Pickleball Popularity Picking Up
By Sean Sullivan
Waiting on Oak Street for traffic lights to change on the north side of Route 9 over the last few years, motorists may have noticed the increasing crowds volleying at Natick’s East School. These days, participants there are increasingly likely to be playing pickleball in lieu of tennis.
Communities all over the country, you may have heard, are struggling to keep up with the growing demand for the sport (and also some residents’ resistance to it.)
Big picture: more people exercising and having fun outdoors is a good thing. But zooming in, delving into the details, often requires recognizing and reconciling the disparate interests of residents.
The sport’s telltale sound, said Natick’s Jim Acton, is one of the most-stated objections people have to pickleball courts being situated near the places they live. He has been playing the game for a few years now, and is well-versed in its culture and sometimes controversy.
Pickleballs - perforated plastic spheres about the size of baseballs - produce a hollow pop when swatted with rigid paddles. Think beach tennis to invoke a similar sound in the imagination, or ping-pong with a baritone voice.
Pickleball borrowed some features from that latter sport, as well as badminton and tennis. But most often an outdoor sport, the game’s constant popping can echo off buildings and throughout nearby neighborhoods, nagging the nerves of neighbors.
“It makes a different thwack,” than tennis, said Acton. “It’s not a great sound.”
Though he may have heard pickleball’s signature sound emanating from nearby courts those many months ago, Acton said he’d never actually heard of the sport prior to the pandemic. He lives near East School, whose newly-refurbished outdoor recreation space included pickleball lines superimposed on traditional tennis courts.
The new surfaces came just in time for Covid – an event that would soon sequester much of the world and foster a Renaissance in outdoor recreation.
“I ventured down there and got introduced to the game,” he said. That was in March of 2020. “I’m relatively new to the game.”
Acton was being a bit modest. He has been teaching pickleball clinics for some time now. He was also instrumental in bringing the sport to Longfellow Health Club post-pandemic, a local gym in Natick to which he belongs. Like everything else, LHC had shut down prior to the summer of 2020, and Acton was looking for a way to keep active.
Covid shutdowns were a hardship for a host of reasons, but Acton credits communities of homebound neighbors with giving the sport a boost.
“It’s one sport that the pandemic really helped,” he said.
Long a feature of more southern states like Florida, Pickleball had been migrating to all points of the country since its inception in 1965.
The sport’s combination of a smaller court, informal character, and accessible rules make it a favorite of an older cohort, though pickleball is enjoyed by fans of all ages. In those warmer states where the game has taken hold, dedicated pickleball courts are ubiquitous.
“The barrier to entry is incredibly low,” said Acton. “That’s why so many people come to the sport.”
And therein too, lies the rub for those who would see the game adopted in more places. Many of those original outdoor courts have long been free to the pickleball-playing public, and that feature of free play has followed the sport as it has migrated. Players accustomed to taking part at no cost can experience a sticker shock at facilities that come on line but offer pickleball for a fee.
Adding pickleball lines to already-existing tennis courts is one thing for communities – a small investment for a recreation department. But businesses seeking to offer the sport have often found it difficult to turn people with a passion for the sport into paying customers.
The cannibalizing of tennis courts has also been a source of controversy for pickleball expansion, as devotees of the much-older racquet sport have often pushed back against the newer kid on the block. Articles detailing the territorial struggles between adherents of the two sports have appeared in the New York Times and other major mainstream media.
“The expansion of court availability is the biggest obstacle facing pickleball, not just in Natick, but all over the country,” said Acton.
For all that, the story of pickleball in Natick has largely been a successful one. A peace accord between players of both sports has been reached, a schedule sharing the courts at East School created.
Another bright spot, at least for Massachusetts municipalities, is the Community Preservation Act. The state program contributes a percentage of public funds to communities like Natick that have chosen to participate. Towns and cities must allocate their own revenue toward certain public improvements to qualify for the match, and recreational projects are part of that list.
It’s possible that more pickleball might have a place on that menu.