You don’t need to live near courts to have heard the racket pickleball has made in becoming the fastest-growing sport in the country.
It’s been nothing but crickets here in New England, however, when it comes to playing a role in the expansion of professional pickleball.
Take the five-day Ballpark Series at Fenway Park that concluded on Sunday. A doubles exhibition featuring eight top professional players scheduled for a live afternoon national broadcast got washed out.
Bad luck? To be sure.
An apt symbol for how New England has yet to host a tournament stop from any of the three professional leagues over the last four years, or produce its own top-ranked pro? Most definitely.
In addition to more dedicated pickleball courts, “I think a facility devoted to pickleball would be the No. 1 solution, especially to not only attract the people that live here to play, but also attract the different tours to want to hold events here,” said Parris Todd, the world’s fourth-ranked women’s singles player and a US Open singles and doubles champion. “That people are aware that there’s somewhere to actually play, that’s the biggest thing. There’s nowhere really to play here. The fact that they put these courts in is really good.”
While officials waited to no avail for a break in Sunday’s rain before calling the event, Todd, along with Hunter Johnson, a US Open men’s singles and mixed doubles champion, JW Johnson (No. 4-ranked men’s singles player, No. 3 men’s doubles), JW’s sister Jorja Johnson (top 20 singles and doubles), and Simone Jardim (No. 12 singles, No. 13 doubles) took a tour of Fenway Park.
From the tourists who crossed paths with the group along the concourses and hallways, there was not a single flash of recognition of the pros.
Hunter Johnson did report that “a few kids knew almost all of us, actually” at a clinic the pros held Saturday that drew approximately 250 youngsters.
“I don’t know, I think they’d played pickleball before, but obviously the people who haven’t played pickleball, they don’t know much yet,” said Hunter Johnson. “There were some younger kids who probably were not so focused on pickleball, but maybe they will be since they got their own paddle and they started to play. But they need courts. I think that’s the first step.”
Pickle4 for now is dedicated to working mostly in the amateur ranks of pickleball. Bringing in a professional component to a Ballpark Series that is mostly devoted to attracting amateurs to rent time on the dozen courts along the outfield perimeter enhances the entire sport, said Mike Dee, chairman and CEO of Pickle4.
“We think pros are linked in unique ways to the amateurs, not just in terms of holding the event in the same place, but the way they interact with amateur players,” said Dee. “There’s just a bond, because the sport has grown up so quickly.”
That growth, however, didn’t start with the professionals.
“The reason why it’s become a sport in the last 10 years isn’t because a bunch of pros showed up and played it better. The reason it’s become a sport in the last 10 years is that amateurs are playing it with more frequency,” said Dee, who said that intense heat last week melted adhesives used underneath the courts, leading to scheduling delays.
As institutional and celebrity equity continues to flow into professional pickleball, the pro leagues have retained their independence. There has been some collaboration and cooperation, albeit limited, but the competition among the three is, according to insiders, as fierce as it is unresolved.
What’s untold is when and by whom New England can establish a presence and make an impact on that professional scene.
“I can’t control the tours, but I would think that certainly as we’ve seen this week here, there is a lot of pickleball interest in this community,” said Dee. “And we’re happy we were able to bring it to life. And I think like a lot of areas, it’s just getting started.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.