SPRINGFIELD – If you’re driving by Meadow Park in Springfield, chances are you’ll hear local pickleball players thwacking away. Whether you’ve played pickleball or not, it’s impossible to deny the fact that America’s fastest growing sport is here to stay in Lane County.
“A lot of the pickleball enthusiasts have been very vocal with our board of directors about wanting more pickleball resources throughout the district,” said Kenny Weigandt, community engagement director at Willamalane. “I also work on our comprehensive plan, which is looking at the next 20 years at Willamalane. Pickleball is one of these emerging sports in Parks and Rec nationally.”
One of those pickleball enthusiasts in the area is Roger Schaljo, president of Emerald Valley Pickleball Club (EVPC).
Schaljo was introduced to pickleball – a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong that can be played in singles or doubles – in 2013 by an old tennis partner. Schaljo got together with a group to play weekly, creating EVPC with that group in ’15.
In the eight years since Schaljo helped create EVPC, the group’s numbers rose from 45 to more than 800. EVPC gained 250 new members from May 2022 to May ’23.
Many have tried to figure out the reason for the explosion of pickleball. According to a December 2022 New York Times article, pickleball “grew nearly 40 percent between 2019 and 2021, making it America’s fastest-growing sport.”
There was another 14.8% increase in the player base (4 million to almost 5 million) between 2021-22, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Schaljo has a simple answer to why it became so big.
“In all levels, the reason for the explosion is it’s just so much fun to play. We have people that have never done any athletic activity in their life, and they come out and have fun,” he said. “We have very, very high-level athletes who are involved here locally as well. But nationally, the whole explosion of the pro tour is amazing.”
Slow start, then explosive growth
While the pro tour is exploding, pickleball has humble beginnings. The game was created in 1965 by three men: Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum. The men’s families were bored, so they used ping pong equipment on an old badminton court at their home.
The sport continued to grow throughout the late 20th century, though mostly at retirement homes. In 2005, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was created to oversee the rules and growth of the sport.
By 2017, the sport was growing more rapidly. From 2015-17, the number of USAPA members doubled, topping 22,000 by December of ’17.
That time period was when pickleball showed up on Willamalane’s radar, too.
“We’ve had a really big and dedicated pickleball community in Eugene and Springfield. It was a little ahead of the game for a lot of other park districts, but there was really just a big group of enthusiasts,” Weigandt said. “There was enough interest, so the district listened and did what we could. We also have a lot of tennis courts so this was kind of a pilot for us to see, what if we converted a tennis court to pickleball? Would it increase usage? Or would it decrease usage?”
So in 2017, with the help of EVPC, Willamalane converted the tennis courts at Meadow Park into eight pickleball courts. Over the next five years people used the courts so much that they “essentially wore these courts completely out,” creating the need to resurface the courts last year.
“A lot of it is due to general wear and tear, which is standard. But this was really amplified by the fact that the courts are so popular, and the sport’s popularity continues to grow,” Weigandt said. “That really fueled us to look at what we can do here. At that point we had added it to what we call our capital improvement project list, which is a list of projects that the district is going to have a dedicated fund for improvements.”
Weigandt notes that the increased use of the courts has something to do with the accessibility of the game itself.
“It’s definitely more accessible and adaptable than other sports. Pickleball really lends itself to different ability levels and skill levels; it’s easier to enter into the sport,” Weigandt said. “And I think once people play it, it’s just really fun. The main thing is it’s really, really fun.”
While pickleball might be simple to learn, its ceiling is high.
“There are elite pickleball players in the state and locally. It’s really easy to start. You can start young, you can start old. But then there’s also a never-ending growth pattern,” he said.
EVPC helped pay for half of the Meadow Park courts, and even installed internal fencing to help the flow of play. It was a big change of pace from having to put up temporary nets, taping the court lines, and keeping gear under lock and key.
“Once you get permanent nets, now you have more than just club members who are able to go out and play. That was the first thing I noticed was moms, dads and kids out in the evenings,” Schaljo said. “There were whole demographics that were not available to really play because they didn’t have the codes, the lock boxes or whatever.”
Health hazards, benefits
As pickleball numbers rose, so too did the conversations around the health of players, both negative and positive.
A CNN story in June of this year stated that, “Pickleball injuries may cost Americans $377 million in healthcare costs this year, accounting for 5% to 10% of total unexpected medical costs.”
A 2021 medical study in the National Library of Medicine found that 86% of emergency department visits due to pickleball injuries occurred in people over 60 years old. The majority of those injuries were strains, sprains, or fractures.
On the flip side of those numbers, it’s more difficult to judge the health benefits from those who are playing pickleball and living an active lifestyle.
According to the CDC website, “As an older adult, regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It can prevent or delay many of the health problems that seem to come with age. It also helps your muscles grow stronger so you can keep doing your day-to-day activities without becoming dependent on others.”
Schaljo definitely feels the positives.
“What has improved is my reflexes and my balance. That’s good especially for older people, but also for people of all ages. And the basic skill, hand-eye coordination, is really good for youth too,” Schaljo said.
The future of pickleball rely’s heavily on how the pandemic affected play. While everyone was forced indoors and lost connections, pickleball allowed people of all ages to come back out and make connections.
“The initial growth of pickleball happened primarily at retirement communities, but certainly Covid made a big difference. People were looking for things to do, but it was people of all ages that were looking for things to do,” Schaljo said. “They’re looking for a connection. Pickleball provides exercise, mental health, physical health, and connection. All those things are so important. That’s why we’re continuing to see growth.”
That growth through the pandemic included people of all ages.
Willamalane got a grant from the Oregon Association of Education Services District to help pay for the resurfacing of the Meadow Park courts.
One of the requirements was to put on a set of camps for youth to get out and get active. According to Weigandt, Willamalane ran 12 pickleball camps and had more than 200 kids come through those camps.
“That was the eye-opening thing. We didn’t have any youth pickleball programs before we did those free clinics, but the popularity was really high. There is definitely an opportunity to introduce more kids into the game,” he said. “There are not a lot of recreation activities that are as appealing to kids as they are for someone who is in their 60s, 70s or 80s. Pickleball is one of those sports.”
There is now an Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP) tour as well as a Major League Pickleball league. Celebrites such as Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Tom Brady, Drake, and Michael B. Jordan own professional pickleball teams. It’s clear to many in the sports world, pickleball is here to stay.
“I think it’ll continue to grow. I know from the Willamalane perspective, we are working on our 20-year comprehensive plan for the district, and pickleball is definitely something that is being viewed in that plan,” Weigandt said. “Our goal is to always provide exceptional parks and recreation to everybody that we serve. We know there’s a lot of people, and the sport is so adaptable, that we can get more people active and playing in our parks.”