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Pickleball: The Racket That’s Taking Over America

by on February 14, 2020 5:00 AM

Some sports thrill me, like collegiate wrestling.  Some sports bore me, like curling. And then there’s pickleball. It has always puzzled me. 

Maybe you’ve shared that curiosity. Like me, you’ve wondered how an activity with such a silly name could become so popular. And you’ve been puzzled by the fact that this emerging sport owes most of its popularity to aging Baby Boomers. Since when do older people start new recreational trends?  

I decided to learn about this up-and-coming sport before I became the last person on my block to know about it. So I gleaned a few facts from Wikipedia. And then I learned a lot more by playing a session of pickleball with my oldest son, Matt, and his friends at a public park near Utah’s Hill Air Force Base.  

But I still felt I was missing the underlying reasons for the sport’s popularity. Thus, I made my way to the State College YMCA, the epicenter for pickleball in Happy Valley. Perhaps only at the Y could I learn to relish this booming sport.   

Upon arriving, I first met Drew Von Tish, one of the local “ambassadors” for the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), and he described the activity that has replaced tennis as the go-to sport for his retirement years. 

“It's a hybrid game,” Drew said. “It's kind of a cross between ping pong and tennis, and you use a hard paddle. It's easy to learn, which is why it's really caught on. Usually by the time people play a second time, they're hooked.”

Next I talked with Drew’s fellow USAPA ambassador, Bo Barbrow, and he shed some additional light.  

“It’s just a game like tennis that’s played on a badminton-sized court with something that looks like a wiffle ball,” said Barbrow.  

“But,” he continued, “if I was going to try to sell pickleball, I’d mention that you can find 8,000 places to play this sport in America, and we now have about 4 million players. And that our big tournament last year, the U.S. Open in Naples, Florida, involved 2,250 participants and another thousand people couldn’t get in.”

SEEING IS BELIEVING

It wasn’t until I took a courtside seat at the Y that the full picture of pickleball came into focus. I noticed the range of ages among the players, although most appeared to be plus-or-minus 10 from my own advanced total of 67 years. Men and women competed together in a congenial fashion. Everyone played on doubles teams. And it seemed that the short-handled paddle, the not-so-bouncy ball and the requirement to serve underhanded tended to keep the ball in close proximity. There was no running to Blair County in pursuit of a bad shot as there might be with tennis.

Then, as one game ended, I took advantage of my opportunity to interview several players. Talk about being satisfied—these pickleballers seemed near to exercise ecstasy:

  • Steve Wistar is a 44-year veteran of AccuWeather who began playing pickleball in 2017. “I had been running before,” he said, “which was good exercise but very boring. So this was a combination of an appropriate amount of running around and a really fun game. I love that combination and it makes me come back to exercise almost every day. I play five days a week.”

  • Pat Schulte, retired from employment with Penn State, has been a State College resident since 1986. “It’s good exercise,” she told me, “and I like the camaraderie with the people and a little competition. It’s fun!” 

  • Sue Rogacs is a 50-year resident of State College who currently teaches fitness classes at the State College YMCA. “I play pickleball because it’s fun!” she said. “I’m addicted! I came once with a friend and I loved it. I didn’t even play that well. But I loved the people and the atmosphere. And when you hit a ball and it goes in the right spot, it’s such a great feeling of accomplishment.”  

A TIGHT COMMUNITY

Regardless of who I spoke to, one comment was universal: pickleball promotes good friendships. No one knows the pickleball community better than Barbrow (often described locally as “the Czar of Pickleball”), and he said, “Across the country, pickleball players are a tight-knit group. They socialize after pickleball, they socialize during pickleball.”

“We get together for social engagements,” Von Tish noted. “We have Christmas parties together. We have dinner together, and the spouses have been brought into it. Whether they play pickleball or not, the spouses have become part of the family that we have here. So that’s the social nature of it.” 

“It’s wonderful,” Wistar said. “I have a whole new community of friends. And what I like about it is that everyone is enjoyable to talk to. We have about an equal balance of men and women. It’s a real interesting mix of people and we all get along so well, all united by our love of the game.” 


Doubles play predominates in pickleball. Pictured are Drew Von Tish, Maribel Lies, Bo Barbrow and Wayne Wall. Photo by Bill Horlacher.

THE Y IS ON BOARD

With a total of about 8,500 memberships, it might have been understandable if leaders of the State College YMCA refused to welcome this new sport. But they did, partly because pickleball brings folks to the facility during non-peak hours—weekdays during the early mornings and early afternoons. And, according to Josh Cone, a fulltime Y staff member, “Pickleball is a blast. I enjoy getting beat by people who are almost twice my age—it’s humbling and it’s fun. And one of the biggest things I see in pickleball is the community part of it, the family part of it. One of our mission goals here at the YMCA is to build a strong family community. Well, when something (difficult) happens in one of their lives, they rally around each other and support each other.”     

Cone also values the opportunity to have pickleball veterans like Barbrow and Von Tish teach their sport to elementary school students and teenagers. 

“We’ve offered a couple clinics over the last year or so,” Cone said. “When you see a lot of kids sitting behind computers or on their phones, not interacting with each other much, this is just another tool to bring into the community so kids can have fun.”

The YMCA currently provides four outdoor pickleball courts (placed within the hockey rink) and as many as three indoor courts (placed within one of the gymnasiums).  But, pending approval from State College Borough, an additional six outdoor courts are envisioned for the Y. Already, according to Von Tish, approximately $135,000 of a needed $225,000 has been raised.

SUPPORT FROM CRPR

Meanwhile, the folks at Centre Region Parks and Recreation have also embraced the opportunities that are presented by pickleball. 

“The interest has risen because of these two guys, Bo and Drew,” said Jeff Hall, the sports supervisor for CRPR, “and they’ve got a lot of people playing.  We like what Drew and Bo have done. And part of the popularity of pickleball is that it’s easy to learn.”

As a result, the CRPR—in partnership with local government entities—is encouraging the development of more pickleball courts.  The most recent addition brought four new courts (resurfaced and lined over old tennis courts) to Green Hollow Park, 1900 Park Forest Avenue in Patton Township. Those courts joined two other pickleball locations that were previously available:  Bernel Road Park, 2501 Bernel Road in Patton Township, and Suburban Park, 101 Suburban Avenue in Ferguson Township. 

“We’re always looking for new things,” Hall said, “always willing to try new sports and activities. Pickleball is a good fit, so that’s why we are expanding and even hoping to begin leagues at some point.”


Drew Von Tish serves alongside Bo Barbrow as a local “ambassador” for the USA Pickleball Association. Photo by Bill Horlacher.

NEW PLAYERS WELCOMED 

When Barbrow embraced pickleball about five years ago, he joined a tiny colony with only five other players. Today, he knows of at least 80 active players in the State College area, not counting YMCA-based groups in Philipsburg and Bellefonte

“We want as many people as possible to come and play,” said the retired teacher who worked for 32 years at Radio Park Elementary School. “What we have right now is great, and if we get more, that’s even better.”

Indeed, Barbrow is confident that more players will be continually showing up. He notes that interest in tennis seems to be lagging across America while interest in pickleball is booming. 

“My friend is in San Diego and she's playing pickleball at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Center,” he said. “Yesterday, there were two tennis players at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Center and 60 pickleball players. So that’s why the Bobby Riggs Tennis Center converted two of their tennis courts to eight pickleball courts.” 

With expertise provided by Barbrow, Von Tish and other veteran players, both the YMCA and CRPR provide teaching for new players. Barbrow welcomes calls (814-777-7667) from prospective players, and he offers classes and individual lessons for both youth and adults on a regular basis.

Several regular instruction times have been established for new players. At the YMCA, the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month from 3:30 to 4 p.m. are set aside for instruction of beginners, and lessons can also be arranged by calling Barbrow or the Y (814-237-7717). Meanwhile, CRPR will offer “Learn to Play” classes on May 4 (for kids from ages 10-17), May 6 (for anyone from age 18 or older), June 22 (ages 12-18) and June 24 (ages 18-80). Those who are interested should call the CRPR office (814-231-3071) for more information.

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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