Pickleball's a Hit, but Fans Paddle Denver for Lack of Courts



Head to Congress Park any time on the weekend — and most times during the week, too — and you’ll hear the thwack of the ball and the laughter of players at the park’s four pickleball courts.

Invented on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington in 1965 by a trio of fathers, pickleball looks like ping-pong played on a sized-down tennis court, with players, often called picklers, hitting a plastic ball similar to a whiffle ball back and forth, usually with two people to a team. The game was named by the wife of one of the inventors for the "pickle boat" in crew races that holds the rowers unwanted by other boats.

But these days, pickleball is the most sought-after game in town and the fastest-growing sport in the country. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Topline Participation Report, pickleball grew in popularity at a rate of 21.3 percent from 2019 to 2020, with more than 4.2 million players getting in the game.

Marc Nelson, a rugby referee and Congress Park pickler, compares the game with rugby, once the fastest-growing sport in the country, to show how unprecedented pickleball’s growth has been. The first game of rugby was played in the United States in 1874, USA Rugby was founded in 1975, and Major League Rugby hosted its inaugural season in 2018. USA Pickleball was founded in 2005 — forty years after the game was invented — and Major League Pickleball had its first season this year.

Factors contributing to pickleball’s addictiveness include its accessibility, its easy-to-pick-up nature and its multi-generational appeal. Games are fun even when people are first learning how to play, explains Kim Copeland, co-founder of the Lavender Pickleball Club, an LGBTQ+-focused group in the metro area.

“If you play beach volleyball, you have to be pretty good, and you have to know how to play volleyball,” she says. “I'm five-foot-three-and-a-half; volleyball is never going to be my game. But in this, that doesn't matter. You can get together with your friends — it doesn't matter how tall they are, how strong they are, how athletic they are — and you can still have a really good time and play.”

It doesn’t cost much to try, either. Forty dollars and an Amazon search will get beginners four wooden paddles and eight balls.

Many players took up pickleball during the pandemic, including Nelson, who says it’s been a great way to safely build community outdoors.

Hermann Li, who is sometimes called the commissioner because of his organizational efforts in Congress Park, started playing pickleball there in July 2020 because racquetball courts, which he'd frequented, were closed by COVID concerns. At first he was hesitant to make the switch.

“All my racquetball friends were playing pickleball, and I was holding out,” he says. “‘I don't want to play that sport. It's not a sport. I mean, it's a game for old folks.’ That’s what I thought.” He was wrong. Congress Park pickleball players have formed a community. Marc Nelson From the retirement home to Congress Park Kim Copeland first played pickleball twenty years ago at her mother’s retirement community in Florida. She’d just had a baby, and her mom told her to go play pickleball while she watched her grandchild. Copeland remembers thinking that she didn’t want to play a game with a stupid name with strangers she didn’t know, but her mother insisted — and Copeland is glad she did. She says she had “the best time” with three retired men who helped her pick up the game in just ten minutes. That experience mirrors what she sees at community centers now, with experienced players teaching novices and everyone enjoying themselves. “You may play with somebody ten times better than you, and then the next time you'll play with somebody that you're twice as good as,” she says. “And you're laughing.” Tamar Arbeli, a Denver resident who owns a pickleball apparel line called Super Fly Goods and often plays at Congress Park, had a similar experience when she took up the game. “Even if you don't hit the ball, you're still smiling,” she says. She and her family started out playing with older retirees in the mountain community of Eagle Vail during the lockdown.

“Then we came to Denver," she recalls, "and we were like, ‘Oh, we're the older people that play.' Pickleball, I feel like, has been kind of a staple in older communities for quite some time. Post-pandemic, and maybe even a little bit pre-pandemic, it really picked up in younger communities.” Arbeli attributes this shift to the scene becoming more social. Matthew Crance, who lives right by Congress Park, didn’t know what pickleball was when the courts were first installed about a half-dozen years ago. But when he began seeing people play, it looked like so much fun that he had to investigate. Crance gathered some neighbors and they started playing. Since then, he's watched the pickleball community grow into the congenial crowd it is today. “People are hanging out, enjoying their evening, meeting friends — and part of that growth was really fueled during the pandemic, when you couldn't go do anything,” he says. “It's outside, and it's somewhere where you can actually go socialize with people, which we were all dying to do.” What makes Congress Park different, according to Arbeli, is a community that's both active and welcoming. Instead of having to first find enough people to fill a court, anyone can head to Congress Park and rotate in to play some games. She credits Li