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Photo By Brian Tietz
Photo By Brian Tietz

In mid-April, thousands of visitors will descend upon the Pickleball Capital of the World.

The 64-court Naples Pickleball Center in East Naples Community Park will host about 2,800 professional pickleball players during the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships. About 34,000 spectators will attend during the seven-day stretch. Hotel stays, restaurant visits and other entertainment ventures during their time here will generate an estimated $13 million economic impact for Collier County.

It’s one of the top pickleball destinations in the world, but it wasn’t that long ago that this so-called pickleball capital was just a worn-down skate park and underused tennis courts.

If anything, the transformation is indicative of just how quickly this quirky-sounding sport has caught on. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the country. About 4.8 million people played in 2021, according to a report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That’s up about 15% from 2020.

Its success makes sense. The sport is fairly easy to pick up—think of it as a mix of tennis and ping-pong—and all you need is a racquet and a little hand-eye coordination. It’s easier on the joints than tennis, less costly than golf and able to be played outside, which is a plus during a pandemic. But it’s gone beyond just a leisure activity; it’s becoming a big business.

There are the professional circuits where pro pickleball players travel the world to compete. Investors such as Tom Brady and LeBron James have put big money into Major League Pickleball, which features 12 teams nationwide including the Florida Smash, proudly representing the Sunshine State. Locally, Naples Pickleball Center owner Bob Strommen is investing in a team in the new National Pickleball League, a 50-and-older league that will host tournaments across the country starting in June.

But if you can’t make it to a match, just turn on your TV. Pickleball tournaments are broadcast live on major networks; the US Open’s finals will be on CBS Sports. Even the Tennis Channel has started showing pickleball matches. If that doesn’t slake your appetite for the game, you can head to a Chicken N Pickle or Camp Pickleball, two TopGolf-esque restaurant chains that feature food, drink and pickleball courts. And if you missed the two-hour “sports comedy” special “Pickled” on CBS, you can find it on Paramount Plus. “I see people playing pickleball in commercials now,” says Terri Graham, one of the founders of the US Open who previously worked for 20 years in the sporting goods industry. “It’s mind-boggling what’s happening. I’ve never seen growth like this in any sport.”

When Graham and her partner Chris Evon proposed in 2015 that East Naples Community Park host a pickleball tournament, even they didn’t envision this future. And pickleball is showing no signs of slowing down.

To a degree, what happened in Naples has become the gold standard for pickleball. East Naples Community Park had just nine permanent pickleball courts when the first tournament was held in 2016. It drew about 2,000 spectators. But over a five-year stretch, the county invested more than $5 million in the facility, including $750,000 for a shade structure over several of the courts. A new visitors center and pro shop opened last year. Recently, the county set aside $670,000 of its tourism tax revenues for renovations to the courts and surrounding area. Aside from the tournament, the courts are open to the public year-round, hosting upwards of 13,000 visitors annually, county officials say. The title of Pickleball Capital of the World draws tourism, as vacationers make the park a focal point of their vacation. At times the courts are crowded with as many as 500 pickleball fans either playing or waiting to play—most frequently in the mornings, when a membership fee is required to play.

Graham remarks that the renovations are needed to “keep up with the Joneses.” Florida is a hotbed for pickleball, and other areas have established premier pickleball facilities. The Villages has been called the “Mecca of Pickleball” due to 200-plus courts throughout town. But Graham gives credit to the Collier County Commissioners for jumping on the pickleball trend early and not looking back. She references the line from Field of Dreams when she talks about pickleball in Naples: If you build it, they will come. “I give a lot of credit to the county,” Graham says. “They built the best facility in the world here in Naples.”

Other parks and private communities throughout Southwest Florida have rushed to set aside space for pickleball. Veterans Community Park in Naples has 14 courts that are often packed in-season. In Fort Myers, eight new courts are scheduled to open in Rutenberg Park this spring. In Cape Coral, city leaders set aside money from a $60 million parks and recreation bond to create courts at multiple parks. And don’t forget the PicklePlex. In 2019, the facility opened on land at Florida SouthWestern State University’s Charlotte Campus, after a group of volunteers raised about $700,000. The 16 courts have hosted professional tournaments; organizers estimate that it’s had $10 million in economic impact since opening.

Even with new courts still cropping up (not to mention the tennis courts that also double as pickleball courts), demand seems to be outpacing supply. “There just aren’t enough courts,” Graham says.

Brian McCarthy had run into a similar problem. The Sarasota resident and his wife Valerie were avid players, but spent too much time fighting early-morning crowds or waiting out late-afternoon showers to get much playing time. So, he did something about it. He’s started The Pickleball Club, a business that aims to invest $180 million in 15 membership-based indoor pickleball facilities across Florida, including locations in Fort Myers and Bonita Springs. Each will have about 14 courts equipped with an in-house camera system so players and instructors can record and analyze play at a later time. Overall, it will have a country club feel with a cafe and pro shop and plenty of space to socialize. “We want to be the Disney World of pickleball,” he says with a laugh.

McCarthy, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and commercial real estate developer, first got serious about the venture in 2021. He saw the growth potential and started looking for ways to invest. Outdoor courts were cropping up left and right, but he felt quality indoor facilities were lacking. Once The Pickleball Club is established in the Sunshine State, he plans on venturing out to other areas of the country. “If you can catch a trend as it’s going up the curve, that’s where you want to be,” he says.

Pickleball proponents are betting on an upward trend for quite some time. Part of the reason is its expanding appeal beyond its core demographic. Yes, the most dedicated players remain baby boomers. But more than three-fourths of casual players are under 54—and the fastest growing demographic is under the age of 24.

“It will be a long way until it slows down,” says Naples pickleball pioneer Jim Ludwig. If a Naples Pickleball Hall of Fame ever came to be, Ludwig would be right there with Graham and Evon. He’s helped organize the US Open, serves as an ambassador for USA Pickleball, founded the nonprofit Pickleball for All that teaches kids and adults the game and has started organizing pro pickleball tournaments nationwide. The Atlantic City Pickleball Open Indoor Championships last September had more than 800 participants, similar to the US Open’s first draw. He sees growth coming in cold-weather areas that don’t have many indoor facilities yet; his tournaments are held in convention centers. “In a convention center the space is easy to find and the weather is guaranteed,” he says.

He points to another number: 22.6 million. That’s the number of people who play tennis. There’s already crossover—about one-third of pickleball players also play tennis, including many pro pickleballers. So, if tennis is the upper bound, then pickleball is just getting started, he said.

Much has been made of the tennis vs. pickleball rivalry. Stories in publications including The New York Times and Washington Post have detailed turf battles across the country over the pickleball takeover of some tennis courts. Ludwig sees some of the same in private communities in Southwest Florida—tensions that surface when decisions have to be made that devote resources to the up-and-coming sport. But the game is becoming more established, he said, and some residents are starting to view pickleball courts as a needed amenity on par with golf or tennis.

For decades, Naples was known for its golf and tennis. Now, Ludwig said, it’s pickleball, too. “Pickleball is taking over,” he says. “It’s the future.”

Pickleball: A primer

How would you describe this sport?

It’s sort of like mini-tennis. Or maybe big ping-pong. You play on a court similar to tennis but smaller, with a paddle that’s larger than a ping-pong paddle, while hitting a plastic ball the size of an orange.

So why’s it called pickleball?

After a family dog, of course. The origin of the sport is attributed to three families who vacationed off the coast of Washington state in the mid-’60s. They made it up to keep the kids entertained during one summer, and called it pickleball, after a dog named Pickles.

But just how popular is it?

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association tracks annually the number of people who play sports in the U.S. Its 2022 report put the number of pickleball players at 4.8 million, double the number of players five years ago. For comparison, about 3.5 million people play racquetball. More than 22 million people play tennis.

Where can I play?

You can find public courts all over Southwest Florida from Marco Island up to North Port. At some facilities, you may have to pay to play. For example, at East Naples Community Park, a $50 annual membership will get you access to play between 8 a.m.-noon and 5-8 p.m. Midday play is free. USA Pickleball keeps track of courts nationwide at places2play.org.

OK, now that I’m ready,

how can I win big?

Slow down; you’ll need some practice. But the top players can make a living off pickleball. Tournament winnings can only net you only a few thousand, so most top players also teach and have corporate sponsors to earn money, as well.  

Copyright 2023 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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