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VOL. 46 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 8, 2022

‘I’m done with tennis ... and I loved tennis’

Pickleball converts working to get more courts, more players involved

By Nicki Pendleton Wood

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It’s everywhere, the sport of the moment, and people just can’t get enough of it

Let’s say you hadn’t heard of pickleball until a couple of years ago, and now your folks/kids/half your friends are playing it.

You are in plentiful company, and it’s not just your imagination: Pickleball, a sport invented in a backyard in 1965, grew 21% in 2021 alone, the Sport and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reports.

So, if you haven’t encountered a pickleballer, you likely will soon enough.

The sport with the goofy name was invented by friends on Bainbridge Island, Washington. It stayed local, then gradually began to spread across the western U.S., where it’s quite popular. It reached a tipping point, probably in retiree/snowbird places like Florida and Utah. It’s lately gotten a foothold in the Southeast and seems to be everywhere, even on television.

With so many new aficionados, demand for lessons, new facilities and modified courts in Middle Tennessee is outpacing supply.

In Nashville, pickleball’s popularity is reflected in year-on-year court reservations at Centennial Sportsplex: 35 total reservations for all of 2018, 149 reservations in 2019.

In 2020, despite the pandemic shuttering the Sportsplex for months, court reservations quadrupled to 875, then tripled again 2021, to 2,372. That’s at Centennial Sportsplex alone.

Nashville’s Dee Dee Brickner says she’s been playing pickleball for four years.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Most recently, spots for “Intro to Pickleball” classes at the Sportsplex filled within a couple of days.

Geometry and friends

Pickleball, if you haven’t seen it up close, initially looks like small tennis. It’s played on a 20-by-44-foot badminton-style court with a whiffle-like ball, a square paddle and a tennis net. But the details are what make it.

The smaller space means players are within chatting range, and play traverses less distance. There’s also the “kitchen,” a no-volley zone that changes the game dynamic.

The compact court levels the playing field, literally, for more inclusive ages and abilities in the sport. Case-in-point: Tennis buff Marianne Stuart Stoll, 46, says she learned pickleball from her 74-year-old former neighbor.

“I’m done with tennis,” she says. “I enjoy pickleball more than I did tennis, ever. And I loved tennis.

“Pickleball is more fun and social. I enjoy the people. It’s easier to become good at than tennis.”

Basics of pickleball

Here's a two-minute video showing how the sport is played.

Pickleball enthusiast Simon Fox, a high school student, connected at the Green Hills YMCA with a group that had been playing for eight years. Most of them were “of a certain age” but pickleball is a great equalizer. By summer’s end, Fox felt like a pickleball veteran, and he and his pickleball buddies were doing lunch.

The pickleball economy

The novelty and sociability have helped pickleball spread quickly after its long-ago start on the West Coast. There are pickleball industry groups, pickleball training camps, pickleball “mystery box” subscriptions and pickleball subReddits. A nerd with a pickleball passion developed a program to analyze pickleball matches.

Stephen Colbert is hosting “Pickled,” a two-hour prime-time special slated for CBS and Paramount+ later this year, where “the all-the-rage sport will get its close-up with a tournament of all-star teams battling it out for charity…”

Nashville-area pickleballers have many places to play, though most are less-than-ideal relined tennis courts. Metro parks offers public court times at Hartman Park, Centennial Sportsplex, Hermitage, McCabe and Old Hickory Community Center.

Other Nashville pickleball facilities include the Green Hills and downtown YMCA locations, Fifty Forward in Donelson, Lipscomb University and Gordon Jewish Community Center, where father-and-son coaches Bo and Corey Sacks offer lessons.

Seonaid Lough of Brentwood says she’s been playing for about eight months and she tries to play at least two hours a day.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“In the early days” of pickleball in Nashville “there was not any instruction,” says Bo Sacks. “We were teaching each other – it was very cooperative in that social aspect.”

Because the game moves along quickly, players can squeeze in a couple of games in 45 minutes. And it’s not too physically demanding. Marion Stuart Stoll says she played for six hours one day a few weeks ago. “I lose track of time!”

Business and sport

Maybe pickleball’s greatest marketing tool is its name. It’s fun to say, and announces that the sport is light-hearted, flinging off any gravitas associated with tennis and racquetball. The name definitely makes people want to learn more about it.

Bo Sacks says his eyes opened to the business side of pickleball after playing for a while as a way to de-stress. Sacks says he and his son “fully pivoted to pickleball lessons.” They have a website, pickleballco.com, where he offers individual and group clinics, as well as pickleball for team building.

Super pickleball advocate Stephanie Lane also teaches pickleball, for five hours a day some days.

Justin Webb of Franklin says he’s been playing with co-workers for about a month.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

As hordes of new players take up the game, there’s also the economic impact of new court construction or retrofitting, plus all those paddles, balls, nets and other gear being purchased locally.

The vacationing or traveling pickleballer is fortunate that pickleball came of age in the online era and is a natural with social media. Players can find a game online at PickleBallConnection.org and Pickleballonline

Courts! More courts!

Though its recent surge makes pickleball feel new, instructor Lane says she learned of pickleball when she was training to be a physical education teacher at David Lipscomb College in the late 1980s. Now she can hardly keep up with demand for her pickleball lessons.

Lane is known locally as the pickleball point-person in the area. Pickleball is her thing, and everyone knows it. She plays often and hasn’t missed a Nationals in Indian Wells, California, since 2012. People who know her say Lane “goes around winning pickleball tournaments.”

But her travels have shown her Nashville’s pickleball scene is well behind the rest of the country.

“Pickleball is king out west. St. George, Utah, has pickleball out the wazoo. While we [Nashville] don’t have dedicated courts.”

Seonaid Lough, left,  and Bob Neely congratulate opponents Justin Webb and Jenna Volk at the end of their game.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Getting Metro to invest in dedicated pickleball courts has been Lane’s focus for years. She finds Metro’s re-lined tennis courts not adequate, with a couple of exceptions. “Two somewhat OK courts are temporary nets nailed to the ground at the East Nashville YMCA. That’s just two courts.”

Re-lining tennis courts does work, technically. But it’s not ideal, because when tennis courts are modified, the result is “quick start” courts, with too little clearance at the back, Lane says.

At one point, there was chatter around Metro Parks and Rec of re-purposing six Sportsplex tennis courts for pickleball. But “that’s just six courts,” Lane says. “SIX. Even if you had 24 courts, there’d be a standing-room-only line for them.”

“People are asking ‘where can we play?’ she says. “You can find courts in any other city or state.”

In Metro, there are even rumors of guerrilla pickleballers creating impromptu courts with tape and portable nets, says Justin Miller of the Sportsplex, although he hasn’t seen these himself.

Pickleball’s Hype Man

After a decade of trying to get regulation pickleball courts in Metro parks, Lane says, “it’s not gonna happen.”

So Lane is working with Billy McGehee, the promoter who brought Nashville Cats Arena Football to town, to lobby for more courts.

McGehee’s website, Billy McGehee’s Wild World of Pickleball (https://bmwopb.com) gives an idea of his promotional fervor. McGehee is presenting a pickleball extravaganza social event in Nashville this summer “to showcase the size and scope of interest of pickleball in the area.”

“I am confident that we will see permanent pickleball courts being built in Nashville by Metro parks in the next few months.”

To McGehee’s credit, he convinced the city of Ft Myers, Florida, to convert tennis courts into a six-court racket club in 2019. He has utmost confidence in pickleball and its future, saying “it will become THE racket sport.”

His goal is to make Nashville one of the premier pickleball destinations in the world, which will “fill up a lot of hotel rooms and sell a lot of real estate.”

At home in roomy suburbs

Williamson and Sumner counties are at least as enthusiastic about pickleball as Nashville. And with newer facilities and plenty of open land, Middle Tennessee’s suburbs are taking the lead in pickleball facilities.

Music City Pickleball, ironically, plays in Williamson County, at TOA Sports Performance Center off Mallory Station Road. There also are dedicated facilities at the Williamson County Rec Center in Fairview, at Franklin Recreation Complex, Longview Recreation Center, Nolensville Recreation Complex and Academy Park.

That distribution is in line with the national wave of pickleball, which seems to have squeezed itself into town while also lodging firmly in the suburbs.

Having conquered the suburbs and cyberspace, pickleball also is horning in on broadcast airwaves: The national pickleball championships were broadcast this year on Fox Sports 2. It’s a small channel, described by Bo Sacks as “like The Ocho from the movie ‘Dodgeball.’”

There’s even occasional chatter about a plan to add pickleball to the Olympics.

For now, it’s just hopeful chatter. But pickleball is a sport that thinks positive, and true believers will doubtless keep the flame alive.

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