MAYBE FLORIDA’S NICKNAME SHOULD change from the Sunshine State to the Pickleball State.
The paddle sport that is part badminton, part ping pong and part tennis has seen explosive growth, dotting Florida with pickleball courts.
¦ Punta Gorda opened the 16-court PicklePlex on the Charlotte County campus of Florida SouthWestern State College last year.
¦ Collier County’s East Naples Community Park features 54 courts and will soon expand to 64. And a 3,500-seat stadium is planned for the site.
¦ Palm Beach County’s BallenIsles Country Club has converted tennis courts to two permanent pickleball courts.
¦ There are places to play in southern Sarasota County at the George Mullen Activities Center in North Port and the Venice Community Center and the Englewood Sports Complex.
¦ The Fort Myers Racquet Club, a venerable tennis facility in the middle of the city, had fallen on hard times, with the courts and parking lot not what they had once been.
But former collegiate tennis players Billy McGehee and Sean O’Rourke have spent more than a year renovating the facility and converting some tennis courts to pickleball. Although tennis is still played there a portion of the facility has been re-branded as the Wild World of Pickleball. The clubhouse has been spruced up and new windscreens installed as part of the makeover.
“Trying to bring the old gal back to life,” Mr. McGehee said.
The revival of the facility is part of the pickleball phenomenon. The sport’s history can be traced to a specific place and time — Bainbridge Island, Wash., and the summer of 1965. That’s when the sport was invented by three dads looking for something for their kids to do.
As of 2018, according to the USA Pickleball Association, 3.1 million Americans play the sport. At the time there were 6,000 known pickleball locations in the country with an average of 90 being added every month.
If that average stayed steady through 2018 and 2019 that would increase the number to perhaps 8,160. The Villages, a massive north, central Florida community, has more than 100 pickleball courts.
A quick and far from complete Google search in five south Florida counties shows pickleball courts at numerous places and one is likely near anybody interested in picking up a paddle and playing. Courts are available at the Marco Island Recreation Center and the Bonita Springs YMCA, and the city of Cape Coral Parks and Recreation website lists four parks with courts. A short drive east of Cape Coral is Babcock Ranch, which straddles the Lee and Charlotte county lines. That new community offers pickleball at Jack Peeples Park.
There are courts in Punta Gorda at Gilchrist Park.
The sport is everywhere in Florida except probably the middle of Lake Okeechobee and deep in the Everglades. A popular Palm Beach County venue is the Jupiter Community Center.
“The popularity of pickleball has grown exponentially,” said Ted Kegeris, president of the picklePlex in Punta Gorda.
Mr. Kegeris is an example of a person who has fueled the sport’s exponential growth. When Mr. Kegeris, 62, retired 4½ years ago, he had another sport in mind when he moved from Indiana to Florida.
“To play golf,” Mr. Kegeris said.
Then he was introduced to pickleball. He said it’s been three years since he played golf and playing the more active sport of pickleball helped him drop his weight from 230 pounds to 190 pounds on a 5-foot-10 body.
BallenIsles Country Country Club tennis pro Gary Henderson has embraced pickleball.
A former touring pro tennis player, Mr. Henderson said the country club now has two permanent pickleball courts. For now. He believes pickleball is taking over the world.
“We have plans to expand to five permanent and the possibility of more,” Mr. Henderson said.
“The historic Fort Myers Racquet Club lay in ruins,” they wrote to members. “From the moment we opened the clubhouse doors we knew we were in for a true test of mental and physical fortitude. Not only was every single part of the property in dire straits but only a few of the once-many members remained. The tennis facility was a tired and aging facility.”
Mr. O’Rourke recalled his first impression of the facility and Mr. McGehee’s idea to renovate it.
“I looked and said, ‘Hell, no, you got to be kidding me,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
That was in April 2018. Over the next nine months, according to their letter, they revived the aging tennis facility.
They estimated they removed nearly 20,000 pounds of old tennis court surface material from the site.
The run-down tennis facility was transformed into a new tennis/pickleball facility.
Mr. McGehee, who played on the professional tennis circuit, sees pickleball as a key part of the Fort Myers Racquet Club’s future and as a force in the sports world.
“After 50-plus years it’s hit that tipping point,” Mr. McGehee said, “This sport could easily grow to the size of tennis, globally, in a decade.”
South Florida appears primed to be part of the global growth for the sport.
Program coordinator Wendy Aldridge of the Sarasota County Parks and Recreation Department in the park’s system there are currently 56 pickleball courts, including 12 outdoor and six indoor courts at the Englewood Sports Complex.
She said there are discussions to add more. She can see the interest almost any time she looks in the gym at the Englewood Sports Complex.
“I’ll have 40 people in my gym,” Ms. Aldridge said.
They will be playing or waiting to play or just concluded playing.
Collier County Parks and Recreation director Barry Williams has worked for the department for 14 years and in his early days pickleball was little more than an afterthought.
“It wasn’t on our radar,” Mr. Williams said.
The sport’s growth has been explosive.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr. Williams said.
Now, it’s front and center in Collier County with plans moving forward to build that 3,500-seat pickleball stadium Filling all those seats probably won’t be a challenge. Mr. Williams said when the U.S. Open is played in Naples in April the championship matches can attract about 2,000 fans.
“We had to turn people away,” Mr. Williams said.
The sport has had an economic impact in Collier County, according to Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. Mr. Wert said the U. S. Open Pickleball Championship last year attracted 2,161 participants from 47 states and 20 countries and more than 10,000 fans attended matches. All those folks generated $1.3 million in visitor spending, according to Mr. Wert.
”Pickleball as a sport has brought huge national and international recognition in pickle ball circles as the premier facility in the U.S.,” Mr. Wert said. “That recognition makes us attractive to more pickleball events and also helps us in becoming a destination of choice for other sports tournaments and championships events as well.”
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