials and instructions for building one of his USBF-endorsed “Boccemon Rain Country Blend” courts. He also sells various other bocce gear such as maintenance tools, T-shirts and bocce-court beverage holders.
   On a recent sweltering Friday afternoon, the easy-going McNutt sat barefoot on the deck in his backyard sanctuary, shaded by pines and cedars.
   Sipping an iced tea, amid constant calls to his cell phone from customers inquiring about courts, he said that unlike most bocce-court builders, he rarely goes on location to oversee construction. He prefers to work from home and spend time with his wife, Erin, and children Finnegan, 4, and Kate, 3.
   “People want to pay me to build their courts,” he said. “They want to fly me across the country and don’t care about costs. That would take me away from my family. This business isn’t about money. A rich man is not a man with an abundance of money, it’s a man who has the time to enjoy his life.”
   McNutt, who’s worked in the landscaping, remodeling and fishing industries, said he didn’t truly develop that outlook on life until he discovered bocce at a party in the San Juans in 2000.
   He didn’t know many people at the gathering but “as the salmon cooked on the barbecue and the beer flowed, we all migrated toward the bocce court, where the laughter was,” he said. “At the end of the evening,
I said, ‘Wow, that was the best time I’ve ever had with a group of strangers.’ I came back from that evening and, like in “Field of Dreams,” I told my wife, ‘I’m going to build a bocce court.'”
   His first attempts were riddled with errors.
   In building his first court, located at his home, he wanted it to be an oyster-shell court, a popular style on the West Coast. Only after he had about a cubic yard  of oyster shells in his court did he realize they were supposed to be crushed and mixed with other ingredients.
   Next, officials with the Barkley Company learned McNutt had built a bocce court and asked him to build a similar one at Barkley Village.
   This time, though McNutt had perfected the surface materials, he hired another company to build the court and ended up losing money on the project, by paying too much for construction services.
   Though McNutt had spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on the two courts, he had completed high-quality projects in private and corporate environments and, he believed, had finally mastered the building process.
   Boccemon did not take off, however, until the latter part of 2002 when McNutt, with the aid of his neighbor David Donohue, who works on computer networks for the University of Washington Medical Center, launched the boccemon.com Web site.
   The Web site came about after McNutt read in an online bocce magazine that many people were searching for an inexpensive bocce scoreboard.
  McNutt came up with the idea of putting Velcro on a T-shirt and keeping score on it with felt dots. He had some T-shirts made up, launched the Web site and advertised them there.
   Judging by the several hundred daily visitors to his site, bocce was more popular than McNutt imagined. So he put up some photos of his Carolina Street and Barkley Village courts and directions to follow for building courts just like them, so more people could enjoy the game.
   Soon, he was getting calls from people across the country wanting him to build the courts for them. That’s when he realized he could make some money by selling his building instructions and oyster-shell surface materials online instead of building one court at a time. “I realized all I’d be earning was a wage by building one court at a time,” he said. “Following the directions isn’t brain surgery. You just build a rectangle and make it level.”

Enjoying a beautiful spring night on Tom McNutt’s Carolina Street bocce court are, from left, Michael Short, Richard Gordon, KenFredericks, Scully the Wonder Dog, and Lynn Kirkpatrick.

Most of McNutt’s recreational courts are 10 or 12 feet wide and 60 or 76 feet long. He makes his oyster-shell blend in a local warehouse, using Pacific oyster shells mixed with “a secret ingredient.”
   McNutt’s courts can found around the U.S. In addition to residential courts, his customers, he said, include several wineries in California, Willow’s Inn on Lummi Island, Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, and, recently, Chateau Ste. Michelle purchased a kit.
   This year, McNutt said, the company should top $100,000 in gross sales.
   “He’s a pioneer, along with David Brewer in the Bay Area and Mike Gasser in Michigan,” said Ross, the USBF president. “A natural court
like Tom’s absorbs shock and is very nice to play on. He’s got a good concept. He’s just getting started but he’s shipping his product all
over the country now. He’s in a unique position.”
To McNutt, his business’ success is less important than the joy he gets out of running it.
   “I believe the strongest businesses, and the most fun, are the ones that people are the most passionate about,” he said. “Even after
thousands of hours doing this I can still walk in the kitchen and tell my wife all about my day and she’s still willing to put up with the fanaticism because it’s creating joy in a lot of people’s lives.
   My main priority is my family and my kids. Money isn’t what’s going to create a better life.”
   McNutt also enjoys seeing how bocce, believed to be played by more than 25 million people in the U.S., brings people together.
   The game, according to local enthusiasts, dates to ancient Egyptian times. It then spread through Palestine, into Asia Minor and, around 600 B.C., was picked up by the Greeks and Romans.
   At least a dozen players can usually be found Tuesday and Thursday nights at Barkley Village, Wednesday nights at McNutt’s court and Monday nights at Fairhaven’s Village Green. It’s also becoming a popular activity at Willow’s Inn. Last year, McNutt’s third annual Bellingham Bay Bocce Tournament at the Sportsplex, which drew 39 teams and more than 150 people, was believed to be the state’s largest one-day bocce event.
   Stowe Talbot, Bellingham Cold Storage’s chairman of the board, who helped bring the bocce court to Barkley Village, believes it’s been good for businesses there.
   Employees at several offices, he said, gather on breaks or after work to play. Also, many bocce players will come to use the court and then stay for dinner or drinks at On Rice Thai Cuisine.
   Ken Fredericks, owner of the Mello-Metal jewelry store and a regular player with the eclectic group that meets at McNutt’s on Wednesdays, said playing bocce is a great way to meet new people.
   “It’s a game where the people are nice,” he said. “You don’t run into a bunch of idiots and it’s mostly gentlemen. And it’s good exercise and pretty simple so anybody can play.”
   McNutt agrees.
   “The bocce court is an avenue for people to stand next to each other and say, ‘We both put our pants on one leg at a time,’ he said. “It’s an opportunity to realize we’re all just people. There isn’t another game I know of in the world where a special-needs athlete can compete against pros.”
   With little competition in his field, McNutt recognizes he’s in a good position. And if bocce becomes an Olympic game he believes his business will experience tremendous growth.
   “We started as somebody with some oyster shells and an understanding of the game of zero,” he said. “But, with a lot of attention to detail and enthusiasm, we’ve become a national presence in one of the oldest games known to man in less than three years.”



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