In April, when the Cape Ann YMCA opened its brand new facility in Gloucester, it was the culmination of 10 years of hard work and planning, and the state-of-the-art building had everything. Or so the Y thought.
“The second we opened, we had people asking why there was no pickleball,” said Tim Flaherty, the executive director. “I honestly don’t even think it was mentioned during the long planning process, but immediately there was this huge demand.”
So the Y got three portable nets, set them up on the basketball court a few hours each week, and — like everything to do with pickleball nowadays — it took off like wildfire.
If you are not currently a pickleball fanatic, you probably know someone who is, because it is growing at a rate that is almost unprecedented in the history of American sports, and it’s not just for retirees anymore.
There were 4.2 million players in the United States last year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a 21 percent increase from 2019, with nearly 30 percent of “core” players under the age of 35. And there are indications that this year could see an even bigger jump, because after conquering the rest of the country, it has finally arrived in the Northeast in a big way.
For the uninitiated, pickleball is a paddle sport that is often described as sitting halfway between tennis and Ping-Pong. It’s played on a badminton-sized court, usually by pairs, using a perforated plastic ball and paddles that are made of wood or composite.
It has been around since the mid-1960s, improvised by three dads in Washington state — using a Wiffle ball, some Ping-Pong paddles, and an old badminton net — after their kids got bored on a family vacation. And for a good long while, it was mostly an obscure game in the Pacific Northwest, until it eventually made its way to the Sunbelt, where it became popular with retirees, but still lived mostly under the radar. Then about five years ago, it took off, for three main reasons, according to Stu Upson, the CEO of USA Pickleball.
It is easy to learn and far less physically demanding than tennis, so if you’re reasonably coordinated, you can be playing a competitive game after an hour of instruction. It is social, and the smaller court lends itself to chatting. And its small footprint means you can set up a net and play just about anywhere — from driveways to schoolyards — which helped it boom during the pandemic when people were looking for safe ways to get outside with friends.
Everywhere you look, pickleball spots are popping up and then filling up. Last year, USA Pickleball’s database of “places to play” was growing by more than two per day, and it still wasn’t enough. Beginner classes sell out quickly, with long waiting lists. Municipalities and recreation centers are struggling to keep up, usually by adding pickleball court lines to existing facilities, such as basketball and tennis courts (you can fit four pickleball courts on a single tennis court).
Many towns have already constructed dedicated pickleball courts, and many more are in the works. And there are private entrepreneurs getting into the game, such as Pickles in Hanover, which has six indoor and four outdoor courts and bills itself as “Where pickleball fanatics gather to dink and drink.” Others are capitalizing on the increasing popularity of the game with younger generations, such as PKL, which opened a pop-up space this summer with four courts (as well as shuffleboard and cocktails) at Assembly Row in Somerville.
“It was the boomers’ best-kept secret, but now it’s out,” said Katie Coakley, 33, the senior director of operations for PKL, who said the facility draws crowds of millennials and their older cohort Gen Z in the evenings, and Gen X on weekend mornings, when they come to play with their kids (and perhaps sip a cocktail while their kids play).
It was such a success that Coakley said PKL recently signed a lease for a 22,000-square-foot space in the Cole-Hersee Building on Old Colony Avenue in South Boston, where this spring it will open an indoor venue featuring five pickleball courts, two bars, and a full restaurant.
But the boom is not without conflict, as basketball and tennis players are not exactly thrilled with having to share their courts (or lose them entirely when they get converted to full-time pickleball courts). When the Tennis Channel recently covered a professional pickleball tournament for the first time, there was much scoffing online from tennis purists.
On a recent night at the Cape Ann YMCA, an introductory pickleball class ran into a slight delay after a basketball player threw a tantrum when the pickleball nets were wheeled out, muttering about how he pays good money to be there and shoving a net out of the way so he could keep shooting.
Eventually, the man left and Kelly Canniff, who has been the driving force behind the pickleball surge on Cape Ann, was able to begin the class. She’s the boys’ tennis coach at Rockport High School, and said she began to notice her players were thrilled when it rained and she brought the boys into the gym to play pickleball instead.
“It’s just more fun and more laid back,” she said. “And there’s this incredible social advantage of being together on a small court. It’s community building and community friendly.”
Canniff helped persuade the Cape Ann YMCA to add hours for pickleball, and attendance has been growing by the day, mostly retirees who have quickly become hooked.
“I can honestly say that pickleball changed my life,” said Frank Tripoli, a 70-year-old from Salem who is a regular at Canniff’s games. “I got too old for basketball, and it feels like a miracle to find this. It’s exercise, it’s fun, and it has a mental component to it that causes you to think. Think of all the money we’d save on Medicaid if we got all the seniors up and playing pickleball.”