There are more than 400 places in the United States where Pickle-Ball is played. Ogden is one. Brigham, Hurricane, St. George and Cedar City are also on the list. Notably absent is Utah’s capital. If you want to hit some balls on an outdoor Pickle-Ball court in Salt Lake City, you are out of luck.
That is not to say that there isn’t a sizeable Pickle-Ball underground in the valley. Weekday mornings find players at the Dimple Dell Recreation Center, the Holladay Lions Recreation Center, the Park Recreation Center and Millcreek Community Center. They set up portable nets and play on courts laid out with tape on gym floors. Some are tennis players with worn-out knees. Most are retirees who are quick to invite you to try your hand at “the fastest-growing sport in the country.” With golf in a years-long decline, that assertion is probably true for the Baby Boom generation. One retirement community in Florida has 120 Pickle-Ball courts. SunRiver in St. George has 14.
Because Pickle-Ball is finding its way into the physical-education curricula of Utah schools, Bev Uipi, the active-aging manager of the Millcreek Senior Center, which opened in April, is already laying the groundwork for a grandparent-grandchild Pickle-Ball program on two indoor courts.
There are several reasons for the sport’s popularity. It is more forgiving than tennis—especially on aging knees—and it is “a sport where shot placement, steadiness, patience and tactics have a far greater importance than brute power,” according to Pickle-Ball, Inc. Learning the basics takes minutes, not hours, and the game has an infectious appeal.
Pickle-Ball is a tennis-like game played with a solid paddle and a perforated plastic ball. The net is two inches lower than a tennis net. The sport was invented in 1966 by the late Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington. He cobbled together handmade plywood paddles, a borrowed wiffle ball and a badminton court to create a game for his kids. The provenance of the name? You hear two stories. One is about Pritchard’s ball-chasing, cocker spaniel, named Pickles. Another comes from Pritchard’s wife, who wrote in 2008, “The name of the game became Pickle-Ball after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
The USA Pickle-Ball Association estimates more than 100,000 Americans are playing, enough to get special rates at Motel 6. The growth is attributable in part to the missionary work of “Pickle-Ball Ambassadors,” appointed by the Arizona-based association. Among Utah’s ambassadors are Rob Vrooman in Sandy, Craig Sorenson in Escalante and John Gullo in Ogden.
Gullo is more patron than ambassador. Two years ago, he donated $60,000 to build a four-court complex in Mt. Ogden Park. Gullo, 68, talks about the game with religious fervor. He began playing Pickle-Ball in St. George after bypass surgery “to get exercise and have fun.” Now, less than three years—and 70 lost pounds—later, he plays two to three hours a day, six days a week. “It is a health success story,” he says. Gullo’s American Dream Foundation has donated Pickle-Ball equipment to most of Ogden’s schools. “Pickle-Ball is part of the physical-education curriculum,” he says. The same is true in St. George.
With 200 to 300 Pickle-Ball players in Ogden, the city is building four more courts this summer. The Ogden Pickle-Ball Association is contributing $5,000 to the project. In St. George, Pickle-Ball players chipped in $80,000 to help the city fund the 24-court complex under construction in the Little Valley area.
I ask Gullo if anyone from Salt Lake City’s government had called to ask him about the Pickle-Ball groundswell in Ogden, Roy and Brigham. “Nope,” he says.
In 2011, Salt Lake City’s Parks & Lands Division (PLD) deflected proposals to create dual-use courts by painting Pickle-Ball lines on tennis courts at Liberty Park and Victory Park. Neither was there interest in converting the dilapidated tennis courts (cum community garden) in Fairmont Park and on C Street and Fifth Avenue into the city’s first Pickle-Ball complex. Instead, the PLD, prodded by a vote of support from the Greater Avenues Community Council in fall 2011, decided to paint Pickle-Ball lines on a single court in the 11th Avenue tennis complex. A few months later, citing the unsafe condition of the court surface there, Lee Bollwinkel, the PLD Parks program manager, announced there would be dual-use courts at Pioneer, Reservoir and Sunnyside parks before the end of the summer. The news was welcomed in the gyms of the county recreation centers.
When will Salt Lake City get its first regulation Pickle-Ball court? Not in the foreseeable future, according to Art Raymond, a spokesman for the mayor. “Currently, there is not a Capital Improvement Fund developed to request a new facility specific to Pickle-Ball,” he says.
In a perfect world, city government would be more nimble and better funded. That it is not should surprise no one. The truth of the matter is that the PLD is not going to invest in Pickle-Ball courts until public pressure forces its hand. I think the tipping point will come in the embrace of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is only a matter of time until makeshift Pickle-Ball courts arrive in the rec rooms and gyms of LDS wards and stake centers. The church is nudging its members toward physical fitness, and Pickle-Ball is on the church’s list of approved sports because it is a game ideally suited to mixed doubles and intergenerational play. If the game takes root in that fertile soil, it won’t take long for Salt Lake City to catch up with Ogden and St. George.