On the upswing: Pickleball popularity grows for all ages

Participation spiked during pandemic year


When pickleball started becoming popular, it was a sport that helped aging adults get some exercise by combining aspects of tennis, badminton and table tennis onto one court.

Today, the sport remains popular among seniors, but the secret is out about how much fun the game is, and younger generations want a taste.

According to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the nation, with participation increasing a little over 21% in 2020 as Americans searched for ways to stay active during the pandemic. In 2019, participation in the sport grew by 7%.

Evidence of the growing popularity of pickleball is not hard to find throughout the Denver metro area. A new court is being installed on the east side of Centennial in Piney Creek. In Castle Rock, the new Cobblestone Park project will include six additional pickleball courts.

Luke Ruter, recreation coordinator for the Highlands Ranch Metro District, said one of the biggest challenges as pickleball grows in popularity is keeping up with demand.

“It really is a great sport for all ages,” he said. “It is also such a social sport where friendships grow and connections are made.”

In Highlands Ranch, on any given day, the distinct popping sound of paddle hitting ball can be heard as players of all ages battle it out.

While taking a break during one of the hottest days of summer, 19-year-old Heidi Haze said she is considered a newbie to pickleball.

“I started playing with a friend,” she said. “It looked cool and definitely has a lot more college kids playing. I have to say, the seniors have a lot to teach us. They are way better. It is like golf. It is easy to play, but hard to get good at.”

Will Harris of Littleton said he saw people playing at local courts and became interested. Now, he is a regular who is open to learning the tricks of the trade from older players. Harris said he has learned a lot from Joe Billera, whom he calls his “pickleball grandpa.”

“I love the community connection I have gained by playing up here,” Harris said. “It is because of pickleball that I got a job. I would say I am a decent player, but there is always room for improvement. I just try to hold my own against the longtime players.”

Billera said he plays every day because he enjoys the game, comparing the necessary skill set to playing chess with a lot of motion.

The Apex Sports and Recreation Centers have worked over the years to help meet the demand of the growing sport. Headquartered in Arvada, the Apex Park and Recreation District has 24 courts throughout the area.

Katie Groke, marketing and communications director for Apex, said the courts are full and there is a “growing appetite” for the sport.

“Arvada has kind of become a pickleball hub because we have so many courts and draw residents from all over the region,” Groke said. “It has really become a wildly popular sport for all ages.”

Brad Stafford, athletics manager for South Suburban Parks and Recreation, said as younger players take up the sport, they are adding more tournaments and classes. The classes are always at maximum capacity, he said, while noting that the problem is getting qualified instructors.

“This is such a specialized sport with certain rules that it is hard to find people to teach it,” he said.

In 2019, Stafford said, classes had about 80 participants. After last year, classes and programs have more than 200.

“The secret is out on this sport,” Stafford said. “It’s a sport you can easily play, find your skill level and always have plenty of players to compete against. No matter what age, it is a sport you pick up quickly, get exercise and it’s a lot of fun.”

Phyllis Tumey, a retired resident of Castle Rock, said she first learned about the sport from a friend who had played at a retirement community in Arizona. After learning how to play, Tumey said, she immediately loved it.

In 2012, Tumey said, there were not a lot of courts in Castle Rock, but a growing number of seniors wanted to play. Tumey said she and another resident worked with the town to turn more tennis courts and in-line skating rinks into pickleball courts.

Tumey said fellow player Jim Johnson took the lead on making pickleball a regular attraction in Castle Rock. Now, the town has seven permanent pickleball courts with others under construction.

“At first I couldn’t believe it was such a fast-growing sport,” Tumey said. “It is easy for seniors to get outside and get some exercise. You can play a game in 30 minutes, and it does not require a lot of equipment. Really, it is supposed to be a non-contact sport, but we’ve had some run-ins with it becoming so competitive.”

As pickleball’s popularity has grown, it is now featured in televised tournaments, and there are efforts to make it an official Olympic sport.

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