Remember when pickleball was the new sport on the block – a curiosity popping up in community center “fifty-plus” programs with a weird name no one could fully explain? Remember how parents and grandparents played it early in the morning on courts that would later be occupied by pickup basketball groups?
That was only about five or six short years ago.
Now it is nigh impossible to pass a flat public surface without encountering a pickleball game in progress. Those parents and grandparents of yore? They became addicted to the game, as many will readily attest. They told their friends, and their friends’ friends.
Now pickleball is everywhere, and it’s no longer a niche game only for active seniors, although they are still its devoted core.
Millennials are the newest group to take up the paddle, with even younger players getting in on it through their school gym classes.
No one knows that better than the people who run the World Gym in Merriam. Pros at the gym have watched the popularity of pickleball grow, and have plans to get in on the action with a festival and the addition of indoor court time.
World Gym already has outdoor pickleball, but intends to add inside play in the fall, with a goal of league play two or three nights a week, said Trevor Clay, district manager of the gym.
“I’m trying to open a place that includes all ages,” Collins said.
The best way to describe pickleball to the handful of people who may never have encountered it is to envision a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong. It looks like tennis, with its low net dividing doubles or singles players on either side.
But the pock, pock, pock of the ball hitting paddle sounds more like ping pong. The ball is rigid plastic with holes, like a whiffle ball only harder. The paddles are also solid, like big ping pong paddles.
Collins, a Lenexa who played a lot of tennis in the past, became a devotee of the sport after playing it three years ago in Shawnee.
“I played pickleball that morning and haven’t been back to play tennis,” he said.
Collins said he became a promoter because he wants to see the sport expand. And young people need more places to play that suit their schedules, he said.
“We’re trying to stay away from the stigma that it’s 50 and older.”
World Gym has had its eye on Chicken N Pickle, a popular North Kansas City restaurant and pickleball venue that opened a couple of years ago. Chicken N Pickle draws an all-age mix of customers with its eight pickleball courts. The place was buzzing on a recent Tuesday night with an after-work crowd of mostly young adults.
Chicken N Pickle has only been around for 2 1/2 years, but it has become a hub for pickleball activity in the after-work hours. Just about everyone who plays at a rec center has heard of it, and many have played there.
The concept was developed by real estate executive Dave Johnson of North Kansas City. Johnson became a pickleball enthusiast after playing in Arizona, and decided to combine the popular game with a chicken restaurant, rooftop bar and a selection of other casual games like giant versions of Jenga and Battleship, and the cornhole toss game.
The courts, which rent for $20 to $40 an hour, are booked up about a week in advance and more than 200 people are in the leagues, said Andy Gensch, a pickleball pro who has been at Chicken N Pickle since it opened.
“We did not know it was going to evolve like this. We thought it would catch on but this has surpassed our goals,” he said. Millennials have come in numbers no one was predicting, he said.
“On weekend, the millennials found this place and really turned it into a new fun spot for Kansas City,” he said.
Observers of the current craze may be surprised to find out how old pickleball really is. It was started in 1965 by U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
Not even the national association seems sure about how it got its name. According to one story, the game was named after the Pritchard family dog. Another explanation holds that the use of leftover equipment reminded Pritchard’s wife, Joan, of “pickle boat” crews made up of oarsmen left over from other boats.
In any case, Pritchard and Bell were looking for a game family members could play together, but could not come up with the right equipment for badminton. So they cobbled together a game with what paddles, balls and net they had, and created rules that relied heavily on badminton.
Two years later, their neighbor constructed what is believed to be the first permanent pickleball court in his yard, and by the 1970s, the game was making headlines in national sports publications.
Still, pickleball remained enough of an oddity that its participation wasn’t tracked by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association until 2015. The report shows an estimated 2.5 million players and a growth rate of 1.8 percent, which the industry group said is likely underestimated.
“Our membership data suggests a pretty major spike,” said Justin Maloof, executive director of USAPA.
Until now, the majority of the “core” players, participating eight or more times a year, have been 55 or older. The court is smaller than a tennis court and the ball isn’t as bouncy. That adds up to less running to hit or chase the ball for players, making it especially popular among people who used to play tennis but now have trouble keeping up.
It also makes it easier for any age or ability level to get into the game, says Jody Siemer, supervisor of the Kansas City North Community Center.
Pickleball has been popular at the center for years, partly because of its appeal to seniors but also because it’s a sport that evens the playing field, she said.
“It actually is the fastest growing sport in the country and the reason is because it’s ageless. Young children can learn to play, as well as our very active aging seniors,” she said.
“Pickleball as a game caters to so many different abilities and age ranges that it allows something for everyone to play and still have a great time playing.”
Sophie Griffin, coordinator of the Fifty Plus program for Johnson County Park and Recreation District, sees the same thing.
“They come in for the exercise and folks just fall in love with it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s easy to pick up but difficult to master.”
Johnson County is in its fourth year, offering a regional pickleball tournament, this year with more than 126 players. The district helps community centers run their pickleball programs, as well.
Participation has been strong, with just over 4,600 players taking part at New Century Fieldhouse, Matt Ross Community Center and Tomahawk Ridge Community Center for the first half of this year.
The demographics have been changing, Maloof agreed.
Maloof and players cite several reasons for this. In the beginning, older players had easier access to the sport because the court use was usually restricted to daytime hours when younger players were at work or school. But the addition of so many new courts – over 80 new locations a month in 2016, Maloof said – has increased the access and visibility. Now more courts are open in the evening hours as well.
Then there’s the competitive aspect. Pickleball is a sport whose basic rules are easy to learn and many players are just in it for the socialization and exercise. But there are others who thrive on competition, inspiring tournaments and league play.
Cash prizes have grown into the thousands of dollars in some cases, said Gensch, of Chicken N Pickle. The U.S. Open tournament had 1,300 players and received coverage by CBS Sports.
“It’s becoming very commercialized and getting corporate sponsors. That’s helping fuel the growth of the sport,” he said. That competitive aspect may help explain why there is such a thing as a pickleball pro for a sport that is easy to learn.
But even if a player doesn’t want to compete at that level, the sport evens things out so all ages can compete against each other, say pickleball fans.
“I’m in my 20s and can go out on the court and get beat by someone 65 or 70 plus,” said Maloof of the USAPA. “It’s a strategic game as opposed to a strategic power game.”
There’s no denying that pickleball has an addicting quality. Stories abound of people who tried it once and became so hooked that they now play multiple times a week.
“We came one Saturday in March and stayed six hours, then we came the next Sunday and stayed another six hours,” said Nathan Smallwood, who lives in Kansas City’s Crossroads area. “we’ve been coming every week ever since.”
The atmosphere at Chicken N Pickle is relaxing and the company is good, and Smallwood and his friend, Cody Ponder of Lenexa, say that’s the appeal.
“It’s a competitive sport for people outside their prime athletically,” said Smallwood, 24, with a smile.
Ponder added: “Nine of ten people you meet here are great.”
The New Century Fieldhouse is one of the Johnson County’s bigger pickleball venues.
All it took for Julie Haller to become a pickleball regular was an invitation from a staff member to try learning it, she said.
“I was taking an aerobics class and they came down and wanted to teach us to play pickleball. I thought it was strangest thing,” said Haller, who will be 80 this year. “Now I’ve been playing it for six years.”
Haller plays a couple of times a week for two hours at a time. “It’s my main exercise,” she said, adding she is one of the oldest players in the group.
Other players said part of the appeal is that no one has to depend on finding a singles or doubles partner who can dependably play. With 20 or 30 at the courts on a given morning, there are always plenty of partners, said Sandy Wiley of Gardner.
Frank Healy, of Spring Hill, said he started playing about a year ago.
“I used to play tennis and I enjoyed it, but you do that about 20 years and you’re done,” he said. “This is a nice cross between exercise, competition and socializing.”
The game also has an appeal for people who want to exercise but are not fond of gym workouts. Jan Johnson of Gladstone said she’d never been a sports player before coming to the Kansas City North Community Center and joining the recreational players.
“It was more just for the exercise,” she said. “And I was getting a little bored going to the gym.”
On the other hand, Ron Capps of Kansas City, North, played high school sports but has had enough of running. Pickleball goes down easy because it’s fun, he said.
“It gets in your blood. It’s like the game of golf. You can have a terrible day and at the end if you have a couple of good shots, you’re ready to go again,” he said.
Pickleball friends can become a support group as well. One of the nets at the New Century Fieldhouse bears a small sign memorializing two former players, Steve Musgrave and Lea Roberts.
The small white sign was paid for and attached to the corner of the net by pickleball friends of Judie Musgrave after she tragically lost her mother and husband within eight months of each other.
The Musgraves started playing pickleball after moving to Olathe from Texas to be with Judie Musgrave’s mother, who was also a pickleball player. But then her husband contracted cancer. His death was closely followed by the car crash that killed Lea Roberts.
The group has been supportive since, with many coming to the funerals, she said.
“This is a great group. It certainly keeps you going,” she said.
Frank Healy of Spring Hill said he got into pickleball for the exercise but stayed for the social group. “It started out about the game but now it’s about the people.”