October 1, 2022

revolusport

Made By Sports

The pickleball boom has hit San Antonio

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In her younger days, Angelica Ramos played just about every sport she could. Soccer and volleyball in high school, intramural sports in college, softball, golf and tennis as an adult.

Then she hit 40, and her body began its inexorable betrayal. The tennis court was suddenly too big, the other softball players too quick and powerful.

“I couldn’t compete like I used to,” said Ramos, who teaches high school engineering and architecture. “And I love being competitive.”

Then her best friend invited her to play in a pickleball tournament, a sport she’d never tried. Not only did she hold her own, the pair placed fourth, a match point away from a medal. She’d found a new obsession.

Today, Ramos, 47, is a regular at the free pickleball open plays held four times a week at Fairchild Park on the East Side. 

And she’s not alone. Pickleball is said to be the fastest growing sport in the country, and it’s clearly on the rise in San Antonio, too.

As many as 90 players, paddles in hand, will show up at Fairchild on any given Saturday, up from  25 to 30 prior to the pandemic, according to Mark Flinn, another player there. 

Blossom Park, 15015 Heimer Road

Garza Park, 1450 Mira Vista

Fairchild Park, 1214 E. Crockett St.

Hamilton Community Center, 10700 Nacogdoches

Normoyle Park, 700 Culberson Ave.

Oak Haven Park, 16400 Parkstone

Pittman-Sullivan Park, 1101 Iowa St.

 


“It’s remarkable how much the sport has grown,” said Flinn, a construction consulting firm owner who was introduced to the sport by his girlfriend in 2019. 

For those who haven’t recently been regaled by a newly converted player, pickleball is a sneaky-quick mix of tennis, pingpong and badminton. Invented in 1965 by three fathers in Washington State, it’s played on a cozy court only about one-quarter the size of a tennis court using pingponglike paddles and a wifflelike ball. Like those other sports, the object is to hit the ball over the net so your opponent can’t return it.

Pickleball’s takeover of sport courts nationwide has been chronicled by the likes of Vanity Fair, Glamour, The New York Times and The New Yorker. It has been bewitched such celebs as Leonardo DiCaprio, Larry David, Melinda Gates, George and Amal Clooney and, closer to home, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

The book on pickleball

Like a lot of people, Rachel Simon, a freelance writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, started playing pickleball during the pandemic when she and her now-husband Kurt were quarantining with his dad and stepmom. 

More about pickleball: Windcrest residents to get new pickleball court — maybe two

“We were getting antsy and bored,” she said. “Then Kurt got a pickleball set for his birthday. We made a court out of chalk on the driveway and started playing.”

“Pickleball for All,” (Dey Street Books, $17.99) is a complete primer of the sport.

Dey Street Books

They enjoyed it so much that Simon recently published “Pickleball for All” (Dey Street Books, $17.99), a complete primer on the sport.

Simon said pickleball’s secret sauce is its inclusivity, that it can be played and enjoyed by almost anyone, regardless of age, gender, even athletic ability. As long as you can hit the ball where you want it to go, you can compete.

“They say pickleball is easy to learn but hard to master, so it’s really challenging,” she said. “A 10-year-old can play a 60-year-old and you might not know who’ll win.”

Yet pickleball can also be played at a high level. Fox Sports, ESPN and the CBS Sports Network all have broadcast tournaments sponsored by corporations such as Hertz, Hyundai and Carvana. Top players make between $50,000 and $200,000 annually, although much of that comes from gear endorsements.

The money is bound to get bigger, and when it does, pickleball’s backyard, mom-and-pop feel may be at risk. One ominous sign is that there are now two competing international pickleball governing bodies, the establishment International Federation of Pickleball and the upstart World Pickleball Federation, and two U.S. domestic professional tours, the Association of Pickleball Professionals and its rival, the Professional Pickleball Association.

As a recent Sports Illustrated story put it, pickleball “is in the throes of its terrible tweens. Growing pains aplenty, and a litany of f-words: factions, fractures, friction … . In short, picklebalkanization.”

Such dustups have little effect on players such as Elvira Guevara, who discovered the sport only about a year ago. But she enjoys it so much that before she went to Albuquerque to visit her sister recently, she went online to find where she could get a good game.

“I went straight from the airport to the pickleball court,” said the 57-year-old school counselor, who also has converted her son, daughter and grandson to the game. “It’s changed my life.”

More players, more courts

According to a 2022 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation in pickleball grew 14.8 percent between 2020 and 2021, and there are now 4.8 million players in the United States. Despite its image as the favorite sport of the retiree set, the average player’s age has dropped almost three years from 2020 to 2021, to just over 38.

San Antonio is no exception when it comes to pickleball’s popularity.

Pickleball and more: Gen Z discovers pickleball, bocce and other senior-friendly games

There are pickleball courts at seven city parks, and a recent bond earmarked $1.5 million to build more. Even before that, Fairchild Park was building six new dedicated courts that are scheduled to open later this month, bringing the parks’ total to 14. Another four are planned for late spring of next year, according to Shanea Allen, recreation manager at San Antonio Parks and Recreation.

While the park also has 14 tennis courts, on a recent early Tuesday evening, only two were in use. Meanwhile, the pickleball courts were so busy that players had to call “next” by placing their paddles in the numbered slots of a specially built caddy.

The San Antonio Country Club has six permanent pickleball courts, with hopes to build four more in the next two years,

The San Antonio Country Club has six permanent pickleball courts, with hopes to build four more in the next two years,

San Antonio Country Club

Several miles and sociodemographic levels away, the San Antonio Country Club has six permanent pickleball courts where players of all skill levels compete. The club hopes to build four more in the next two years, said director of tennis Dennis Reblin, who jokes he should add “and pickleball” to his title.

“Since pickleball became a thing, my job responsibilities have about doubled,” he said. “We probably have about 200 active players here at the club. That’s about the same number of tennis players.”

Demand is so great that on weekends players need to reserve court time, even in the heat of the summer.

“I can’t imagine what’s going to happen once the weather turns cooler,” Reblin said. 

For years, retired banker Mark Johnson was an avid tennis player and golfer. But about a year and a half ago he started hearing about this new sport with the funny name, so he asked Reblin about it.

“He told me, ‘You need to come play,’” said Johnson, 75. “I started playing twice a week and I love it. It’s a great exercise because you’re moving all the time, It’s improved my reaction time, my flexibility.

At the FIT High Performance Tennis Academy & Pickleball Fitness Center in Windcrest, owner Michael Castillo is in negotiations with the city to purchase land so he can build nine new courts to add to the nine he already has.

“Since I took ownership of the center (in 2020), pickleball participation has doubled,” he said. “And our revenues from pickleball have increased 130 percent, which includes tournaments and training revenues.” 

Instructor Sebastian Gutierrez said the players he’s been teaching over the past two years have gotten older — and younger.

“The age range is expanding,” he said. “I’ve got players in their 70s and players as young as 7 or 8. I’d say the average player is in their late 30s.”

As pickleball continues to expand, proponents say there’s no limit to how big it can get. Those with their eyes on the furthest horizon say the ultimate prize would be pickleball as an Olympic sport. According to the Sports Illustrated article, they’ve already targeted 2032 in Brisbane, Australia. 

[email protected] | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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