Pickleball seeing rising popularity in local communities

Jan. 12—A popular recreational activity has been become one of the fastest growing hobbies pursued at gyms and outdoor courts across the country.

Over the past few years, millions of players have turned out with a paddle and wiffle ball in hand for a game that appears to be a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong.

The name of the game is pickleball.

While pickleball isn't necessarily a new game, having been invented in 1965, it has gained significant momentum as of late.

"It's gone from a sport no one had really heard about to what is one of the largest participatory activities in the country," Brandon Mackie, founder of pickleball website Pickleheads, said.

According to a 2022 report from the Association of Pickleball Professionals, there are an estimated 36.5 million recreational pickleball players in the United States and the participation rate has grown about 158% over the past three years.

Mackie believes the accessibility and social nature of the game are the biggest factors in its popularity amongst several different age groups.

"It doesn't require months or years of training. (A player can) go out, pick up the rules in a single session and depending on who you're playing with, you can even win your first time out. That's really motivating for people," he said.

Ken Knight, owner of Pickleball Island on Grand Island, also has observed that the game's versatility suits a variety of players.

"It allows older people to compete at whatever level they want to; you can play this game as aggressively as you want," Knight said. "This is like a giant ping pong table... and it's a very social game."

While it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many of those players are local, Knight has seen significant growth in the sport first hand. Countless players have come through his indoor facility since it opened in 2017, he said.

Knight recalled it was earlier that same year that he was introduced to the game.

"A friend of mine asked me to come out to the tennis courts; he wanted to teach me this game called pickleball... so I went down there, learned the game and fell in love with it," he said.

Originally Knight only had three courts, but he quickly determined that more courts would be necessary to accommodate an influx of players. His most recent expansion brought Pickleball Island up to 10 full courts, and he believes it's the largest indoor facility dedicated solely to pickleball in the northeast.

"It just kept growing and growing and growing," Knight said, adding that between 500 and 800 players come through his facility every week, and about 500 first-time players visited in 2023 alone.

"This sport is the fastest growing sport in America. It's just going crazy," Knight observed.

In addition to hosting amateur players for the community, Pickleball Island has hosted tournaments for high school student athletes in the Niagara Frontier League.

Joe Contento, athletic director for Niagara Falls City School District, said the district has also been adding more pickleball programming to its high school gym classes.

"This year we resurfaced the floor in the high school's auxiliary gym and put down lines for four pickleball courts. A lot of the community has been asking for this," Contento said.

Contento and Niagara Falls High School gym teacher Martha Amoretti observed that teaching pickleball as a part of the physical education curriculum has helped them engage more students.

"When we first get into it, they're not overly enthusiastic... but once they see how fast the game can move and the strategies involved with it, most of them will grasp it quickly," Amoretti said.

Similarly, Patrick Seidel, director of physical education for Lockport City School District, said they introduced pickleball to high school physical education classes 15 years ago as a way to engage students.

"Part of our thing is to try and find new activities that students don't know a lot about," Seidel said. "It's a game that can be played co-ed and the biggest benefit is that it improves their hand-eye coordination."

David Lange, owner of Scruples bar in Newfane, said players in the 18-to-22 age group are the most frequent users of his outdoor courts.

"The youth play it as a very fast-paced game, almost like ping pong on steroids," Lange said.

Educators like Amoretti believe there should be a continued effort to introduce the game to a younger audience, and they see it as the main way the game will continue to grow.

"The game is still evolving and I think it's important for all school districts to incorporate it because it's a lifetime game," Amoretti said.