The fastest growing sport in the United States

Mike Cole of Idyllwild winds up for a volley on the local pickleball courts at the Community Center site, while Eliott Taylor gives him space. Cole is a veteran pickleball player, having joined the sport in the Seattle area shortly after its founding in the mid-1960s. Cole finalized his decision to buy a cabin on the Hill when he realized there are pickleball courts in the community.  
Photo by Barry Zander

Despite the peculiar name, pickleball is nothing to sneeze at or derisively dismiss. It is the fastest-growing sport in America. Since its founding in 1965 by Washington State Congressman Joel Pritchard, the paddle- and net-based sport has exploded in popularity. It is played in all 50 states at over 4,000 locations and has its own corporate brand and sponsor, the USA Pickleball Association.

Now, as recently announced by the Idyllwild Community Center board, pickleball will have a permanent Idyllwild home and be listed on the USAPA’s website “Places to Play” map.

Given that Idyllwild is a dog-loving town with a dog for a mayor, pickleball is especially appropriate here. The sport was allegedly named after the Pritchard’s dog Pickles who, during games, would chase the ball and run off with it, repeatedly interrupting the first matches of the nascent sport.

The San Jacinto Mountain Community Center board, ICC’s parent, announced that pickleball courts will be built at the Idyllwild Pines Camp and Conference Center, adjacent to two other Idyllwild Pines-hosted and ICC-managed recreational venues — the Idyllwild Skate Park and the Rick Barker Dog Park.

According to the board’s press release, ICC signed a three-year lease with Idyllwild Pines to allow construction of permanent courts on the camp’s land.

Phase one of the Community Center’s construction would have displaced pickleball play during construction on the ICC site. Final plans for all Community Center project phases would not have left enough flat land on the ICC site to accommodate an adequate pickleball playing area. “When it became obvious that the pickleball program would be displaced for the entire time of construction on the ICC site, the board was proactive in making certain that there would be a resolution that would be in the best interests of the pickleball players whose number has grown under the leadership of Barry Wallace,” noted the ICC press release.

The courts will cost $49,480, with $20,000 coming from county funds (Developer Agreement Fee Regional Parks Fund), $20,000 from ICC funds, and anticipated “volunteer efforts to close any [construction funding] gaps that remain.” Said SJMCC President Janice Lyle, “This is a successful example of how a community can quietly work with public and private sources to resolve an issue and fulfill a demonstrated need.”

Pickleball’s rapid growth is attributed to its popularity with seniors, and within retirement communities, community centers, YMCA facilities and physical-education classes.

The Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimated there were 2.5-million pickleball adherents in 2016. SFIA is the premier trade association for top brands, manufacturers, retailers and marketers in the sporting goods and fitness industry. Core (regular and devoted) players were 73 percent male and 27 percent female. Seventy-five percent of core players were 55 years of age or older with the largest demographic, 42.7 percent, 65 or older.

Wallace, ICC board member, has been the driving force behind launching pickleball as an Idyllwild recreation staple. A physical-education teacher by profession and an avowed “racquet ball junkie,” Wallace, with the help of Robert Priefer and support from ICC, installed three pickleball courts on the existing tennis courts on the ICC site. “I started it, but once installed, it just took off. The community grew the game as I knew it would.”

Asked about the permanent courts to be built on the IP site, Wallace said, “I’m happy as can be. Pickleball is a social sport, not dog-eat-dog like some other sports. When people play, they leave happy and smiling.”

ICC Phase 1 construction, originally scheduled to begin this summer, has been delayed. The delay allows pickleball to be played throughout the summer at the ICC site. Construction of permanent courts on the Idyllwild Pines Camp will begin as soon as the county issues final plan approval. “Regardless of the ICC [construction] timetable, we’ll get going on the Idyllwild Pines site as soon as possible,” said Wallace. He said he anticipates no interruption of play for pickleball players. “We’re going to go first class with this,” he said, “to make tournament-ready courts.” Construction also will include bleachers, storage kiosks and fencing.

Wallace noted there are 50 to 60 local players on the pickleball player list Ron Perry maintains. Wallace anticipates the number of local players will grow when permanent courts at Idyllwild Pines expand available pickleball playing time. Currently, on the ICC site, pickleball is played only in the morning because of playground use in the afternoon.

Wallace said he would offer to teach the game to younger Idyllwild Pines campers. The new courts will be available for Idyllwild Pines’ use as well as for Idyllwild locals.