Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The sight of people playing Pickleball on tennis courts at Kellogg Community College often causes passersby to stop and watch.
“We recently had a couple from Florida stop to watch us,” says Joyce Sickle, a member of the Battle Creek Pickleball Club. “They were touring Michigan and they were only going to places where they could play Pickleball.”
This does not surprise Sickle, a retired Special Education teacher who taught for 37 years at schools in the Battle Creek area. She and her husband vacation at an RV resort in Arizona that has a Pickleball club, with more than 50 members who play regularly on any one of the 14 courts at the Happy Valley Resort.
Pickleball is a paddle ball sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and table tennis. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit over a net a perforated polymer ball, similar to a Wiffle ball. The sport shares features of other racquet sports, it's played in an area with the dimensions and layout of a badminton court, and it has a net and rules somewhat similar to tennis, with several modifications.
Although the sport is very popular in the western part of the United States, it has amassed a following in other parts of the county, including Battle Creek, which has about 30 members who play during any one of eight times offered during the week, says Cheryl Mackinder, president and ambassador for the Battle Creek Pickleball Club. The local group began about 10 years ago and now has a mailing list of about 200 people, she says.
There are more than 8,000 players in Michigan which is home to more than 228 registered pickleball courts, according to the United States of America Pickleball Association
The state’s Pickleball players are among 3.3 million nationwide based on statistics compiled by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, says Justin Maloof, executive director of the USA Pickleball Association in Phoenix, Ariz.
“It’s hard to pinpoint an exact year but certainly within the past 5 to 6 years, the sport has been brought more into a national spotlight,” Maloof says. “Big money tournaments such as the USA Pickleball National Championships and the US Open, nationally-televised events on CBS Sports Network and ESPN, Pickleball Magazine, and media coverage on national programs such as the TODAY Show have all contributed to the awareness.”
Happy Valley Resort hosts a tournament in January that brings in close to 500 competitors, Sickle says. “These are top-notch players,” she says. “They have really brought it in and promoted it in the Phoenix Valley.”
All ages can enjoy the game
Sickle brings back ideas from her time on the Pickleball courts in Happy Valley, including “The Rodeo” tournament that was hosted on a recent Thursday by the Battle Creek club. Players were able to show off their individual skills such as how well they serve and lob. They were matched up with partners to show these same skills in a team format. Trophies and gift cards were presented at the end of the friendly competition.
The game got its start back in 1965, in Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride away from Seattle, Wash., when former Congressman Joel Pritchard, William Bell, and Barney McCallum came home from a game of golf one day to find their kids bored and restless. They set out to create a game that would engage them through the lazy days of summer.
The trio wanted to create a game that would be challenging, but still accessible. They handed the kids table tennis paddles and a Wiffle ball and lowered the net on their badminton court.
Some sources claim the name pickleball derived from a family dog, "Pickles," who would chase after the ball, but in fact, it came from "pickle boat.” By some accounts,
Joel Pritchard’s wife, Joan, says she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.”
Maloof says seniors currently represent the largest Pickleball demographic because of the small court surface, low impact, and the familiar skill sets that enable them to stay active and competitive well into their golden years.
“That said, with more high-profile, money tournaments now being offered and the addition of public pickleball facilities being built all over the U.S. at a growth rate of more than 100 new locations per month, we are seeing a surge in juniors and young adults now playing and competing in the sport,” Maloof says.
Mackinder says about 40 percent of the members in the Battle Creek club
are over the age of 60 with the oldest player being 86 years old. But, she says the club also has players in their 20s, and some people bring their grandchildren along to play.
“We might have three generations playing on the same court,” she says. Mackinder started playing in 2013 after serving as the liaison between the Pickleball group that was using the gym at Sonoma Elementary where she was teaching. She says she fell in love with the game and got more involved after she retired, eventually taking over as president of the club.
As the number of members increased, the club moved out of the school gyms where they had been playing and onto courts at KCC for outdoor play and Full Blast for indoor play. The courts at each venue are modified for regulation Pickleball play.
The social aspect, she says, is a big draw for seniors. “Each game is 15 minutes long and it’s very social because you can banter with your opponents or your partner and there’s waiting time in between the games,” Mackinder says. “Socializing is a big part of the appeal for seniors. These are people you have something in common with and have the exercise part of it when you can work up a sweat or not. It’s an easy game to learn, but it’s a hard game to master. It’s not a power game, it’s more of a strategy game.”
Battle Creek Pickleball Club members on the couts at KCC.
Maloof says the skill set needed to play is very similar to virtually all racquet sports, which makes pickleball extremely familiar and easy to learn and play. He says the smaller court size, one-third the size of a tennis court, equates to longer, sustained rallies.
“Also, the small court size means the players are in close proximity to one another which increases social interaction,” Maloof says.
Retirement often eliminates the socialization people had while they were working, says Robin Smith, a member of the Battle Creek club, who was self-employed in the rental property business and is now retired. She says she has seen how Pickleball bridges the gap between seniors and young people. “I’m not aware of a lot of activities that can get younger and older people together and they’re all just having fun,” she says.
But, for her, it’s about more than having fun.
“We’re all told to keep moving,” Smith says. “In Pickleball you have to think fast and strategize. I’ve always been an exercise proponent. I personally know 84- and 85-year-old ladies who used to be tennis pros who have been playing Pickleball. They’re my role models. I want to get to where they are.”
Smith started playing five years ago after her sister, who was then living with Smith and her husband, invited the couple to play with the Battle Creek group which she was already involved with. Smith says she plays about four or five times a week when she’s in town and also plays when she and her husband travel to Florida to spend time at a mobile home park which has Pickleball courts.
“We were instrumental in getting courts at the mobile home park,” Smith says. “We’re pretty avid fans.”
Anecdotally, she is hearing that people who are looking for places to stay in Florida are increasingly basing their decisions on the availability of Pickleball amenities. “They will purchase a place if there are Pickleball courts there,” Smith says.
Mackinder says her club is talking with KCC leadership about making improvements to the courts they are currently using because the need and demand is there and growing.
Over in Marshall, Barb Rosene is trying to do the same thing with decision-makers in Marshall. She says next April she is hoping to work with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department so that there will be dedicated Pickleball courts. Currently, players in Marshall have been using modified tennis courts and donated space.
“We’ll need $65,000 to make four Pickleball courts and have money left over for maintenance,” says Rosene, a retiree who spent more than 35 years working in economic development. She started playing after taking lessons that Mackinder taught at KCC.
“It’s a nice, fun thing to do. You get a little bit of a workout, but you’re not completely exhausted when you get done,” Rosene says. “Once people start playing, they’re hooked.”