It’s easy. It’s fun. And it is taking over courts all over Sarasota and Manatee counties as its popularity surges.
It has become one of America’s fastest growing sports with more than 400,000 players. It’s pickleball, and it’s sweeping Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Pickleball is played on a 20-by-44-foot court, with a net lowered to 34 inches at the center. The paddles are twice the size of ping-pong paddles, and players use a wiffle-like ball. The sport can be played as singles or doubles and has the same basic rules as tennis but is on a smaller court.
Many retirees are picking up the sport because it’s an easier and lower impact sport to master than tennis.
“It’s getting a group of folks out who might not have the ability to play other sports,” Sarasota County Recreation Coordinator Wendy Aldridge-Dougherty said. “If you have basic coordination, you don’t have to be a stellar athlete to pick this up. It’s a big social game. There are so many people playing.”
Although pickleball was established in 1965, the sport was relatively unknown in Florida until recent years. Just a few years ago, the Sarasota area had no established pickleball courts. Now, hundreds of people are playing it, and there are 15 indoor and 27 outdoor courts at facilities throughout Sarasota County’s recreation department.
Pickleball courts were recently built on Siesta Key and will be a part of Longboat Key’s revamped Bayfront Park.
“Over the years, we’ve had people asking for a pickleball court,” said Mark Richardson, Longboat Key streets, facilities, parks and recreation manager. “At all of our public meetings for this since 2009, one thing people have always said is that we need to add pickleball courts. It was one of the things the community at large said they wanted.”
“Pickleball isn’t going away any time soon, and it’s growing with players of all ages. As more people learn it, they get more excited.”
– Wendy Aldridge-Dougherty
Richardson and the Longboat Key Public Works Department originally added pickleball-dimension lines to a tennis court, but with the increasing demand, a separate pickleball court will be added to the renovated Bayfront Park. They will be the only public pickleball courts on Longboat Key.
In addition to the public pickleball courts, many local country clubs offer pickleball, including the Meadows Country Club and Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club.
Although the sport is most popular with the retired generation, it is also starting to be offered to students, including those at Sarasota Middle School.
“Pickleball isn’t going away any time soon, and it’s growing with players of all ages,” Aldridge-Dougherty said. “As more people learn it, they get more excited. It’s definitely growing.”
Despite the growing number of pickleball courts available, the demand is still higher than the supply.
“I had to drive from Sarasota all the way to Venice today to play,” Terry Wingate, ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, said. “We’re trying to push real hard for the county to help us out with new locations.”
Wingate said both the winter and summer seasons prove problematic for pickleball players. In the winter, there are so many players that each court has more than 30 people waiting to play. In the summer, on the other hand, many of the courts used for pickleball are instead used for summer camps.
“We’re evolving with the demand,” Aldridge-Dougherty said. “We’re trying to grow with it, and we’re trying to find a good balancing act. We’ve made some huge steps in a short amount of time.”
Despite the problems, pickleball’s popularity is not slowing down.
“For older folks, especially 50 and up, pickleball is a little easier to play than tennis,” Wingate said. “Anybody can pick it up, both men and women. It’s for everybody. It’s a blast.”