A passion for pickleball: Orlando's Buddy Dyer and other mayors cope with sport's craze

Demands for new facilities, along with noise complaints and paddle-toting attendees at city council meetings are just some of what they’re contending with as the sport's popularity skyrockets.

Pat Harrell (center) listens during a pickleball class at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community in Pompano Beach in this March 2021 file photo.

Pat Harrell (center) listens during a pickleball class at the John Knox Village Continuing Care Retirement Community in Pompano Beach in this March 2021 file photo. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In a crowded room during a gathering of mayors in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, Mayor Buddy Dyer of Orlando acknowledged that his fellow city executives in other conference sessions were discussing “some pretty heavy issues,” like homelessness and drug addiction.

But, he said, bringing chuckles to the audience, “we're gonna talk pickleball.”

A game where people loudly whack a ball with a paddle back and forth over a net may not have the same stakes for municipal leaders as issues like housing or immigration. But even so, mayors and their cities are taking steps to respond to the game’s rising popularity.

Interest in pickleball surged over the past five years, according to a fact sheet handed out by New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport during the discussion. The number of people playing grew by 11.5% a year, reaching 4.6 million in 2021, the analysis said. Meanwhile, it also found that fewer people want to hit badminton birds or ping pong balls.

According to an unscientific survey, more and more cities have tried to meet demand for pickleball facilities. Asked how many live in cities that provide courts to play the game, nearly everyone in the room raised their hands during the session where Dyer spoke, which the U.S. Conference of Mayors held during its annual winter meeting.

To help keep up with that demand, some cities used American Rescue Plan Act funds meant for helping states and localities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic to build more pickleball courts. This drew mocking and criticism last year from Republicans on the House budget committee, who pointed to it as an example of government overspending under the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. 

“What would they have me cut?” Biden asked in responding to GOP critics about the size of the recovery law.

Err, pickleball, Republicans responded.

But while Bryan Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan, said his city did not use ARPA funds on pickleball, he noted that the growing popularity of the sport has led to mayors facing new pressure from pickleball enthusiasts seeking places to play.

“We saw this pickleball thing was starting to get some attention. It was starting to be brought up in our meetings. People started to say, ‘When is the city going to have outdoor pickleball?” Barnett said during the discussion. “And of course, we had to figure it out.”

He said the city last year opened its first pickleball facility with eight courts. “It has far surpassed anything we ever really could have imagined,” Barnett added. “The most popular part of our parks are the places where people play pickleball–from literally the time before the sun rises to the time that our parks staff have to say, ‘Folks, it's 11 o'clock we're turning off the lights.”

Why is it so popular? For one thing, Barnett said, it’s cheaper to get a paddle than equipment for other exercise or recreational activities, like skiing for instance.

“Pickleball has very low barriers to entry in terms of costs,” he said.

Some mayors, though, said they’re having trouble keeping up with the sport. Chris Duncan, mayor of San Clemente, California, said his city has converted some tennis courts into pickleball courts, but it’s still not enough.

“We have a situation where we have this massive demand and we don't have any place to do it,” he said, noting crowds that turned out at recent council meetings to advocate for pickleball facilities.

Building more courts, though, could cost $8 million, Duncan said. The mayor asked Tim Klitch, co-owner of the Ranchers, a Texas-based pickleball team and Steven Kuhn, founder of Major League Pickleball, if they would be interested in partnering on a facility.

“The answer is absolutely ‘yes.’ We're open to discussion,” Kuhn said. 

Klitch argued that pickleball courts are a more efficient way to spend money than on tennis courts because more people play at once. “Usually you have more than four people on a court,” he said.

Pickleball, he added, can also spur economic development. A proposed 33-court venue in Austin, Texas, he said, could generate $1 million in annual food and hotel revenues assuming two major events a month.

Some people are even looking to live in places with pickleball courts nearby, he said. “I can't tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people who say, ‘I live in California, but I'm moving to somewhere in Texas because pickleball was my number one priority,” he said. 

“These aren't just retired people,” he added. “They're young people. They're all walks of life.”

But as with many issues in city government, the game’s rise has not been controversy-free.

One issue is that neighbors who live close to courts sometimes complain about noise – including the sound of paddles hitting the ball, which can make more of a racket than tennis. And the players can be noisy as well.

“People are laughing and having fun,” Klitch said.

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, where a version of this story was first published. 

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