By A.J. Kaufman
Driving around the Tri-Cities area recently, you probably noticed an abundance of modern-looking, small tennis courts. But they’re not actually tennis courts; they’re pickleball facilities. Courts like this have become very popular across the United States, including in this region.
Pickleball has grown incredibly, specifically at Johnson City’s Memorial Park Community Center (MPCC), with the number of players steadily increasing — from 100 in 2017 to 288 in 2022.
The process began in earnest when a pickleball court was marked off in 2017 inside each of four outdoor tennis courts. As the number of pickleball players increased, the need for additional courts was apparent, per Deb Fogle, Senior Services Manager, Johnson City Senior Center.
As MPCC was closed to all indoor activity for more than a year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor activities gained popularity, causing a noticeable increase in outdoor pickleball court usage among people of all ages.
In March 2021, MPCC staff began tracking how often outdoor tennis courts were used versus pickleball. Results showed pickleball was 50 to 100 times more commonplace each month.
While Johnson City has 18 dedicated tennis courts around town, the city’s only public outdoor pickleball courts are located at MPCC. Considering the overwhelming data, the Senior Services Advisory Council recommended conversion of the four tennis courts at MPCC to a dozen pickleball courts, making the area a true pickleball complex. After the council gave its unanimous approval, the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Advisory Board did the same, as did the Johnson City Board of Commissioners. Conversion was completed last summer, followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony last August with 100 people in attendance.
“I see the sport growing in all age categories,” Fogle explained. “Opportunities for growth include partnering with the local universities for intramural play for their students; teaching youth the game of pickleball through Parks and Recreation programs; increasing the number of pickleball 101 classes; providing classes for families to learn the game of pickleball and offering more tournament play for the Tri-Cities area.”
The Johnson City Senior Center Foundation hosted its annual “Paddles Up” pickleball tournament on the outdoor courts last November, and Pickleball 101 classes are currently being offered, not only to seniors, but also young adults and children.
Johnson City will host the “GO ALL OUT” U.S. Senior Pickleball tournament on the outdoor courts from April 21-23.
“Pickleball is a game that is becoming very addictive, and once you learn, you are hooked,” Fogle added. “For seniors, it is a great way to stay active and socially engaged. I think the sport will continue to grow with all age groups and maybe even present the need for additional courts.”
Brandon Mackie is co-founder of the online pickleball platform, Pickleheads, a comprehensive directory and free tool for the sport’s organizers.
A former competitive tennis player, Mackie has played pickleball for three years. He hopes Pickleheads can become the top online destination for pickleball players seeking a nearby court, local events, or connecting with other players.
Pickleheads now has a directory of several thousand courts across the U.S., which is telling, when just a few years ago, finding a place to play could be “confusing,” per Mackie.
“I started playing in the pandemic, saw the magic of the sport and watched it grow,” Mackie told the News and Neighbor. “It didn’t matter if they had played before, everyone had a good time. It’s not just a sport but also a social gathering. So I really wanted a place where people could go to find where, when and with whom to play.”