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The State of Pickleball

Utah has earned special status in the nationwide pickleball community.

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In the summer of 2011, I dropped by the Sports Mall in Murray to see if I could play pickleball there.

My inquiry was greeted with snickering. "What the hell is pickleball?" the attendant asked.

That pretty well characterized the state of pickleball back then—an unfamiliar sport with a silly name and no facilities. More people knew about curling than pickleball, and you couldn't have bought a pickleball in Salt Lake City if you had wanted to. The equipment was readily available online, but there was hardly any place to play. Ogden and St. George had some outdoor courts—Dimple Dell Recreation Center set up three makeshift courts in its gym—but those were about the only options. If you emailed Salt Lake City's Parks and Public Lands Department (P&PLD) about it, you didn't get a reply.

Now, just six years later, the city will have 18 outdoor courts by the end of 2017. Come fall, Utah will have about 360 indoor and outdoor courts, including a new complex on 11th Avenue, another in Fairmont Park and six lighted courts in Murray. The dramatic increase is in line with national trends. In 2010, the USA Pickleball Association registered 800 courts across the nation. Today, there are 5,000. Utah has earned special status in the nationwide pickleball community owing to annual tournaments in Ogden and St. George. The competitions attract nationally ranked players, and in March, 1,700 pickleball players jammed the Huntsman Senior Games website vying for a place in the October games.

Pickleball is a tennis-like game played with a solid paddle and a perforated plastic ball. The net is 2 inches lower than that of tennis. The sport was invented in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington state. He cobbled together handmade plywood paddles, a whiffle ball and a badminton court to create a game for his kids. Two stories compete as the source of the name. 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 Pickleball after I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats."

Unless you lived in Florida or Arizona, chances are that pickleball was as unfamiliar as lacrosse, the nation's other up-and-coming sport. But both were growing apace. Lacrosse took hold in schools as soccer had done 30 years before; pickleball was the go-to game in Sun Belt retirement communities like St. George. As more and more Baby Boomers put aside their tennis racquets and golf clubs, many bought pickleball paddles. There are several reasons why. Pickleball is more forgiving than tennis—especially on aging knees and slowing reflexes—and it is a game that rewards deftness, not power. Learning the basics takes only a few minutes, and the game has an infectious, transgenerational appeal.

The construction of outdoor courts is a pivotal point in pickleball's steep growth curve in northern Utah over the past five or six years. Quite simply, the outdoor courts make the sport more accessible. Heretofore, pickleball has mostly been an indoor sport played on weekdays at places like Holladay Lions, Millcreek, Dimple Dell and Copperview recreation centers. However, because these facilities devote weekends to Junior Jazz basketball, the unintended consequence has favored retirees. By that I mean that Baby Boomers have learned to play pickleball while Gen-Xers and Millennials are at work. With the advent of outside courts, 2017 might go down as the year that younger generations took up the fast-growing sport and changed the tenor of the game with their quick reflexes and supple knees.

The growth of pickleball along the Wasatch Front since 2011 has been propelled from the bottom up, not the top down. The sport was not promoted by PE teachers or the P&PLD (or the LDS Church, for that matter). Neither were there local blogs or Facebook pages devoted to pickleball. Nevertheless, it has gained a solid footing as an indoor sport. Almost all recreation centers in the valley, including the Jewish Community Center and a growing number of LDS wards, offer indoor pickleball with portable nets and taped lines. On any given weekday, people queue for a court at one of the recreation centers. The game's popularity has surged because the timing is right: Participation in such legacy sports as golf, tennis, basketball and softball is declining in the U.S. Another factor has been the willingness of people like John Tateoka at Holladay Lions Recreation Center who has accommodated the ever-increasing demand for more court time.

Getting outdoor courts built has been another matter. Even as Draper, Brigham City, Bountiful and Ogden were building pickleball courts, the P&PLD was resistant to the if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach to what it regarded as an upstart sport. Year after year, players lobbied city and county parks departments to either build new courts or convert some of the aging tennis-court inventory to pickleball. Conversion of any of SLC's 90 tennis courts was opposed by the tennis community. It also took offense at the sound of hitting a pickleball. The breakthrough came two years ago when the P&PLD agreed to repurpose two abandoned tennis courts on Fifth Avenue and C Street for pickleball play. But the signal event comes May 12 when Mayor Jackie Biskupski inaugurates Salt Lake City's first designed-for-pickleball courts on 11th Avenue. By summer's end, new pickleball courts will be built in Fairmont, Jordan and Riverside parks. In the meantime, you can play at the Sports Mall using paddles and balls bought at Big Five, Scheels or any other sporting goods store in the valley.

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