A Southwest Florida YMCA recently spent more than a quarter of a million dollars to update its facilities for the nation’s fastest-growing sport many have never heard of.
The prominent popping sound pickleball makes can be heard at county recreation centers, public parks and, for many, in their own neighborhoods.
“If you look around, we don't have any near neighbors, and pickleball can tend to be a little bit noisy,” Mark Suwyn said. “And, so, you need to put it — the courts — where there’s nobody that you’re bothering when you’re actually playing.”
Suwyn heads the advisory board for the Bonita Springs YMCA. He says the community asked for more pickleball courts for quite some time. The Y simply listened.
It set aside three hundred thousand dollars to build eight outdoor courts — each about a third the size of a tennis court.
Half of the money for the project came from the City of Bonita Springs.
City Manager Carl Schwing says the deal was a win-win since the land and a small, established facility already existed at the Y.
"The city got involved in pickleball when we started hearing about this wonderful sport that, frankly, we didn't know much about,” he said.
Schwing is not alone. With its quirky name and slow then sudden spread, pickleball is not quite a household name yet.
Manager of Tennis R Us Nathan Green explained the game, as he tested out some new paddles with a customer.
“Pickleball is a game that's kind of halfway in between tennis and table tennis,” Green said.
The whiffle ball smacked the edge of a low net Green had set up in the Bonita Springs store. He watched it roll across the carpet in a neon yellow blur.
He said the game grew from need.
“Some people kind of just made the game up when they wanted to play badminton one day and couldn't find all the equipment,” Green said.
Pickleball started in the Northwest — in a city an hour’s ferry ride outside of Seattle in 1965. The story goes that the game was named after the original players’ dog, Pickles, who would chase after the stray balls. The dog belonged to Joel Pritchard, who went on to become a U.S. congressman.
Fifty years later, his backyard game is now gaining as much national recognition as he earned.
Local player Nance Buonopane says that’s because pickleball is one of the most accessible sports out there.
“It’s a game for everyone,” Buonopane said, “any age.”
Buonopane would know. She started the nonprofit Pickleball For All after injuring her ankle and realizing the sport could still be played with limited mobility.
Other things, like navigating the aisles while grocery shopping, were no longer as easy. So, her fellow players took it upon themselves to do such tasks for her during her recovery.
“The pickleball community is very hospitable,” Buonopane said. “And, they care so much about each other that they’ll do anything — literally, almost — for fellow pickleballers.”
The Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimated last year that there were 2.5 million pickleball players in the U.S. And, the USA Pickleball Association reports there are more than 4,000 pickleball courts across the country. So, it may come as a surprise that, as of two years ago, Naples, Florida is home to the annual U.S. Open for the sport.
East Naples Community Park hosted more than 1,300 players on its 48 pickleball courts during the seven-day tournament last April.
The Bonita Springs YMCA opened its initial eight outdoor courts this summer, with an additional two inside, but there are already plans for building more outside.