Pickleball: What's the Big Dill?Mar 01, 2022 ● By Stephen Hunt
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, people across the U.S. have clamored for new ways to exercise via outdoor sports that can be played with friends and family. One such activity is pickleball, which is experiencing a surge in popularity nationwide, including in Frisco.
It’s been a little over two years since Frisco Parks & Recreation opened a pair of pickleball courts at The Grove at Frisco Commons, 8300 McKinney Road, the department’s active adult center. “We see a high amount of usage on those courts,” Shannon Coates, director of Frisco Parks and Recreation, said.
Meanwhile, at Frisco First Baptist Church, at 7901 Main St., pickleball games are played on converted basketball courts in its gym from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays and Fridays. Frisco Lakes active-adult community also opened several outdoor courts. Last year, pickleball’s local presence continued to grow when it was introduced at Stonebriar Country Club and Lakes Tennis Academy.
Some “picklers” (as the sport’s fervent players are known) who lack dedicated courts on which to play have been resourceful and use painter’s tape to mark makeshift courts in driveways or cul-de-sacs, which have been illuminated with vehicle headlights during nighttime games. Others have marked pickleball court lines on tennis courts sitting idle at Frisco-area schools where they play games on weekends.
In February, Life Time Fitness opened its West Frisco facility, which features several pickleball courts. “Pickleball grew by 22 percent during the pandemic – an incredible number,” said Ajay Pant, senior director of racquet sports at Life Time Fitness. “Part of the reason is that almost everyone was dying to play outdoors. … People realized this is just a fun sport and it’s so easy. That has helped lead to this crazy obsession. Before the pandemic, you had about 3.5 million people playing.” That number has shot to 4.2 million, he said. “If we stay on track, a conservative number would be 6- to 7 million” players in the future.”
Laura Gainor is director of media relations for the Arizona-based USA Pickleball Association. She said she’s enjoyed watching the sport’s recent strong growth spurt as it has simultaneously attracted younger pickleball players. “Before, it was predominantly a sport for (ages) 55 and over. Now, we see those numbers skewing to one of our largest demographics, (which) is 18-35,” she said. The sport’s “average growth rate from 2017 to 2020 was 10.5 percent, so our total growth for that span is 34 percent.”
Easy and accessible
Several factors have combined to make pickleball – a sport invented in 1965 near Seattle – experience this unprecedented surge in popularity. For starters, it is relatively easy to play and for newcomers to learn because of its simple rules.
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court (measuring 20-by-44 feet) with a net that is 34 inches high in the middle and 36 inches high on either end. “The kitchen” is a no-volley zone that extends seven feet back from the net on each side. The sport is played similar to tennis, as players hit the ball off a single bounce on their side of the net. Pickleball can be played in a singles or doubles format.
That easy gameplay is why pickleball devotees like Frisco resident Ben Dobson became hooked on the sport. A member of the Dallas Maverick’s stat crew, in 2020 he traveled to Orlando, Florida, to work inside the NBA bubble. Before being sequestered there, “I didn’t know anything about pickleball,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us play basketball or do any other stuff, but they would let us play pickleball. We played in the courtyard (of the hotel) where we were staying. I was there 92 days, and we would play every day. … I really like the sport.”
Carlos Aguirre played tennis much of his life before taking up pickleball several years ago with his family. The director of racquet sports at Stonebriar Country Club likes the shorter length of pickleball matches – 11 points versus the minimum three sets in tennis. “It’s just fast,” he said. “There is an end to a game shorter than tennis. You’re playing to 11 and (after it is over) go, `Hey, that was quick. Let’s play again.’ It gets pretty competitive because it’s quicker.”
Another reason for pickleball’s growing popularity is due to the relatively low costs associated with participation. Paddles made from wood or composite materials are about twice the size of those employed in ping pong, and can be purchased for less than $100. Balls, which resemble whiffle balls, cost around $3 each while portable nets are about $150. This allows devoted picklers to take their games nearly anywhere.
A healthy addiction
Other factors that have driven pickleball’s popularity is that it’s an activity that delivers a great workout – one less taxing on the body than other racquet sports such as tennis. Also, most experienced picklers welcome newcomers to the sport, which helps to make them more quickly feel like part of the pickleball-playing community.
Nick Johnson, the owner and academy director at Lakes Tennis Academy, recently took up pickleball himself because, at age 47, he felt as though he’d plateaued in the sport of tennis. “It’s a little less (demanding) on your body. I track my heart rate and it’s unbelievable how many calories I burn,” he said. “My heart rate is 170 beats per minute and I’m having fun. If I weren’t tracking it, I would never think I got that great of a workout. I burned 1,400 calories in two hours and didn’t even know it. You feel good, get the endorphins going and I love the pop (of the ball on the paddle).”
Taking up pickleball has also allowed many former athletes to rekindle their competitive fire while exacting a lesser toll on their bodies through lower-impact activities. “I thought competitive sports were a thing of the past. I played high school basketball and in a men’s adult league until I turned 30,” Dobson said. “When I was introduced to pickleball, I got recharged. I’ve gone all in, traveling to tournaments and trying to play three or four times a week after work. I probably haven’t been this active in a sport since college.”
Dobson also enjoys the strong social aspect of pickleball, especially the numerous friends he’s made since taking up the sport. One thing many avid picklers report is that the sport has expanded their circle of friends.
Frisco resident Paul Puttonen regularly plays pickleball at Frisco First Baptist Church. He appreciates the entire range of benefits that the sport offers. “A big part of it’s social, a big part of it’s athletic. It’s just a lot of fun on both counts,” he said. “It doesn’t take long to learn how to play this game. It’s amazing the backgrounds” of his fellow picklers, who include badminton, table tennis and racquetball players. “Some of the hardest-hitting ladies are volleyball players.”
Further proof of how popular pickleball has become in North Texas is evidenced by two pickleball-themed spots that combine food, beverages and sport. In the past year, dining and entertainment venues Chicken N Pickle, in Grand Prairie, and Courtside Kitchen, in Fort Worth, opened to rave reviews. (A second Chicken N Pickle location is set to open this year in Grapevine.) Could a similar spot in or near Frisco be far behind? “We’re Sports City USA, right?” Dobson said. “We’re the city that plays.”
Longtime Frisco resident Stephen Hunt fondly remembers playing pickleball back in the 1980s.