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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

NC trend: Step aside tennis, pickleball is going nuts

Pickleball is like tennis without the pretense. Badminton, but people actually play it. Or pingpong with exercise. 

The sport that’s been described as a combination of the other three is catching on in a big hurry. More than 36.5 million Americans played pickleball from August 2021 to August 2022, according to a recent report by the Association of Pickleball Professionals.  

To understand why, here is a closer look at the new craze that boasts being greater than the sum of those parts — even to many faithful tennis aficionados. 

“I have a tennis court in my backyard. We use it to collect leaves,” says Connie Barnes, who with her husband owns the Charlotte Squash Club. She had converted a tennis court to a pickleball court before a lease ran out.  She and many others gravitated to pickleball during COVID, when she was looking for something easy to play and a social activity with some distance involved.

While squash is still her profession, pickleball is a passion. “I’ve played with badminton players, tennis players, squash players and pingpong players and it is incredible fun,” Barnes says. “We can trash talk all day. We drink mimosas while we’re down there. It’s extremely relaxing and fun. We just love it.”

Players are standing in line to play around Charlotte. That is the sport’s greatest challenge: not enough courts to meet the demand. North Carolina has 418 pickleball courts at recreation centers, gyms and private clubs, according to Pickledheads.com, which tracks the industry and sets up leagues. That’s the fourth-most of any state and includes more than 25 courts in Charlotte. But it’s not enough right now.

In December, Allan and Kelly Haseley opened Pickleball Charlotte Ballantyne, the city’s first indoor facility dedicated to pickleball. They have three Pickleball Charlotte locations, serving 3,000 local players. Ballantyne is on a court used exclusively for pickleball, while their south Charlotte and northside locations converted courts from other sports. 

Haseley, who met his wife playing recreational volleyball at UNC Chapel Hill, used to mark volleyball courts in the Granite Street Sports Center in south Charlotte for pickleball during the school day, so retirees could play. Then players started asking about nights and weekends, and not just retirees. Courts rent for an average of $10 per person for two-hour sessions. Lessons are typically $30 to $60 an hour. 

Pickleball Charlotte has six instructors, and a waiting list for people who want beginner lessons and clinics. “We’ve had no open space since the day we opened Dec. 15,” Haseley said. 

This has happened in a matter of three years, since the Haseleys needed new flooring for the gym and visited peer sites to get some ideas. What they noticed was an intriguing new sport being played with a little yellow ball.

“I’ve done every sport in the world and pickleball is the only one I’ve done the last 20 years that every time I play, I feel like I get better,” Haseley says. “Every time I play golf, I get worse. I can’t play volleyball anymore.”

Keeping the kids busy

Pickleball isn’t new. Two fathers in Bainbridge Island, Washington, came up with the idea while looking to entertain their children in 1965. They had access to a badminton court but not enough rackets, so they picked up pingpong paddles and
a wiffleball.

According to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, there is a running debate on how pickleball got its name. One explanation goes that co-inventor Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, thought the game reminded her of a pickle boat in rowing, which features oarsmen leftover from other crews. Barney McCullum, a family friend who helped establish the sport’s rules, has said it was named for Pritchard’s dog Pickles, who used to run off with the ball in the middle of a game. Right from the start, everybody wanted to play.  

A pickleball court is 20 feet by 44 feet, smaller than a volleyball court. The games can be played as singles but are most often doubles, so each player covers less ground. The cardiovascular workout tends to be less than a tennis match.

The net is several inches shorter than in tennis, and the ball is served underhanded, which makes the game immediately accessible to new players. The difficult aspect, some say, is the scoring system, but once that is understood, the games go fast. A game is played to 11 points and might last 15 minutes.

Four pickleball courts can fit on one tennis court, so 16 players can play one pickleball game in 11 minutes, while 16 people wait for the next, compared to only four players using that same court for a tennis match that could take hours. 

“The heydays of tennis have come and gone, and I see this all over the world,” said Barnes, a native of Brisbane, Australia. “I was in Australia three weeks ago, having the same discussions with the same people looking at the same tennis courts with no one on them and looking at pickleball players standing in line wanting to play.”

Haseley plans to expand with another indoor pickleball facility in north Charlotte. A local company called Rally plans a pickleball and eating establishment in the South End neighborhood this spring, with plans for four indoor courts, four outdoor courts and lots of food and drink.

Even tennis hotbeds like Olde Providence Racquet Club and Myers Park Country Club have converted tennis court space for pickleball. Some country clubs have kept their tennis clientele happy by converting hard courts to pickleball and keeping clay courts for tennis. 

That is the plan at the Jewish Community Center, which converted two hard tennis courts to pickleball and set up three courts inside a gym. 

“The tennis people, actually, when it rains, will come inside and play pickleball,” said Stephanie Garner, the JCC’s athletics director.

Pickleball is featured as a “ladies night” activity while the “open play” on their schedule draws a crowd, not to mention a good time. 

“People don’t take it as seriously as they do other sports,” Garner says. “They just really have a nice time playing. And the beauty is you can be a beginner and be intermingled with people that know what they’re doing. And people that know what they’re doing are really good about pushing the sport along and trying to get more people playing.”        

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