Feature Article - March 2013
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Out of the Ordinary

Make Way for Some Unexpected & Unusual Sports

By Dawn Klingensmith

You wouldn't expect a senior housing development to spark a community-wide sporting craze. But that's just what happened in St. George, Utah, when the SunRiver retirement community opened with 14 courts devoted to pickleball.

The city's Recreation Division had never heard of the emerging sport. Nevertheless, pickleball—a racquet sport combining elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis—has since become a very big dill, er, deal.

"It just kind of caught on," said John "Rosey" Rosander, youth and adult sports coordinator for the City of St. George.

It caught on while SunRiver still permitted open use of its courts, and when nonresidents were later denied access, they began to pressure the city council for public pickleball courts. "At that point, we had tennis courts that needed remodeling, so we decided to make one into pickleball courts," Rosander said.

One tennis court holds four pickleball courts, which helps explain the sport's popularity among seniors—players don't have to cover as much area as in tennis. And its slower pace compared to tennis levels the playing field, allowing for coed, multigenerational competition.

N-E-1-4 Pickleball?

St. George's tennis court makeover is part of a nationwide trend. From Denver to Dallas and Phoenix to Philly, tennis courts are being "minced and repurposed," as the Dallas Morning News put it, to keep up with growing demand for pickleball. The "new" sport has actually been around for nearly half a century, but its popularity has exploded in the past few years, with more than 100,000 people competing on at least 5,000 courts nationwide, according to the USA Pickleball Association.

Taught to kids through recreation centers, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and physical education programs, pickleball appeals to people of all ages. But it's especially popular among older adults, initially taking off in senior communities in Arizona and Florida. Dwarfing SunRiver's allotment of 14, an Orlando, Fla., retirement community recently opened with more than 100 pickleball courts, anticipating the demand.

Pickleball is part of the annual National Senior Games in Ohio. And this past November, the fourth annual Pickleball Nationals in Buckeye, Ariz., drew 400 players from 28 states.

Pickleball is part of a recent push by recreation facilities—responding to changing demographics and mounting public health concerns—to expand beyond traditional sports in an effort to draw more participants. While creative thinking drives some of these expansions (underwater hockey, kayak water polo, folkloric dance), demand from the community often is the catalyst, as was the case in St. George with pickleball.

Nearby, in Salt Lake City, demand has reached a fevered pitch, but city officials have been slower to respond, as detailed in a June 2012 editorial titled "SLC's Pickle-Ball Problem: Why No Funds for Blossoming Sport?"

So far, Salt Lake City's growing pickleball population has been making do with portable nets on courts laid out with tape on gym floors, in at least four recreation centers across town.

In St. George and elsewhere, dilapidated tennis courts have been converted into pickleball courts, and it's possible to create a dual-use tennis court simply by painting pickleball lines. Perhaps that's one reason the sport is trending—it doesn't cost much to get started.