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.

Adaptive Reuse

Due in part to budget constraints, "One of the big trends we see in programming is people trying to use facilities they have in new and innovative ways—you take your existing facilities and find a new gimmick or sport," said Teresa Penbrooke, CEO and founder of GreenPlay, a parks, recreation and open space consulting firm based in Lafayette, Colo.

Newish sports like disc golf require sport-specific (though inexpensive) facilities, but underwater hockey and kayak water polo, for example, just use your standard "square pool," Penbrooke said.

Kayak polo, also called canoe polo, can also be played in a lake. A cross between water polo, basketball and hockey, it consists of two teams of five players paddling kayaks and passing a water polo ball using their hands and paddle. The object is to throw the ball into the opposing team's goal. Players cannot paddle while holding onto the ball and may only hold the ball for five seconds before they must pass or dribble. "While one team passes the ball and tries to score, the other team defends their goal and tries to gain possession of the ball. If a player has the ball, it is legal to push them over," according to the Austin (Texas) Aquabots Kayak Polo website.

The Austin team has been playing since 1998, and in 2001 a Washington State article gushed about the "big splash" kayak polo was making on a local lake. But in many places, kayak polo is just emerging as a "cool new trend," Penbrooke said.

Another tack programming directors are taking to draw more participants with minimal investment is "to take something adults remember fondly from childhood and do it in an existing gym or on an existing field," which explains the reemergence of kickball and dodgeball, Penbrooke said.

Serving All Constituents

Large ethnic populations in certain communities are driving demand for sports like futsal, a variation of soccer originating in South America, and played on a hard court. When St. George remodeled one tennis court for pickleball, its neighboring court was turned into a futsal court. "The court is packed every night," said Rosander, adding that St. George now has a thriving futsal league and plans to build a four-court facility. "That's another thing that's been driven by community pressure."

But again, budget concerns come into play. If futsal is taking off in St. George and elsewhere, it's because it's cheap to get up and running. "It's basically just a cement pad surrounded by a net," Rosander said of St. George's proposed new facility.

Compare that to cricket, "which in terms of different cultures is popular, but not growing by leaps and bounds because it takes a lot of money to build a cricket facility," Penbrooke said.

What about space for a fictional sport played by witches and wizards on flying brooms? College campuses in particular are grappling with this due to the rising popularity of a humanly possible variant of quidditch, a game from the Harry Potter books. The sport is sufficiently popular, in fact, to boast an International Quidditch Association, an annual Quidditch World Cup, an Intercollegiate Quidditch Association and Quidditch Quarterly magazine. Quidditch can be played on an ordinary field with an odd assortment of unelaborate equipment including broomsticks, hoops and balls.

The International Quidditch Association website notes: "Sports participation drops off during puberty, even among formerly active children, and the average teenager spends over seven hours a day in front of screens. We know from hosting clinics at elementary and middle schools around the country that quidditch gets kids excited about exercising, especially those who are uninterested in traditional sports."

Building Facilities

In St. George, Utah, support for pickleball is such that $80,000 in funding was secured to build a 12-court facility with regulation courts, completed in October 2012. That brings the current tally to 20 city-owned pickleball courts, with plans to build 12 more. To host a national tournament, the city must have a total of 24. "If we can hold tournaments, if we can draw people from out of town, that means more tax dollars for the city and more money for us," Rosander said.

Meanwhile, in nearby Salt Lake City, residents can't persuade city officials to build regulation pickleball courts, prompting a City Weekly reporter to pen a June 2012 editorial, "SLC's Pickle-Ball Problem: Why No Funds for Blossoming Sport?"

The question begets another question: When do facilities go from offering unusual or emerging sports as novelties to providing facilities dedicated to these sports, should they prove popular?

Usually, community demand determines the tipping point. In St. George, residents introduced to pickleball through senior housing started pressuring the city council for public courts once demand exceeded available playing space. And once the city made pickleball a priority, it became a tourist attraction and potential revenue generator, via national tournaments. Seniors roaming cross-country in RVs plan stops around pickleball, Rosander said, and their presence and spending benefit St. George.

At the same time, the perennially packed state of the futsal court alongside the city's first pickleball courts indicated to the city that it was time to build a second futsal facility to serve its growing Latino population.

Currently, St. George is considering a BMX park because the cyclists are using the skatepark, which could potentially cause problems.

But accommodation only goes as far as budgets allow. Cricket is also popular among Latinos, but cities seldom provide a dedicated facility because of the cost.

To save money while catering to diverse clientele, "Wherever possible, you need fields and facilities to be as multiuse as possible," said Samuel Metott, athletics supervisor for the City of Plantation's Parks and Recreation Department in Florida. "And you have to make your argument that it's for the best. Baseball players hate having no grass in the infield; ours is clay because softball is also played there. It's not everyone's preference but it's best for our overall programming."

As was the case in St. George with pickleball, there comes a time when public demand drives action. And that's what will ultimately bring about action in Salt Lake City, according to editorialist John Rasmuson: "When will Salt Lake City get its first regulation pickleball court? Not in the foreseeable future" because there's no Capital Improvement Fund earmarked for that purpose, he writes. "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 (parks and leisure department) is not going to invest in pickleball courts until public pressure forces its hand."

Not all parks and rec departments wait until push comes to shove. Some take a more proactive approach to anticipating and meeting the community's programming needs by "identifying what's already happening in the community on a non-sanctioned basis and engaging those groups," said Penbrooke. "It's not about introducing new sports. It's more about what people are doing in the community underground or non-sanctioned and figuring out how to manage it. If you go back, that's how skateparks started."

More recently, an acrobatic physical discipline known as parkour uses public buildings and fixtures as obstacles and climbing apparatus. "A lot of agencies are realizing this is something that needs to be managed," which may lead to the development of parkour facilities in places where the sport is hot, said Penbrooke, adding that Meetup.com is a good place to look for and monitor up-and-coming sports like parkour.

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