News Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.
By Jayden Cao
A decade ago, pickleball was a relatively minor sport. Today, it’s broadcast on ESPN+ and holds the distinction of being the fastest-growing sport in America.
“I remember when we first started, I could barely fill the courts,” said Julia Vessei, a pickleball instructor in Westchester and Putnam counties. “The second year all three courts were full. The third year we had to turn people away. It’s been growing exponentially.”
Vessei started her first pickleball program in Bedford Hills in 2016, and the program continues to run every Thursday night at Bedford Hills Memorial Park.
“I learned how to play [pickleball], and I started teaching my friends, who are also former tennis players,” Vessei said. “Someone on the parks and rec board of Bedford Hills said ‘Listen do you want to run a clinic?’ I said ‘Sure I’ll do it.’ One thing led to another, then the next thing we had 36 people show up for that clinic at Bedford Hills.”
Many towns in Westchester and Putnam now offer pickleball programs, ranging from summer leagues to formal lessons to casual clinics.
“We offer an indoor league that our picklers in Carmel came to us about a few years ago. Last year we were able to run it successfully with over 150 users,” said Nina Kellmeyer, the senior recreation leader for the Town of Carmel.
For players not looking for formal instruction, Carmel also offers an outdoor, casual pick-up league at Sycamore Park.
In New Castle, Chappaqua Continuing Education (CCE) offers nightly indoor clinics at the Horace Greeley High School gym, and the town has expanded its hours for outdoor pickleball play from three days a week to six.
“We saw the growth in popularity, and we wanted to let the people that are working and that can’t make the day to come in the afternoon and play,” said Jamie Bucci, New Castle’s recreation supervisor. “I’ve been lucky enough to see the progression of players who come to me and ask ‘What is pickleball?’ I put together a clinic for them to attend, and then they kind of weave into renting the courts and just coming on their own time.”
Pickleball is a racquet sport that shares many similarities with tennis. However, the two sports differ in several obvious ways. For instance, the dimensions of a pickleball court are 44 feet by 20 feet, while tennis is played on a larger court measuring 78 feet by 36 feet (for doubles).
Pickleball racquets are stringless and solid, as opposed to tennis racquets, and the balls are made of plastic with holes, resembling a wiffle ball. There are different balls used for indoor and outdoor play.
Also, pickleball serves are underhand only, while tennis typically has overhand serves for maximum power.
It is common for picklers, as players sometimes call themselves, to establish communities using online platforms such as Team Reach.
“We have 30 people in a group online, and we communicate with each other about who reserved a court, what time, who’s coming and who’s not,” commented a Briarcliff Manor resident playing at the popular Briarcliff Chilmark Village Park pickleball courts on a recent Sunday morning. “This morning I opened up the app, and this guy said ‘Is anybody playing at Chilmark this morning?’ And here we are.”
As the popularity of pickleball soars, towns are attempting to meet the growing demand. Eleven of the 13 municipalities that responded to The Examiner regarding their facilities have outdoor municipal pickleball courts. The other two municipalities – Patterson and Peekskill—are trying to catch up in other ways.
Patterson offers indoor programs at the Patterson Recreation Center, and the ongoing renovation at Depew Park in Peekskill includes converting an old clay tennis court into four brand-new pickleball courts.
“Pickleball courts in other towns have a tremendous following. We are expecting to see the same enthusiasm from Peekskill residents,” said Cathy Montaldo, Peekskill’s superintendent of recreation.
Costing about $200,000, the construction is expected to be completed by next spring.
In addition to the four pickleball courts at Croton Avenue, the Town of Cortlandt is planning to build five new pickleball courts near the Cortlandt train station.
“I think that speaks how fast it’s growing,” said Cortlandt Recreation Director Ken Sherman.
“We have two tennis courts over at Millwood and once we get them resurfaced, we are looking to put four pickleball courts over there,” said Bucci regarding New Castle’s upcoming pickleball plans.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports that over the last three years, pickleball participation has grown by 158.6 percent. In 2022, the Association of Pickleball Professionals estimated 36.5 million picklers in America.
Furthermore, according to USA Pickleball’s annual growth report of 2022, there was a monthly increase of roughly 130 new pickleball locations in North America. There are now 10,724 known pickleball facilities in the organization’s database www.places2play.org.
However, the sport’s growth has not come without problems. The hard paddles and ball generate an annoying noise, which has disturbed neighbors of courts in residential areas and even resulted in disputes and lawsuits. Additionally, in some cases where pickleball lines have been added to tennis courts, disputes have arisen over court use. But that hasn’t stopped interest in the sport from mushrooming.
What has accounted for the popularity of pickleball?
Pickleball can be played by people of all ages, ranging from children to retirees.
“I’m on the younger side and I play with folks who are far older than me, and it’s always competitive,” Bucci said. “It’s not like basketball. If you’re playing one on one with an older person, it’s kind of unfair. Pickleball is ageless.”
Many former tennis players who may no longer have the physical capability of playing a competitive game of tennis turn to pickleball.
Moreover, pickleball is a relatively easy sport to pick up.
“It isn’t like tennis, where it takes a year to learn the backhand,” said Vessei.
Individuals who find it difficult to devote an immense amount of time to practicing find pickleball an ideal pastime. Having past experiences in other racquet sports makes pickleball even more learner-friendly.
Also, the social side of pickleball makes the sport welcoming. Many picklers’ passion for the sport stems not necessarily from the competition but from the social aspect. For this reason, Vessei intentionally created “social play” sessions – clinics that are aimed not at serious players but at picklers who wish to relax and socialize.
“That’s how people meet, and that’s what I think is the fun part,” Vessei said. Also, I do it [teaching] because I love pickleball, but I would really rather play than teach.”
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