The popularity of pickleball

More courts on the way in response to demand

The explosion of interest in pickleball in Springfield could see the number of available courts nearly double in the foreseeable future, with the opening of the Premier Pickleball Center late this fall and the possibility of adding a dozen or more outdoor courts at Centennial Park.

"Springfield's biggest need has been indoor play space, particularly during cold weather months," says Jack Handy, who founded the Springfield Pickleball Club in 2012, the same year that eight outdoor courts replaced former tennis courts at Iles Park. Both the club and local interest in the game have enjoyed continuous growth since then.

Enter the Premier Pickleball Center, scheduled to open in Springfield in late November. Its indoor facility will be heated in the winter and have large garage doors that open, providing good airflow in the summer. Its developers are Mike Fox, a Springfield-area business owner and avid pickleball player, and his wife, Angela. They have found the game to be addictive and decided to build Springfield's first dedicated indoor pickleball facility at 3400 Constitution Drive, behind Target.

"There are more people playing every day," Fox says. "The most frustrating thing as a player is once you start, you go to play and you can't get on a court."

Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and ping pong. The court is about half the length of a tennis court (44 feet vs. 78 feet for a tennis court), a few feet narrower, and the net a few inches lower. The paddle makes a distinctive popping sound when it strikes the hard plastic ball.

The low-impact nature of the game makes it particularly popular among older adults. According to a 2022 report from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, more than half (52%) of those who play eight or more times a year are 55 or older, and almost a third (32.7%) are 65 or older. Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., with more than 36 million players nationwide.

Fox and his wife have been playing pickleball for five years and are enthusiastic about the local pickleball community. They started playing as couples in Duncan Park. "It really is an addiction," he says. "It's a great workout. You're moving a lot; you work up a sweat. I can't think of anything else our age where it's competitive, you get a great workout, and it's fun. There is also the social aspect to it that is almost missed with a lot of sports. You're out with people you like, you're hanging out and you get that social interaction that we all need."

The 10 indoor courts will be in two different buildings with five courts each, plus three outdoor courts between them and two more at the back of the parking lot. The facility, which will be available for members only and their guests, will have a semi-cushioned premium surface, special lighting, the best nets available and a 29-foot ceiling, Fox says. It will also have restrooms and vending machines.

A unique feature is how automated everything will be. Members will reserve court times using an app, and they will receive a code to enter the building and use their assigned court. With the automated center open 18 hours a day for a pickleball community that cares about quality facilities,

click to enlarge The popularity of pickleball
Springfield’s first dedicated indoor pickleball facility is under construction at 3400 Constitution Drive. It will have 10 indoor courts, plus five additional outdoor courts.

Fox does not believe it will be necessary to have staff on site all the time, although the center will be open 18 hours a day through the automated system. He does anticipate the center offering instruction classes and hosting member leagues and possibly some tournaments in addition to open play every day.

Fox says bigger cities such as St. Louis have dedicated indoor pickleball facilities, but he is unaware of any others in central Illinois.

Indoor pickleball is offered locally at the two YMCA facilities, the Salvation Army (formerly Gold's Gym) on East Clear Lake Avenue, and with a few removable nets at the Springfield Racquet and Fitness Center. Availability varies at these locations by time of day and day of the week. The Springfield YMCA has two courts at its west side branch and three at the downtown branch. Sports director Alex Brown says the demand for those courts is always very high, especially in the mornings.

Derek Harms, executive director of the Springfield Park District, applauds the relationship the Park District has with the local pickleball community. "We have worked closely with the Springfield Pickleball Club for many years," he says. "This is a critical partnership that has facilitated the development of 14 pickleball courts (at Iles and Duncan parks), instruction classes, league play and tournaments throughout our community."

Both Harms and Handy mentioned discussions about expanding into Centennial Park, with Handy saying there could be 12 courts initially and eventually as many as 20 courts. No formal announcement has been made, but Handy said it could happen in 2024. If the anticipated public and private court growth continues – Piper Glen opened some courts for its members this summer – the number of courts in Springfield could increase to more than 50 in the near future.

Handy, whose club has grown to more than 400 members, believes the demand exists for the expansion that is occurring. He sees people waiting to play while courts are full and a growing number of younger people interested in playing, while enthusiasm among older people remains high.

Ed Wojcicki, formerly a full-time journalist, has been a freelance writer since 1979. He is retired from both University of Illinois Springfield and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

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