In the grand scheme of things, perhaps we have more pressing matters to discuss than pickleball.
But then again, nah. Especially now, when one of America’s premier sports columnists, the legendary Rick Reilly, has attacked the sport in a manner most foul.
OK, in a manner that’s partly accurate, too, but it still stings. I say that as a tubby, nascent pickleball player myself. While I am a (bad) tennis player, too, I started playing pickleball about a year ago, and I’m only a little ashamed to say I absolutely love it.
Reilly, who spent decades at Sports Illustrated writing some of the funniest, most poignant and entertaining columns in sports journalism history, does not feel the love so much. He made that clear in a biting, brutal and yes, hilarious column for The Washington Post last week.
He flat out states, “I hate pickleball,” which he deems “not as fun as ping-pong. Not as elegant as tennis. Not as pretty as golf.”
Clearly, he’s not seen me play tennis. “Elegant?” No. “Elephant?” Yes.
Reilly also derides participants who haven’t played a sport in 30 years “suddenly thinking they’re athletes,” especially those who refer to three hours of pickleball as “epic.”
“Reality check: There is no ‘epic’ in napping, crochet or pickleball,” Reilly states. “It’s a game in which two mostly very old people (like me) whack a plastic whiffle kind of ball at two other mostly old people (like me), who defend an area the size of a rug (like the one in my bathroom).”
This assessment is incredibly awkward for me as I write this, because I’m really sore from two hours of pickleball I played Wednesday night at Montford Park. All right, if you deduct the time standing around between games chatting and drinking water, it was more like 90 minutes.
Maybe 70. OK, sheesh — 55.
Reilly hates the noise of the paddle striking the ball, the way pickleballers are booting tennis players off of their own courts, and naturally, how pickleball players just will not shut up about how great the game is.
All of these are fair points. As we’ve seen in Asheville, court friction has followed the explosion of pickleball in town, with pickleballers rallying for more court time and even dedicated courts, while tennis players often seethe about the invasion.
I will make a few concessions to Reilly’s points, but I’ll add caveats:
The game is loud, and that gets annoying for neighbors — Reilly correctly points out that players could switch to a much quieter paddle, if they don’t mind shelling out the bucks for it. We really should look at this, especially those of us who play at Montford Park, which is surrounded by houses and apartments.
A lot of older folks do play, but… — I’d say most of the 25 or so people who turned out at Montford Wednesday were probably in their 50s, 60s and maybe even 70s. But we also had a few teens and 20-somethings to liven things up, and I’ve seen more and more youngsters making the plunge in the year I’ve been playing.
Personally, I think it’s great that older people are staying active, making friends and taking on a new challenge. It’s a heck of a lot better than sitting around watching “Andy Griffith” reruns and browsing casket catalogs.
Granted, the exercise is not as intense as tennis, but it’s not nothing — I’ve come home drenched in sweat from a vigorous set of games in July. Also, the better the players, the more you’re going to run. Some of the folks out there are dastardly lobbers and masterful dinkshot artists, and if you want to win you’ve got to move.
Pickleball players are taking up tennis courts. This is indisputable, but it’s also inevitable. More players can play the game as they age, because it has less running and very little overhead smashing (best to let the lobs bounce, in my opinion) that wears shoulder joints out.
In short, this is a numbers game. Asheville is a retirement and tourism mecca, and more people keep moving and/or retiring here, and many are looking to make that annoying “thwock” sound that drives Reilly nuts.
Yira Pia Sanchez, the pickleball ambassador for USA Pickleball in Asheville, said they estimate Asheville has about 3,000 pickleball players. That’s based on playtimescheduler.com, the website used for scheduling games and signing up to play locally.
But as Sanchez pointed out to me, we also get a lot of visitors who come to town and want to play. Last Wednesday I met a family originally from Florida, with two teenage, home-schooled kids, who travel the country in a recreational bus, picking up games wherever they can.
“In pickleball right now, the average age is in the 30s,” Sanchez said, acknowledging that a few years back, when pickleball first got hot, it was in the 60s.
She just got certified to work with kids, and the local pickleball organization is working on starting a youth league.
“Personally, it doesn’t take much for you to start having fun,” Sanchez said, adding it’s fairly easy to pick up the game with a lesson or two or friends teaching you the basics. “In no time you’re out there hitting the ball back and forth, running after the ball. You come home and you’ve had some exercise and you also socialize — and it just took you a couple of weeks.”
The City of Asheville has heard plenty from pickleball players, who are a vocal lot, and it responded in November to demands for more courts marked for pickleball. It announced late last year that “In order to support both racquet sports, all public outdoor hard surface tennis courts in the Asheville Parks & Recreation are now dual-lined shared use courts supporting tennis and pickleball.”
“This short-term solution immediately increases the City of Asheville’s outdoor public pickleball courts from 12 to 22 while retaining all 11 outdoor public hard surface tennis courts,” the city said in a statement. Some semi-permanent nets are now supplied, too.
While more courts definitely help, it’s not, as the city notes, a permanent solution. And pickleball, whether Reilly likes it or not, is just going to keep growing. It’s addictive, it’s decent exercise, and it’s a great way to meet people and stay socially engaged.
The really nice part of the local games, which you can find outside in Montford Park, Weaver Park, Malvern Hills Park, and Oakley Park, is that the vast majority of players are just out to have fun.
Longer term, cities and counties are simply going to have to build dedicated pickleball courts. Sanchez and David Kelly, vice president of the Asheville Pickleball Association, note that nearby cities and counties, such as Greenville, South Carolina, already have numerous dedicated pickleball courts and can host tournaments.
“We had done tournaments in the past, just before the pandemic, and we had brought in hundreds of hundreds of players, and then hundreds of people that traveled with them,” Sanchez said. “They even brought their pets. And that means that this is revenue for Asheville, because people need a hotel to stay in, and they also go to restaurants and things like that.”
I suspect the pickleball folks might just pitch the idea of permanent, dedicated courts to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which funds an array of projects that both benefit the community and bring in tourists. It’s called the Tourism Product Development Fund, and it seems like a natural fit.
But that’s probably getting ahead of the game a bit, because none of this would be cheap.
Kelly pointed to Opelika, Alabama, which built a gorgeous, covered, lighted 12-court facility about five years ago at a cost of about $1.4 million.
“It was so successful they decided to repeat it and double what they had,” Kelley said. “That was completed maybe 18 months ago. Construction costs have gone up quite a bit, so maybe you’re looking at $2.5 million now.”
Host a few tournaments, though, bringing in hundreds of people, and a facility like that would pay for itself pretty quickly, Kelly said. He also pointed out that people looking to retire in an area are looking for pickleball opportunities.
While I have seen some confrontations between tennis players and pickleballers, including one dude who hollered some saucy epithets our way, Sanchez said the tensions have “died down a little bit.” Since April, when the city made its decision, the scheduling has been more defined, and “we have been working really hard to try to educate the players about the schedule and not to walk behind the tennis players and not to put their chairs inside the court area or their bags,” she said.
You know, the basics of tennis etiquette. Sanchez said she’s also worked with folks who were scheduling pickleball games during the tennis times to avoid that practice.
Hey, tennis is a great game, too, and one that fatboy here also enjoys, especially on the soothing clay courts of Aston Park. Tennis players deserve their time on the courts, too.
But the bottom line is, pickleball is not going away, and in fact will just keep getting more popular.
So, Rick, my man, if you’re ever in Asheville, look me up for a game! If you don’t break a sweat, I’ll buy the beer afterward.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com