AUSTIN (KXAN) – There’s no doubt pickleball has taken the U.S. by storm. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association says participation in the sport nearly doubled in 2022 — a year-over-year increase of around 85% and a 158.6% increase over the last three years.
At one rec center in Austin, Texas, the sport’s popularity boom is overwhelmingly clear. Matt Winebright says he started playing at South Austin Recreation Center three years ago. He said he began seeing the courts get more crowded during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I think pickleball was starting to become more popular,” he said. “But then it turned into a sport people could still play – even when tennis nets were down, basketball hoops were boarded up and the gyms were closed.”
Pickleball was invented in the 1960s by three dads living in Washington state, according to USA Pickleball. It’s sort of like a cross between ping-pong and tennis and takes up about half of the space as a traditional tennis court.
Courts at the South Austin Recreation Center have become such a hit that eager pickleball players sometimes have to wait up to an hour to get a chance on the court. The center has two pickleball courts next to a standard tennis court. If no tennis players are out, the court can be turned into four additional pickleball courts.
“If we are able to use [the] whole area, and we’ve got six courts going, then everything moves a lot faster,” Winebright said. “If everybody’s jammed onto the two courts on the side that is the dedicated pickleball court, you could wait an hour and then play and then wait another hour.”
But the tennis court is seldom used, he said. “I don’t see tennis people out on these courts very often. Every once in a while [I’ll] see a family that comes out. But it’s pretty rare.”
Pastor John Stennfeld has also frequented the courts for several years and has seen the game rise in popularity. He decided to draft a petition to see if the City of Austin would permanently transform the tennis court into more pickleball ones.
“I turned it in. I thought, ‘Great – they put in the work order,’” he said. “But then it wasn’t happening.”
Even though people can rent temporary lines at the center, some pickleball players permanently painted lines onto the court. One person even brought heavy wooden nets and left them where the tennis court was.
“They had spray painted some lines, taped some lines down that was permanent,” said Jodi Jay, Assistant Director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “We needed to remove [the equipment] so tennis players and basketball players could also use the place again.”
Stennfeld didn’t agree with people painting permanent markings on the court but still feels the number of pickleball courts available does not match the demand.
“I don’t know if the people in the [Parks] department understand how it’s grown. I grew up playing tennis – I played college tennis. I used to teach tennis. I love tennis. This is my new love,” he said. “It’s my new passion. And it’s becoming that for everybody.”
Jay said she is thankful that pickleball is booming, but agreed the Parks and Recreation department has struggled to keep up with how popular the sport has become.
“I’ve been with the department for 17 years,” she said. “Ten years ago, when I went to [some] parks, nobody would be out there playing or using that space. And now with pickleball, there are 30 or 40 people hanging out.”
“It’s a sport that is building faster than we can keep up with,” she added. “And we’re going to be making some recommendations on how we can keep up with the growing demand.”