You would think that Pittsburgh, world-famous for Heinz products and renowned for its annual Picklesburgh fest, would be all over pickleball, the hottest sport around.
A combo of tennis, ping pong and badminton, the wildly popular and often addictive game is easy for all to learn, from kids to seniors. It’s also highly social since it mostly involves doubles play. And it’s a great exercise that isn’t as physically demanding as tennis.
“I know tons of ex-tennis players with bad knees who can play pickleball,” says Michael Wertz, who was instrumental in creating the Gamma Sports Pickleball Classic returning to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in early August. This is the sixth year for the only indoor and urban tournament of its kind, attracting 1,000 players from across the country. Proceeds benefit the Western Pennsylvania Parkinson’s Foundation which started the tournament in 2016.
Gamma Sports, a racquet sports company that took over the tournament in 2019, is headquartered on Washington’s Landing in Pittsburgh, overlooking five city tennis courts that are underused and in dire need of repair. The site was already scheduled for a complete renovation of its tennis courts this summer. So could they become pickleball courts?
“It’s not too late to change,” says Kathryn Vargas, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Pittsburgh.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in (pickleball) demand, especially after Covid. It really gained momentum in the city. As a result, we’ve been working with the Department of Public Works to ID more places for courts,” she adds. The city of Pittsburgh has only 13 outdoor pickleball courts, along with indoor courts at three healthy active living centers for seniors. (See all city courts here.)
On a broiling afternoon in June, Josh Taylor-Young and Chuck Vietmeier, two Gamma Sports marketing folk, met with City Councilor Bobby Wilson on the deeply cracked and empty tennis courts on Washington’s Landing.
When Wilson asked if converting a few of the tennis courts to pickleball courts would be a good idea, the reps said yes, but added that there would likely be long lines for the pickleball courts while the tennis courts would go unused.
“What if we were to convert all the courts?” Wilson asked. “How many would that get?”
“Eighteen to 20 pickleball courts,” replied Vietmeier without hesitation.
Due to the generous configuration of the island courts, each tennis court could yield four smaller pickleball courts. So if they were all converted, it would more than double the city’s current number.
The Gamma folks served up some more ideas, from helping maintain the proposed pickleball courts to hosting tournaments, while Wilson suggested the possibility of a courtside kiosk for pickleball gear.
Next step? The discussion about the Washington’s Landing courts will continue at a Zoom community meeting on Wednesday, July 13, for Troy Hill and Washington’s Landing residents.
“All we want is for people to use the courts,” Wilson tells NEXTpittsburgh. “If pickleball is going to be the best use, I’m all for it.”
Whatever happens, Gamma Sports is in the feverish thick of all things pickleball. The Never Stop Playing Pickleball two-day camp in North Park in early August, which offers five hours of instruction, is long sold out. Gamma sponsors instruction camps all over the country and they tend to book fast, just another sign of the sport’s growing fan base.
Elsewhere in the region
While it appears that the City of Pittsburgh is poised for more pickleball action, the ‘burbs, with the advantage of more land, continue to gain ground.
The hottest spot in the region for pickleball is a place that is also named after a tart food — Cranberry.
The township has 13 outdoor and lit courts in Grant Park and the Cranberry Township Pickleball Association is at capacity with more than 1,000 members and 260 on the waiting list. Once the construction of six new courts is completed in November, they will up membership to 1,500. That would rival PebbleCreek, a “posh retirement community” in Arizona with more than 1,500 members, “one of the largest pickleball memberships in the U.S.,” according to a recent Sports Illustrated article.
“Nobody in the tri-state region has an association like we have,” says Pete Geiss, director of Parks and Rec in Cranberry. The association helps with everything from the player rating system — so everyone can enjoy playing at their own level — to court maintenance to getting folks certified to officiate games, he adds. “They are incredible and they make it extremely fun and competitive.”
Pennsylvania Recreation Parks Society recently bestowed an award of excellence on Cranberry for having the best pickleball program in the state, he adds.
Last year, 200 or so volunteers did 10,000 + hours of volunteer work, says Bruce Mazzoni, co-director of the Cranberry Pickleball Association. “That’s the equivalent of five full-time workers,” he notes. Thirty percent of the revenue generated from membership, tournaments and donations (yes, they get donations) goes to the township while 70% goes to paying for the cost of the courts.
“Pickleball has grown substantially,” he says. “It’s a sport that people can pick up really easily. We’ve grown disproportionally because we promote level play. Everyone gets a rating and we match them up to someone with similar skills so a beginner isn’t playing with a pro.” It’s why, he says, some members drive two to three hours to play there.
With the significant investment in courts, is there any worry about the hot trend cooling anytime soon? “It’s getting stronger and staying stronger the next 20 years,” Geiss says, citing a prediction from the National Recreation and Parks.
Others are taking note. Nearby, Adam Township just opened four new, bright blue courts, each with its own perimeter fence, in Rainbow Park. McCandless is starting work next week to convert a tennis court into two pickleball courts.
In 2019, at the nudging of a council member, Franklin Park converted an underused tennis court into two pickleball courts at Old Orchard Park. They carved out three more pickleball courts at Blueberry Hill Park in 2020.
Two of the courts are for scheduled play — only residents can reserve online — and the other is designed for open play. There’s a QR code onsite to check the schedule. When told that was impressive, Zach Brower, recreation program director, laughed, saying, “We’re trying.”
They’re even on top of the “quiet pickleball” movement so the courts at Old Orchard require that players use no-noise balls. The plastic Wiffle-like balls make a distinctive “dink” sound during play, which has led to memes and T-shirts brandishing “I might have a dinking problem” and online sites for game enthusiasts dubbed dinkheads. It has also led to some complaints and requirements in some communities to use no-noise balls, which results in a play that’s a bit different.
“The ball is a little quicker and it bounces a little higher,” says Brower.
Other townships, such as Ross and Upper St. Clair, which lack dedicated courts, are setting up temporary nets and taping lines in gymnasiums to accommodate players. Some local community centers are doing the same. And while some players are buying driveway pickleball sets and playing the game at home, others are building their own courts.
Meanwhile, Allegheny County is also getting in on the pickleball action. In 2017, North Park rebuilt six tennis courts and – in a nod to where the demand was — added eight new pickleball courts, all lit.
Elsewhere in the country
In other cities, developers are getting into the act, building pickleball courts as part of “eatertainment” complexes, reported The New York Times in a recent article. Minneapolis alone is home to Lucky Shots, a 40,000 square-foot space in a former manufacturing plant with 9,000 members enrolled just since opening last November. Life Time, a national chain of fitness clubs, is opening its first pickleball facility in Bloomington, just south of the city. And Smash Park, which started in Des Moines, is also planning two pickleball sites in the city.
Buffalo boasts Pickleball Island, the largest indoor facility in the state, which offers five tournaments a year, league play and private and group instruction.
With more courts, cities can compete for more tournaments that not only bring in top players but also tourist dollars as well as a measure of prestige.
Just outside of Austin, Dreamland boasts a concert venue, a mini-golf course and 16 pickleball courts where they recently held a three-day tournament, reports Sports Illustrated. (In the same article, the writer points out, “You’ve got a jar of cocktail sauce in your fridge that’s older than pro pickleball.”)
There’s been no activity of this kind in Pittsburgh from developers or pickleball chains — yet. But with Gamma Sports based here, and with its annual Pickleball Classic and the spurt of activity throughout the region, it could be just a matter of time.
One last thing since everyone asks: where did the odd name come from? The wife of the co-founder named it after the pickle boat in rowing, which is the last boat in and made up of a ragtag team. The game was created on Bainbridge Island in Washington state 50 years ago as an activity for all members of their families to enjoy. And now years later, it’s all the rage.
It is, they say, a sport to relish.
See more places to play pickleball in Pittsburgh on this map created by Larry Gioia of Sideaht Pickleball. And read more about the Gamma Sports Pickleball Classic.