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Feature Article - November 2016

Outside of the Box

Up-and-Coming Sports Programming Can Expand Your Reach

By Joe Bush


Pickleball has everything a parks and rec program director needs to be a safe, "experimental" activity.

The racquet sport does not need a dedicated court or a special surface, its equipment is inexpensive, it's easy to learn, can be as vigorous and competitive as its participants want, can be played outdoors or in, and appeals to all ages.

"That's been a driving force behind the sport—the accessibility and how easy it is to establish," said Justin Maloof, the executive director of the 10-year-old USA Pickleball Association (USAPA).

Pickleball has become so popular several years into its resurgence among recreation organizations that it no longer qualifies as an alternative sport. According to the USAPA, the number of places to play pickleball has doubled since 2010, to approximately 4,000. The USAPA attributes much of that success to the sport's popularity in park districts and community centers and gym classes.

Many manufacturers make balls and paddles, which are both specialized for the sport, and a park district can start offering it for about $200 including portable net, balls and paddles.

The USAPA has an official court partner, and a 1,400-strong army of ambassadors, folks in all 50 states who are advocates for the game and are always on the lookout for places the game can expand to.

The sport had its first U.S Open last spring, with approximately 1,000 players in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, and there are an estimated 2 million players today and a projected 8 million by 2018.

But pickleball once was new and its potential a mystery, and its subsequent success is instructive when considering parks and rec departments' processes for offering non-traditional activities to its community.

Getting the Ball Rolling

How do program directors become aware of new sports? What do they consider before trying one? How long do they give a new activity before either expanding or ending it?

Activities like pickleball, bags, obstacle course races, bubble ball and team handball are recent examples of departments trying to attract new or younger or older participants. Sometimes demographics drive the offers (e.g., cricket in a community with an Indian population), sometimes regional characteristics spark creativity (mountain bike racing in areas with terrain conducive to off-road biking, for example), and sometimes recent events like the Olympics or cultural trends like a popular movie spur change.

The story of how the Warrenville (Ill.) Park District tried and then embraced pickleball is similar to many in the timeline and evolution of giving a new activity a chance.

Athletic and Facility Supervisor Dave Weiner oversees all adult and youth athletic programs and leagues, and remembers being handed an article about pickleball from a senior citizen publication in 2012.

"He said, 'Hey, this is something I'd be interested in, I used to play tennis but now my knees don't allow me to. I think the park district should offer it,'" Weiner recalled.

Weiner pitched it as a senior-level activity at a time when pickleball was uncommon, so much so that he remembers having a good amount of out-of-town interest and participation because nearby towns weren't yet offering it.

What started as a once-a-week open gym offering and Tuesday and Thursday classes has bloomed into some sort of pickleball presence six days a week. The park district just finished its third pickleball tournament, a two-day event.

"It's gotten big enough that we offer weekday evening open gym and Saturday," Weiner said. "It's taken prime-time hours because of the popularity."

What's more, pickleball in Warrenville appeals to more than one age group. Weiner offers it now to ages 18 and up, after starting it with a focus on ages 55 and up. He said interest is 70 percent 55 and over, and enrollment keeps growing.

Growing the Box

Lee Farmer, recreation services manager of the Bentonville (Ark.) Parks and Recreation Department, said the offering of fresh programming begins with the desire to keep the community on its toes.

"We like to think about the box," Farmer said. "Pickleball, theater, lacrosse, art in our parks—we want to offer something for everyone, but at the same time we want to make sure the programs are sustainable."

Farmer has helped grow Bentonville's programming from four programs in 2010 to 150 today, serving 500,000 participants. Though Bentonville's population is about 45,000, it serves a few nearby towns that don't have park districts. Farmer estimates Bentonville has a budget for 45,000 and serves 70,000, and is mandated to not use tax money to support programming.

This 100 percent cost recovery policy has fostered efficiency and creativity in an area known for Walmart headquarters and a fitness-focused populace that loves to bike and run. Farmer said in the department's early days, it hosted one program, and that was admission to the pool. That brought in $38,000 the first year; this past year, the department made $3.8 million. The department's programming got a huge boost with the 2015 opening of an 83,000-square-foot community center that won the Facility of the Year Award in 2016 from the Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association. It also added an ice rink in 2010 for winter programming.