By the Birmingham Business Journal’s John L. PittsOriginal article here.

Let’s talk about pickleball, and not only because it’s fun to say the word “pickleball.”

First, about that name …

There are several credible stories around how pickleball got its name, but there’s no question it originated as a children’s backyard game on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965. It incorporated elements of several sports, including tennis, badminton and table tennis (ping pong). From one backyard, it’s grown into a sport that even gets screen time on ESPN.

Pickleball attracts all ages as the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. – and the Greater Birmingham area is one of the hottest spots nationwide, with the game played both outdoors and indoors.

“From what I have seen, people are always looking for something to do outside,” said Tim Hamm, parks director for the city of Alabaster. “With pickleball, you can be as competitive or as leisurely as you want. We hear from our teens that they really seem to enjoy it too.”

Tennis courts still remain busy, he added.

There are dozens of pickleball courts across the greater Birmingham area, both indoors and out. Some are converted tennis courts — all it really takes is a roll of tape to mark off the smaller dimensions, identical to a badminton court — and many new dedicated courts are popping up.

In Alabaster, the city is seeking three additional pickleball courts at Patriots Park to join the three already there. In late October, the City Council approved a grant application to Shelby County Parks and Recreation for up to $100,000 to tackle the project.

During the meeting, council President Sophie Martin described “a line out the door to play pickleball.”

“We realized pretty soon that we needed more courts, because it’s pretty much crowded all the time,” Hamm said. “We’ve seen the surge in popularity coming for some time. It looks like it really has some staying power.”

Hamm recalled a visit to Opelika, which now has a 24-court covered pickleball facility.

Steve Reardon, right, and Steve Yang, left, play pickleball at the Hoover Recreational Center. The group members are regulars and play most days of the week. BOBFARLEY.PHOTOSHELTER.COM

In Gardendale, a $30 million sports complex will feature 11 pickleball courts, along with baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, a football field, basketball courts, a putting green and a large playground.

“There’s going to be something for every member of the family, from young to old,” Mayor Stan Hogeland said last year when the project was announced. 

In 2022, Hoover approved a plan for eight new outdoor pickleball courts at Veterans Park.

“All ages enjoy participating,” said Erin Colbaugh, director of Hoover Parks and Recreation. “It’s a pretty social game, with people committed to playing with their friends and even forming new friendships as a result. Former tennis players have also gravitated to the sport.”

In 2021 and 2022, Hoover hosted the first two USA Pickleball Indoor nationals, with the latter event attracting 704 participants to the Hoover Met Complex Finley Center. This year’s event was held in September in Atlantic City.

Hoover has constructed a number of courts, both outdoors and indoors, and recently partnered with Hoover City Schools to resurface an areaat Simpson Middle Schoolfor new pickleball courts.

Colbaugh said her department had painted court lines on gym floors at their rec center to help keep up with demand. 

“We’ve also been able to schedule several sessions with instructors,” she said.

Further north, Huntsville made headlines at this time last year. Punch Bowl Social founder Robert Thompson is getting back into the “eatertainment” sector and launching a chain of food-and-drink-based pickleball facilities, with one of the first two spots set to open in Alabama in summer 2024 — Camp Pickle.

Camp Pickle facilities are significant investments, spreading over 55,000 to 75,000 square feet and requiring the organizing of multi-acre parcels by real-estate development teams. But interest in them already has been enormous, and Thompson said that after he opens a pair in the first half of 2024 — one in Huntsville, and the other in Centennial, Colorado — he believes the concept will catch on nationwide, comparing it to a TopGolf for a newer sport.

He’s getting ahead of the curve since demand seems to be growing nationwide. 

According to the Association of Pickleball Professionals, there are 36.5 million pickleball players in the United States, utilizing an estimated 44,000 courts at 10,500 facilities nationwide. About 30% of those players are between the ages of 18 and 34, the largest demographic cohort, and it estimated pickleball paddles represent a $158 million market.

After an explosive three-year participation growth rate of 158.6%, a more modest, yet still healthy, annual growth rate is forecast through 2028.

Among the millions who have tried pickleball and keep coming back, there are surely just as many stories of how they got started. Most have some familiar elements, though.

Talk to pickleball players and you’ll hear the word “fun” tossed around a lot.

In the front court EJ Vetrano, left, and Richard Gates, right, in the far court, Abe Zanayed, left, and Dee Nance play pickleball at the Hoover Recreational Center. BOBFARLEY.PHOTOSHELTER.COM

Karen Israel got nudged into playing for the first time by her sister-in-law, who’d learned about pickleball while out of state.

“You should come out and play,” Israel was told. “We’ve played on a tennis court with chalk lines for the pickleball boundaries. We lowered the tennis nets three inches and we were good to go. I really liked the game. Fun, easy to learn and a great way to socialize.

“You’ll see a wide range of ages playing, even on the same court.”

Israel is the friendly voice you’ll often hear if you call to inquire about pickleball at Birmingham’s Heardmont Park. Many metro Birmingham pickleballers have played there at least once.

That was ground zero for Tim Herrington, who lives in Ross Bridge.

“My wife and I took a walk at Heardmont and saw people playing on the little bitty courts with their paddles,” he recalled. “They invited us over, handed me a paddle and explained the rules. Of course I was horrid, but now I’m addicted.”

Herrington traces the history of Birmingham pickleball to 2015 and a couple of real area pioneers in the sport. 

“We’re all standing on the shoulders of Jarick Rager and John Hilliard,” he said. “Now, I’m trying to help build and promote pickleball, help with finding sites for new courts and teaching people the game. That’s how it starts.”

He’s another great ambassador for the growing sport. 

“I’ve seen a Mayo Clinic story that racket sports can add six to 10 years to a person’s life,” Herrington said. “Pickleball is at the intersection of social life, physical activity and sports. That’s the special sauce.”

Nearby Pelham, he points out, boasts an established pickleball pro, physician Aye Unnoppet, a 50-something former junior tennis player who’s earned world rankings in singles and doubles.

At just 5-foot-1, she’s been dubbed the “Pocket Doc.” As with so many other players, she started playing in the backyard with a friend.

More planned developments, particularly multifamily complexes, are adding pickleball courts. Some homeowners are even building their own private courts, which Herrington estimates carries a cost between $12,000 to $15,000.

“I even know someone who had his pool dug up and put in a pickle ball court,” Herrington said. “It’s very nice.”

The King brothers, retired residents of Shelby County, are strongly devoted to their pickleball habit.

“My brother introduced me to it,” said Buddy King, 62, a retired firefighter. “I had been walking since I retired as a firefighter because I had appreciation for the importance of my physical health.He said, ‘Come out and try this, it’s like playing tennis with a Wiffle ball.’ So I went out there one day and of course I loved it.”

His 61-year-old brother, Richard, retired from Alabama Power, said he heard about the sport when he lived in Florida.

“Someone said I needed to try it, and I absolutely enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s athletic without being too demanding, and it’s a great social activity.”