The 15 pickleball courts at Mitchell Park in Palo Alto are filled with people on the move. The popping sounds of wiffle-like plastic balls being crushed by pickleball paddles are constant. The same goes for the chatter and laughter between participants.
“It’s like that from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day,” said Monica Williams of Mountain View.
Williams, a designated ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, recently led a Town Crier reporter through an impromptu lesson, followed by actual play on one of the 20-by-44-foot courts – four of which can stand on a standard tennis court.
The 80-year-old Williams threw a serve right in front of the reporter’s restless paddle. Not a good start, but soon after, fun volleys, shrugs, laughs, punches – in other words, a good time had by all.
Pickleball has exploded in popularity over the past five years, especially during the pandemic. According to USA Pickleball, citing a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the sport grew to 4.8 million players in 2021. Annual growth has averaged 11.5% over the past five years. It is often cited as the fastest growing sport in America.
Nationwide statistics belie the myth that the sport is primarily for older people: Again, according to USA Pickleball, the average age of core players (those who regularly play in tournaments) is 47.9 year ; for casual gamers, it’s 34.3. The sport is not only multi-generational and multi-racial, but also gender neutral – the ratio of women to men is around 50-50.
The popularity is evident at Mitchell Park, where the Palo Alto Pickleball Club has 800 members, including no less than 90 from Los Altos.
A sport for all ages
Described as a hybrid of tennis, ping pong and badminton, pickleball has origins dating back over 50 years. It started as an informal family game in the Northwestern United States and enjoyed fairly quiet popularity until recently. Now it seems like everyone is acknowledging the many benefits of sports at the same time.
“Anyone can play,” Williams said. “It takes 10 minutes to learn, it takes a lifetime to master, but this lifetime is great fun because it’s so social – laughter is wonderful.”
Many pickleball players are converts from other sports. Williams played tennis for 50 years before switching to pickleball seven years ago.
“When COVID (restrictions) came into effect, some courts closed,” Mitchell recalled. “Racquetball was completely stopped because it was indoors. You could still play pickleball because it was outdoors. Half the guys I played racquetball with, I see them now appear on the pickleball courts, completely converted.
Unlike tennis and other sports that need to be pre-arranged, pickleball players can simply show up and place their paddles on the court to enter a game. Contests are relatively short – matches go up to 11 points, and teams or individuals must win by twos. At 34 inches high, the net is lower than tennis and badminton.
The area in front of the net is called “the kitchen” and the initial volleys must go around it. Players must allow a rebound on each side before returning the serve. Because the pitch is so small, the players can clearly see and talk to each other.
Los Altos’ Dorit Perry enjoys the camaraderie and friendships that develop on the pitch. She started playing four years ago and now plays five days a week.
“I literally met over 200 people I never would have known,” she said. “I like it because I can just show up and have fun.”
“The best part (about pickleball) is probably the social interaction it generates,” added player Rich Pearson. “One, you’re playing with someone and it’s social – you’re physically playing with three or four different partners in an hour. … There are more laughs in pickleball than in any other sport I’ve ever played.
Pilot programs are growing
Cities across the country, including local ones, have responded to the pickleball craze with field projects. The process generally goes like this: launching a pilot program with marking of existing tennis courts, then possibly building dedicated pickleball courts.
Mountain View has already launched a pilot program at Rengstorff Park, with six pickleball courts spread across tennis courts. This is in addition to the three existing courts in the park. Los Altos plans to redevelop the McKenzie Park tennis courts to accommodate six pickleball courts. Four more are planned for Montclaire Park.
“The pickleball driver keeps moving forward,” Los Altos City Manager Gabriel Engeland said. “We are going to strike out McKenzie early next month (September), followed by noise dampening and a strike out at Montclaire. When stripping is complete at McKenzie, we will also be making other minor changes to the parking lot. …We don’t have a specific date for Montclaire yet, as we are still finalizing the purchase of the soundproofing equipment, but hopefully it will be operational soon after McKenzie.
Pilot programs are a smart way for cities to proceed, Mitchell noted.
“The cost is much lower,” he said. “From our point of view, it’s a little faster to set up. It really is a double edged sword, pickleball is. All the towns here can see how popular it is, they have facilities and they want them to be used. On the other hand, there is this worry about this tidal wave of people arriving. Its popularity is the main reason to do it, and its popularity is also the main fear about it.
Many fans tout the importance of having a pickleball center – a
centralized location, such as Mitchell Park. A recent discussion of the Los Altos pilot program favored McKenzie as “one of the few sites that would work,” Mitchell said, because it’s located far from residences. A constant pickleball complaint is the sound of wooden paddles.
Despite the noise factor, supporters believe dedicated courts are inevitable due to pickleball’s growing popularity.
“That’s the path we took in Palo Alto,” Pearson said. “Five years ago, it was just a fad. I understand the reason for starting slow, but if you look at the numbers and the growth over the past five years, (cities) are just kicking in because (the demand for dedicated courts) is going to happen again.
Like any sport, there is a risk of injury. Williams, an instructor, always emphasizes “safety first.” Nevertheless, some get carried away – literally. A man she saw ran towards the net to return a volley to fly over the net and land on her forehead.
Still, the fitness benefits far outweigh the risk of injury, the players said.
“I exercise for health wellness,” Mitchell said. “Cons (injuries) are all the health benefits of staying active. You will live longer because of it.