From the outside, a pickleball tournament may seem similar to a tennis tournament, what with the rackets and balls lobbing back and forth.
Many pickleball converts come from an extended racket sport background, according to pro Lea Jansen (who used to be a collegiate level tennis player at Washington State University), though she describes a pickleball tournament as a “glorified junior baseball jamboree.”
“It’s really loud, because there’s a bunch of plastic balls going around, and there’s not really a code of conduct,” she explains. “Depending on the tournament, there’s alcohol use encouraged — they want fans to get loud.”
Those who think pickleball is a recent phenomenon may be surprised to learn that its history goes back 57 years, according to USA Pickleball, a nonprofit group that promotes the development and growth of the sport.
The sport is growing, with 4.8 million players nationwide as of 2021, according to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The report also said participation in pickleball grew 11.5% a year over the last five years.
Earlier this year, Utah Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, proposed a plan to appropriate $5 million of state tax money to add more courts for big-time tournaments in Salt Lake County. The proposal was not included in the final state budget the Legislature passed this session.
Utah as a pickleball ‘pocket’
Utah, Jansen said, is one of five major pickleball “pockets” — with others in California, Florida, Kansas and in Austin, Texas, where she relocated from Spokane, Wash., just to get better at pickleball.
Utah, she said, has “a big pro and recreational base” for pickleball.
It’s also home to the Tournament of Champions, one of the flagship tournaments for pickleball nationwide. This year’s tournament happened Aug. 17-20 in Brigham City. The tournament, which started in 2012, was the first to “offer prize money, use certified refs, and be the first Tier 1 tournament outside of Nationals,” Jansen said.
Kristy Wolford — the tournament manager, and also a competitor — said Utah is “spoiled” when it comes to pickleball.
“I believe [we were] so far ahead of the curve,” Wolford said, describing Utah in the early days of the professional pickleball movement. “We jumped out first, we got our facilities up early. We’ve been riding the wave and the tournament has gotten bigger and bigger every single year.”
The TOC takes place across 24 courts at Brigham City’s Rees Pioneer Park. In 2019, Wolford said, she counted over 500 public courts in Utah, and that accessibility is what makes the state produce professional athletes so quickly.
“Utah is very sports-minded, we are grassroots growers innately,” she says. “I don’t know that you can point to any other state that has the depth of development that we have in Utah.”
Pickleball is for all
Pickleball has had to endure some stereotypes — that it doesn’t require “real” athletic ability, and that it’s a leisure sport for people, usually white and older, with the free time to thwack a plastic ball around for hours.
Wolford, who also runs the senior center in Brigham City, acknowledges there is a certain senior-citizen appeal to the sport. Where she works, she said, people who have gravitated to pickleball have become more socially and physically outgoing since taking up the sport.
Wolford recalled an experience with a woman who was immobile and “becoming stiff.” After six months of pickleball, the woman’s doctor (who also plays the sport) told the woman, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but let’s keep doing it.”
Through pickleball, Wolford said, the woman made friends and had purpose. “When I walk out and my mother is playing with me, and I’m playing with my daughter, and she with hers: That’s four generations out there. You can’t point to a sport that does that,” she said.
Jansen, 30, says most of her millennial friends use pickleball as a form of exercise. “It’s fun and accessible,” she said. “This is something you can just go out to public courts, go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and buy a cheap paddle and go play.”
Like any sport, one can turn pro playing pickleball — though it takes training and dedication, Jansen said.
“This is all we do, this is all we train for,” Jansen said. She watches film of herself and other players, works with a personal trainer, eats a vegan diet, and practices between two and three hours a day.
Tim Learned has been playing pickleball for three years, and is technically considered an amateur, though he rates himself between a 4.0-4.5 on skill level. (The rating system goes as high as 8, and a 2.5 is considered a beginner.) The fun part of the game, aside from the competitiveness, is the progression of seeing oneself improving.
Learned competed at the Brigham City event, though, he said, “sometimes I enjoy watching more than playing at these big tournaments.”
There’s a social element to pickleball at the tournament level, connecting with other players from around the world at events like the Tournament of Champions or the Professional Pickleball Association’s tour stops. (In the next two months, there are tour stops in Cincinnati, suburban Atlanta, Las Vegas and College Park, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.).
Learned — who said he hopes to go senior pro within the next five years — noted that most people who think pickleball is silly have never seen it played or gotten to know what it is.
Jansen said the sport’s popularity is continuing to grow. “It’s going to become America’s pastime because everyone can play it,” Jansen said. “It’s a universal game and it really brings people together.”
Where to find pickleball courts in Utah
The ‘Official USA Pickleball: Places 2 Play’ website — places2play.org — has an extensive list of places to play pickleball in any state, with comments and details about court surfaces, availability and prices. Pickleball+ is an app that helps find courts near you all around the world.
Here are 10 places you can play in Utah:
Holladay Lions Rec Center, 1661 Murray-Holladay Rd., Holladay.
Copperview Rec Center, 8449 Harrison St., Midvale.
Wardle Fields Regional Park, 2700 W. 14010 South, Bluffdale.
Draper Senior Center, 1148 E. Pioneer Rd., Draper.
Murray Park, 170 E. 5065 South, Murray.
Fairmont Park, 2300 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City.
Riverton City Park, 12830 S. Redwood Rd., Riverton.
Burgess Park, 300 W. Parkway, Alpine.
Pleasant Grove Rec Center, 457 S. Locust Ave. Pleasant Grove.
Spanish Fork Pickleball Courts, 295 Volunteer Dr. Spanish Fork.