In A Pickle: How Pickleball’s Local Popularity Outpaces Available Facilities

It’s one of the liveliest sports in the country, but pickleball is poorly served in Traverse City. That’s what local players and supporters say about the sport, a hybrid game that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It’s a problem that could worsen this winter, as cold, snowy weather hits northern Michigan and takes most of the area’s pickleball courts with it.

Designed in the 1960s as a backyard game for children, pickleball has recently gained in popularity, becoming a common item in public parks, health clubs, YMCA facilities, and retirement communities. In January, The Economist called it “America’s fastest growing sport”

According to the Traverse Area Pickleball Association (TAPA), the sport’s presence in Traverse City dates back to at least 1985. That year, members of the Grand Traverse Yacht Club “discovered the game played at a friend’s house near Torch. Lake, ”viewed it as“ an outdoor summer alternative to racquetball, ”and advocated that the Yacht Club build a dedicated pickleball court – the first in northern Michigan.

However, pickleball didn’t gain a foothold in Traverse City until the 2000s, when the YMCA of Grand Traverse Bay began making fields available for the sport. Growing interest and demand throughout the second half of this decade inspired the creation of TAPA.

“We formed TAPA in 2010 or 2011, and set it up as a non-profit organization designed to facilitate the growth of pickleball in northern Michigan,” says Gary Ford, president of the organization. “When we first formed TAPA, the only place to play pickleball in northern Michigan was at the YMCA or on outdoor courts along the Boardman River. It was really that.

By forming TAPA, Ford tells The teleprinter, allowed local pickleball fans to do two things. First, since the organization was incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit organization, supporters could make tax-deductible contributions to help develop the sport locally. Second, TAPA was able to begin hosting competitive pickleball tournaments in northern Michigan, which Ford says has increased local interest in the sport.

The growing pickleball contingent in Traverse City gave TAPA some leverage, which came in handy when the YMCA of Grand Traverse Bay opened its new facility on Silver Lake Road in 2014. With fewer operations centered on the l he location now known as the YMCA South – on Racquet Club Drive, across from Logan’s Landing – TAPA was able to convince the Y to convert several other tennis courts at this facility into pickleball courts.

The YMCA South’s six dedicated courts remain among Traverse City’s only true indoor pickleball courts – although Ford notes that the South Y may add four more by “taking back the ground for whatever sports they use for volleyball.” ball ”. TAPA has helped fund other courts since, including eight at Boardman Valley Nature Preserve in 2018, and eight more at Veteran’s Park in Slabtown (better known as “the dog park”) the following year. But those lands – along with three at Grace Macdonald Park, two at Herman Park in Suttons Bay, and three at Glen Arbor Township Park – are all outdoors.

With interest in pickleball growing so rapidly, the area’s few indoor courts may not be enough to support the sport’s local fan base this winter.

“The sport has gone way beyond venues,” says Dan Fouch, a local pickleball enthusiast who plays the sport five times a week. “There are six indoor courts available at the South Y, and that’s really all the courts that are available in the area. [during the winter]. If you go in the morning you will see 20-25 people just waiting to enter a lot.

Fouch expects the growth of pickleball to continue. He and his wife, both longtime tennis players, have switched to pickleball primarily – in part because the mechanics of the game make it “easier on your shoulders, easier on your knees, and easier on your ankles.” These factors make pickleball more forgiving for older players, but Fouch believes the faster play and the more forgiving learning curve of the game (compared to tennis) appeal to younger people as well.

“The problem with tennis is that unless you’re really good, you spend a lot of time chasing balls or double faults,” Fouch said. “Tennis is a more technically sophisticated game, where with pickleball everyone can have fun with it. You see 10-year-olds and 80-year-olds, and they can all have fun with the game.

So how can Traverse City add more indoor pickleball courts to meet the demand? TAPA is considering several strategies, one of which would be to build a brand new indoor pickleball facility.

“But there are some challenges in doing this,” admits Ford. “The big problem is that most people don’t go and play indoors during the summer. Because all of the best courts are outdoor courts, and they’re free to play on them. So if you’re building an indoor facility, you can’t really count on a high volume of play from May to September.

A better solution, Ford thinks, is to add pickleball to more existing sports facilities across town. Ford has held talks with Grand Traverse Resort and Spa – which currently has three pickleball courts available to rent for hotel guests and health club members – to “increase their pickleball offerings.” He also believes pickleball will be a top priority if / when the YMCA expands its facilities on Silver Lake Road.

When asked if the YMCA of Grand Traverse Bay has any plans to expand the YMCA West facility soon, President and CEO Andy Page confirms that the organization is “constantly evaluating and exploring” the possibility.

“We continue to see growth in just about every area,” Page said. “We have seen growth in membership, growth in the programs we offer, growth in the overall use of our facilities. And as we watch our usage increase, it’s very clear to us that we’re going to need to have some very focused conversations here, in the very near future, about how we will respond to that growth. “

Page suggests that when these expansions happen, pickleball’s growing appeal to all ages could make it a prime contender or a more dedicated space.

“[Serving all ages] is a big part of what the Y is, ”says Page. “We have kids as young as six months old taking swimming lessons and 90-year-olds playing pickleball. So pickleball, in its demographics and use, reflects what the Y stands for. We’re really excited about the growth.

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