Pickleball: It’s not just for seniors anymore (but they still play, too)

On a 75-degree Saturday afternoon in January, all six pickleball courts at Crescent Lake Park in St. Pete are in use. The thwacks of paddles hitting perforated yellow balls emits a pleasing racket. Players, most of them young or middle age, bark instructions to each other. Bursts of laughter ring out. 

The adjacent tennis courts are empty.

A foursome in St. Pete’s Crescent Lake Park. All photos by Eric Snider except where indicated.

Call it pickleball mania. The sport, made up on the spot in 1965 by two friends on Bainbridge Island near Seattle — and named after one of their dogs — is among the fastest-growing in America. 

Commonly described as a cross between tennis and ping-pong, pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net. Doubles matches are the norm, the rules are simple, and one of the sport’s biggest attractions is that you can actually play the first time you pick up a racket, whether you’re 8 or 80. 

And while pickleball was long regarded as a cute little game for the geriatric set, that stigma has been obliterated in recent years. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, only 20 percent of participants are 65 or older.  

Pickleball doesn’t require much of a start-up investment. A set of two entry-level paddles and some balls cost 30 to 70 bucks. Advanced players can spend up to $200 for a single paddle with a custom grip.

Brendan McLaughlin, a former anchor for ABC Action News/Ch. 28, has witnessed pickleball’s growth over the last four years. He started playing to add some fun, camaraderie and competition to his life during retirement.

“The name always struck me as the kind of game you play in the parking lot of a cheap motel,” he says. “I’d heard that it was a sport for old people, and their parents.”

McLaughlin, 62, was quickly disabused of those biases and became hooked. He plays regularly at Cuscaden Park in Ybor City with a like-minded group of enthusiasts. Pickleballers, he says, “naturally gravitate to their tribe,” players with similar skill and intensity levels. However, “unlike tennis or golf,” he adds, “it’s perfectly acceptable to simply show up at the courts and work yourself into a rotation.”

Brendan McLaughlin (right) at Ybor’s Cuscaden Park with a few members of his “tribe,” Jim Lewis and Florencia Fouch. Photo courtesy Brendan McLaughlin.

Pickleball facilities are cropping up all over. Most community centers have installed them. They’re becoming de rigueur amenities at hotels and resorts, according to Travel Weekly. Hillsborough County Community College has eight new lighted courts on its Dale Mabry campus — which McLaughlin says is Tampa’s new pickleball hot spot.

Not surprisingly, people are installing pickleball courts in their backyards. At 60×30 feet (the playing dimensions are 20×44 feet), they’re about half the size of a tennis court. Adam Jennes, a court consultant for Sport Surfaces, says the Florida company’s pickleball projects far outpace other types. 

“In the last two to three years the demand has really spiked,” he says. Sport Surfaces’ prices range from $18,000 for a basic court to around $55,000 for a deluxe model with an extra-padded surface, lighting and fencing.

Regardless of where the court is, pickleball has struck a chord with a wide range of people, whose ranks are growing all the time. 

“It’s the only sport that I’ve played as an adult that takes me back to that joyful, giddy excitement of pure play,” McLaughlin says. “It’s a cliché, but pickleball takes me back to my youth.”

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