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Pickleball in Southern California is booming, and cities are rallying to catch up

On a recent mid-morning, the scene was Allendale Park in Pasadena, and things were popping.

The park’s dedicated pickleball courts — tennis courts just a few years ago – were a full house. Sixteen players toiled atop the smallish courts, and at least a dozen waited to play.

In a scene playing out on courts across Southern California, one by one, players exited the gated arena. High-fives. Fist-pumps. Paddles in hand, fresh off the driving, dinking, volleying and the drop shots that make up this game, played on courts a fraction of the size of tennis.

Win or lose, they had one thing in common — ear-to-ear grins.

“Billy, how often to you come here to play?” Pasadena pickleball “ambassador” Mike Alvidrez shouted to Billy Ezell, who was waiting to play.



“Every day, twice a day,” he said, grinning.

Smiles, exercise, inclusion and even potlucks have all become part of the modern-day phenomena that is pickleball. Dink by dink, the skeptical are being converted across the region — all smitten by a plastic ball with holes in it.

From the Inland Empire to the San Gabriel Valley and from the O.C. to Long Beach, cities are aptly tuned into the craze, which from lively social scenes at public parks has cascaded into a full-on money-making enterprise, complete with a professional circuit and high-profile names such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who profess to their “obsession” to a game they never thought would become so popular.

But with its stunning growth, cities across the San Gabriel Valley and the region are scrambling to keep up, as the pickleballing masses demand more court space. The crosscurrents have led to pickleball politics. Recreation departments are weighing the demand for more courts against the ever present limit on resources. Do you sacrifice tennis courts for pickleball courts? Longer term pickleball plans are in the works. But even the noise of the plastic ball hitting a paddle has ruffled feathers. The answers don’t always satisfy everyone — neighbors, tennis players, pickleballers.


Hitting the big time

One thing that they do agree on is that the game – once known for its reputation as a sport for retired people – has made a huge leap in popularity among many age groups, a leap only amplified in the COVID era.

Participation over the past two years has grown 39.3%, bringing the number who play in the U.S. to 4.8 million, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, which deemed it the fastest growing sport in America for the second consecutive year.

At a recent Major League Pickleball tournament in Newport Beach, Super Bowl champion quarterback Drew Brees met his Mad Drops Pickleball Club for the first time.

The three-day tournament paid the winning team — The Ranchers — Major League Pickleball’s top prize of $100,000.

“There’s a camaraderie that comes from (pickleball),” said Brees, who warmed up with his Mad Drops PC team, for which he is co-owner. “It’s a great team game. It’s awesome for fans to watch. So I just think the opportunity for this to become one of the biggest sports in the world is very real.”

Four winners of the tournament were 22, 26, 21 and 22 years old, respectively, a reflection of the infusion of younger players getting into the game.

But it’s not just big-time pro leagues dotting the landscape. Pickleball tournaments both big and small are everywhere.

“It’s like a drug,” said Allendale regular Thomas Wiebe, 37. “Once you get a taste, there’s nothing like it.”

‘Politics don’t matter here’

Pickleball was created in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Wa., by the late U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard and friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell.

The result was a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton.

As lore goes, some say the game was named after Pritchard’s dog Pickles. Others believe that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, came up with the name because the combination of different sports reminded her of a pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were selected from the leftovers of other boats.

That it has become a melting pot of players makes Henry Yung happy.

“It’s competition, first of all,” Yung said, at Smith Park in San Gabriel, where players compete on converted tennis courts; the city’s parks and recreation commission has recommended to the city council that dedicated courts be built there. “But it’s good competition with good people. It’s fun, it’s sociable. … When we see a new player, there are so many helpful people in pickleball to help people learn the game. That’s why I think it’s so popular now.

“You have all races, all nationalities, politics don’t matter here.”

So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see The New Yorker’s recent headline, musing on the question: “Can Pickleball Save America?” With more than an estimate one million Americans who started playing the game during the pandemic, it’s not hard to see why it was asked.

Sonia Lyn has been playing for 6 1/2 years and is the pickleball ambassador for San Gabriel. A former tennis player, knee issues rendered her incapable of continuing along that path, so she took heed to her sister one day telling her about pickleball.

Lyn said she started to look for places to play.

“I was terrible,” Lyn recalled, with a laugh. “I had no hand-eye coordination, nothing. I couldn’t run. They were so encouraging and helpful that I came back the following week and little by little I had the confidence to keep trying. I wasn’t good. But everybody still insisted that I play.”

Lyn recently watched as seniors played pickleball at Smith Park. She talked about a couple of women recently visiting from Singapore. One of them is the pickleball ambassador there, and the first thing they wanted to do when they got to the San Gabriel Valley was to find a place to play.

Lyn loves that the sport is such a sociable thing that even if one shows up alone, they won’t have to ask to play — they will be asked to join the fun.

As Lyn was talking, Joe Chan, 63, walked out of the court. He was sweating, and smiling.

“I got beat up, but I had a lot of fun,” said Chan, of Monterey Park. “I’m retired and I can play,” Chan said. “I can’t say that about tennis or anything else. But this, I can have exercise; my wife is happy because I actually do something.”

Alvidrez, 76, said he has been playing pickleball for five to six years.

“You make new friends, you get to have the social network that is spontaneously created,” said Alvidrez, who gives lessons at McDonald Park in Pasadena. “It’s amazing.”

Pickleball is soothing to the soul, suggested Nadim Karim, 53, of Pasadena. He is a regular at Allendale.

“I’ve really seen the difference, specifically for myself, because I work in criminal psychology and it’s a very high-stress job,” he said. “So you come out here and have the ability to decompress, release some stress and have fun in a healthy environment outside, where it is fast-paced.”

As Karim spoke to a reporter, he couldn’t take his eyes off the action. He noted the fine play of Barbara Davis, who said she was celebrating her fifth year of playing at Allendale.

“Where are you going to get this mix of people, you know, cheerful, laughing, having a good time?” she said. “And competitive. Easy to learn, hard to master.”

Mike Alvidrez, Pickleball Ambassador talks with Paul Vega, left, Colin Davis, center, and Thomas Wiebe after they played pickleball at Allendale in Pasadena on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
Mike Alvidrez, Pickleball Ambassador, talks with Paul Vega, left, Colin Davis, center, and Thomas Wiebe after they played pickleball at Allendale in Pasadena on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

The challenges

While “politics don’t matter” on the court, off the court they sometimes do. Demand for court space, noise, limited funding are forcing cities to stretch for solutions —  from re-striping tennis courts to pondering even potential land, such as defunct landfills as home for courts. Potential solutions don’t always satisfy everyone.

Pickleball has ruffled feathers in the tennis community, often because tennis courts are turned into temporary pickleball courts.

“It’s the major frustration of pickleball communities all over the place, is that cities aren’t creating enough courts,” said Alvidrez, the Pasadena ambassador.

Brenda Harvey-Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department in Pasadena, said the city has new, dedicated courts on the horizon. But there are money issues.

“Funding is the biggest challenge in getting more dedicated pickleball courts in Pasadena,” she said.

A planned facility at the city’s Vina Vieja Park would have 12 courts, court lighting, a shade structure, restrooms and additional parking, she said. But the project has a $5.2 million price tag while the city has only $700,000 allocated to the project.

“Since we don’t have the funding to build all 12 courts at once, we will build two of the courts with the existing funding,” Harvey-Williams said.

Construction for those two courts is scheduled to begin later this fiscal year.

Cities such as Pasadena are also working with school districts to build more dedicated courts.

Harvey-Williams responded to another inquiry — the noise created by the crack of the pickleball on the paddle. She said there have been a few such complaints by residents near Allendale Park, so the city altered the start time to 8 a.m.

Mayor Jeffrey Maloney of Alhambra sees a future of pickleball courts in his city, which has none now. He said he gets asked all the time about this, whether from constituents or friends in love with the sport.

“They take up less space, and it’s extremely popular and still growing,” he said. “I think that it is something that is a demand in our community and it’s on the council and the staff to look for opportunities to incorporate that into our future plans.”

He said his city’s biggest obstacle is that it does not have enough park space.

“I think it’s really the land, I think it’s the space, because right now we have some wonderful parks in Alhambra that are very much loved by the community,” he said, “but we don’t have enough parks, really, so that puts a premium on every square foot of our parks now.

“It’s tough to take away one group’s use for the benefit of another without good justification for it. This is good justification, but the areas where pickleball would be really popular are also popular for other things. Tennis is one, obviously.”

Maloney said the solution is to find more park space in the community, “whether that is building new facilities or acquiring new land or carving out space adjacent to publicly owned properties.”

In West Covina, Mayor Dario Castellanos said his city is looking into striping existing tennis courts for dual-purpose use. But mindful of the sport’s growth, he’s reflected on whether the town’s Sportsplex or space at its former landfill could be hubs for pickleball some day.

“That makes sense, I could see that,” he said. “If that were to become an issue, I think we could look to the Sportsplex or BKK to see if we could put some more courts up there.” The BKK Landfill, which shares a property line with the Sportsplex, closed in 1996.

To the South, Seal Beach Tennis Center has created 17 pickleball courts, yet neighboring Long Beach has only one at Bayshore Park — and a total of 57 tennis courts within its parks system.

Long Beach has a Pickleball Master Plan led by Brent Dennis, director of Parks, Recreation and Marine. He and local pickleball ambassadors have toured the Seal Beach complex to see how it created capacity.

The master plan notes that it costs $8,500 to convert one tennis court to four pickleball courts without permanent posts and nets, $25,000 to convert one tennis court into four pickleball courts with core-drilled posts, sleeves and nets and $60,000 to plan, design and construct one new pickleball court.

Turf wars

In a story about a year ago in the Santa Monica Daily Press, pickleball players complained that they needed dedicated pickleball courts because tennis players refused to allow them to set up their courts on the tennis courts even though the city schedule allowed that.

“Numerous times I’ve had the tennis players tell us we’re not allowed to play there and say these are not pickleball courts,” said Ho Nguyen, pickleball ambassador for Santa Monica. “They refuse to get off even though there is supposed to be a time limit of 35 minutes when people are waiting.”

It’s not an unfamiliar tension in cities across Southern California, which deal with it in varying ways.

Maloney said that while Alhambra had a recent pickleball pilot program with temporary nets, he did receive a complaint or two from tennis players not happy that their courts were being used for pickleball.

“I believe I did have a couple of conversations with regular tennis players who said, ‘Hey, we’re stakeholders, we’re residents of this community as well and we don’t have anything against pickleball, but we just want to preserve our tennis courts,’” Maloney said. “I understand that completely. That’s the push and pull we have right now because there’s such a premium with park space in Alhambra.”

USA Pickleball has a Places 2 Play section where one can enter a zip code and find place nearest them to play.

For example, type in 91722 and Covina Park appears. There, portable pickleball nets are erected for Saturday play from 9 a.m. to noon. Other times are available there weekdays and Sundays.

Farther east, the Upland Sports Arena is actively promoting its pickleball program that includes tournaments and clinics. Its spiel is, “Join the community, join the fastest growing sport in America.”

Ellie Sprague (right) returns a shot as she plays pickleball with her teammate Lisa Yocum (left) during a popular lower intermediate class at the Upland Sports Arena in Upland on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Ellie Sprague (right) returns a shot as she plays pickleball with her teammate Lisa Yocum (left) during a popular lower intermediate class at the Upland Sports Arena in Upland on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Former tennis pro changes spots

John Letts about four years ago stood up at a Pasadena Parks and Recreation Commission meeting and intimated that pickleball might not be around too long.

“So I was telling the commission, ‘It might be like racquetball, it’s a fad, it might go away in 10 years,’” Letts said. “You know, ‘Don’t spend a lot of money on it.’ So now I’m heavily into it four years later and like, there’s no way, it’s not going anywhere. It’s like crazy, the way it’s building.”

Letts, 58, is a former tennis pro who won seven ATP tour doubles titles, reached the quarterfinals of the 1985 Australian Open in doubles and was an All-American at Stanford.

He quit playing tennis at age 45 because of a detached retina. Today, the iTennis coach who now also owns iPickle spends much of his time not only playing pickleball, but promoting it through his courts at Arroyo Seco Racquet Club and the city of La Habra, where he has converted tennis courts into pickleball courts.

Letts admits he is in the minority when it comes to tennis players endorsing pickleball.

“I’m one of the few tennis people who has welcomed pickleball and said, ‘You know what? It’s a great sport, I’ll embrace it,’” he said. “I’m still a tennis pro, I’m still in the tennis business, I still make 90% of my money in tennis. But I also see the growth of pickleball.”

Letts is the South Pasadena ambassador for pickleball.

“Fun? Oh, I love playing pickleball,” said Letts, who holds “socials” at Arroyo Seco every Saturday that draw upward of 70 to 80 players. “I don’t even play tennis anymore.”

Source: Orange County Register

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