As millions of Americans pick up pickleball, a sport that fuses tennis, badminton and table tennis, cities across the country are trying to keep up with the craze.
More than 4.8 million people in the U.S. played pickleball in 2021, a 39% increase from 2019, data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association shows, making it the country’s fastest-growing sport. Cities are scrambling to meet the demand for court space, with the number of pickleball courts in the country’s 100 largest cities reaching 2,090 in 2021, up from 420 in 2016, according to the Trust for Public Land.
Now local governments in Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; Long Beach, California; Asheville, North Carolina; and elsewhere are trying to adjust in the short term while also baking pickleball into their long-term community development and equity plans. Among the steps they’re taking: opening new pickleball courts, converting tennis courts into dual-use spaces (to some tennis players’ chagrin), building buffers to block the noise from pickleball in residential areas and identifying how much they should be investing in pickleball in the first place.
“The biggest issue is basically a supply and demand issue,” said Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation and technology at the National Recreation and Park Association. “It's important to figure out how you can serve every constituent and make sure you're not just responding to the loudest voice, but to every voice.”
In Portland, Oregon, all residents live within three miles of a tennis court, and the parks and recreation department wants the same to be true for pickleball, said Brett Horner, the agency’s planning manager. His team is preparing to design a new park, which he expects will include some designated pickleball courts while also repurposing some dilapidated tennis courts for pickleball.
Key among cities’ challenges is ensuring pickleball courts are accessible to all residents and that they don’t divert resources from other critical projects. Pickleball players tend to be passionate and vocal about the sport, city officials said, which runs the risk of overshadowing other community needs. Research shows that across the country, there are disparities in access to parks and other green spaces by socioeconomic status and that people in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to use nearby parks.
“We're very much focused on equity concerns about these communities that traditionally have not been engaged,” Horner said. “We do have to be careful about who we respond to and how we respond.”
But given pickleball’s accessibility — it’s easy to learn and doesn’t require expensive equipment — local officials also see it as a way to entice more people to use local parks and other amenities. In Minneapolis, pickleball has been integrated into the city Parks & Recreation Board’s capital improvement plan and 20-year neighborhood park plan. The latter plan dedicates an additional $11 million annually for park maintenance, rehabilitation and investment, with the goal of addressing racial and economic equity through the park system.
Meanwhile, in Asheville, North Carolina, the parks department is in the early stages of updating its master plan, and a vote on a municipal bond to fund more amenities, including pickleball courts, could reach residents as soon as November 2024, according to Christo Bubenik, the agency’s program operations manager.
“Any investments we're doing really need to be guided by that neighborhood itself, whether it is replacing a playground or putting in a park,” Bubenik said. “We're just looking at all those interests and also respecting the legacy of tennis in this area, and other sports.”
Private investment and pro teams
Parks departments aren’t the only pickleball providers in town, though. Private clubs, gyms and even bars are opening their own courts. There’s also a professional element, with the newly formed Major League Pickleball launching two additional teams this year — the St. Louis Shock and the Orlando Squeeze — bringing the league to 24 teams on two competition levels. Professional teams will travel for tournaments rather than holding them in their hometowns, and some cities are more eager to host than others.
“I don't envision that we want to become a pickleball tournament city, but I do want to meet the needs of our residents who want to play pickleball,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. The city opened six new public courts last spring, and a dedicated pickleball complex may be in order, he added.
Already, pickleball’s popularity among older people could help fill a gap in park usage by seniors, who were 20% of the U.S. population but just 4% of park users in major U.S. cities, according to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. But as pickleball catches on among younger people — half of players were under 35 years old in 2021 — cities that don’t yet have it on the radar will likely need to grapple with it soon.
“This doesn't appear to be just a fad that people are going to play for a couple of years,” Dyer said. “This looks like something that's here to stay.