Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the nation.
There are 36.5 million pickleball players nationwide. In the last three years, there has been an average increase of 158.6% of pickleball players, according to Pickleheads.
People of all ages and skill levels are able to enjoy the game due to its simple nature. It is similar to tennis and badminton, and can be played in singles or doubles. All it requires is a court, paddles and a plastic ball.
Brandon Mackie is the co-founder of Pickleheads, the largest pickleball court directory in the nation. Pickleheads provides detailed guides to the sport and information on where to play.
Some of the most popular facilities in the Fayetteville area include PB&JJ’s, Yvonne Richardson Community Center, Springdale Parks and Recreation and Wilson Park. PB&JJ’s is a pickleball-specific facility, however it is only open for private parties and events. The rest of the facilities are not pickleball-specific, and players have to alter the existing tennis courts or set up on the basketball courts.
“We just felt like there needed to be a site that had really good information so anyone could find a court in their area,” Mackie said. “And then once they found a court, they could actually be able to go out and connect with players and get out on the court.”
Mike Lemaster, 76, is a Fayetteville resident who originally discovered pickleball through his son and daughter-in-law, who picked it up while vacationing in Florida. He learned how to play the sport at the Walker Park tennis courts.
He began playing often at the Yvonne Richardson Community Center. Springdale Parks and Recreation Center began offering pickleball on lined courts approximately two years ago, and that was when Lemaster became a regular at the center, playing every morning on the weekdays, he said.
Kate Williams, of Rogers, has been a Northwest Arkansas ambassador for USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body, for the last six years. There are 2,000 ambassadors around the country, and they work on a voluntary basis, she said. Their primary goal is to promote the sport and advertise new facilities.
“It’s not just a fad,” Williams said. “It’s not just something the old people do, the largest demographic is 18 to 34.”
Pickleball has been the fastest growing sport in the country for three consecutive years, and Fayetteville and the UofA are late to the party, Lemaster said. There are no dedicated facilities for the sport in the city.
Cindy Fish, of Bella Vista, previously worked at Matrix Racquet Club in Lowell, the first club to bring Major League Pickleball rules to recreational gameplay. She now works at the Rogers Activity Center, where she runs men’s, women’s and soon, youth leagues in the summer. Players have been short designated pickleball courts, but things are starting to progress, she said.
Williams and other pickleball players met with Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse to discuss facilities last month. Sprouse was very receptive and understood the growth of the sport, she said
Pickleball players who attended the meeting brought a new indoor facility in Opelika, Alabama, to the attention of the mayor. It has 24 courts that are free and open to the public at all times. The mayor and players at the meeting also discussed specific pickleball facilities that will be opening, and the possibility of overlapping functions of existing buildings, Williams said.
In pickleball, there is an unwritten rule in the community that after you play your game, you give up your court to other waiting players, Lemaster said. The game is very inviting and social in nature.
“I will leave my experienced partners in games, and go work with those new players,” Lemaster said. “That’s just how we roll.”
Lemaster leads a group of players at Springdale Parks and Recreation Center, most of whom are retired or have flexible work schedules, he said. The rec center allows guests over 70 free access to the facility. They begin playing at 8 a.m. and usually finish around noon.
Lemaster’s group provides the balls for players to check out. They receive many donations from players for the balls, providing a much more efficient way of playing, he said. Departing players no longer have to interrupt ongoing games to reclaim borrowed balls.
University Recreation officials recently oversaw the installation of tennis courts on MLK Jr. Boulevard and advertised space for pickleball players. Lemaster said he went to the courts, but none of them were lined for pickleball. Instead, there was an apparatus that outlined a court in string.
Lemaster said he frequently sees students playing pickleball on the tennis courts. Patrons rarely use more than two tennis courts for their intended sport.
Silvy Kehrli, of Rogers, started playing pickleball with her husband seven years ago. They learned how to play the sport on the basketball court of the Bentonville Community Center, she said.
Pickleball is a sport for all ages, Kehrli said. Although it is a simple game, one must utilize strategies to progress and beat more advanced players.
“The community aspect of it is just really neat because you have all these people from all different walks of life coming together to try to exercise, socialize and improve,” Kehrli said.
Kehrli plays during the day at the Springdale Parks and Recreation Center, as well. The center’s diverse group of players includes firefighters, realtors and retired people, she said.
They play together in a team league consisting of two men and two women, who play a set of men’s doubles, women’s doubles and four sets of mixed doubles. A match is the best of six games, Fish said.
At Matrix Club, players taped off two of their six tennis courts for pickleball play, Fish said.
“It’s just a matter of, I think, whoever finally (builds pickleball-specific facilities) is going to reap the benefits because everybody wants to play,” Fish said.
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