Pickleball frenzy: Clevelanders embrace the country’s fastest-growing sport

Do you know someone who plays pickleball? If not, it’s likely you will soon. Pickleball is now one of the country’s fastest growing sports, with an estimated five million “picklers” in 2022, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Often described as a hybrid of tennis, ping-pong, and badminton, pickleball was invented in 1965 by three dads who wanted to create a fun, new activity for their kids. Now, more than 50 years later, the sport is seeing an unexpected and intergenerational surge in popularity.

During the Covid-19 pandemic people were unable to play traditional team sports, so many turned to the sport as a socially distant way to stay active.

“I was taking classes at the Lakewood YMCA, but stopped during COVID,” says Edie Rasell, 74. “I heard about pickleball and that it was played in the gym with distance between players, so it seemed like a safe way to get some exercise. I started playing and loved it, so I’ve just kept playing.”

The rapid popularity and growth of the sport have also been attributed to the low cost of entry, the ease of play, and the game’s social aspect.

Pickleball at the Lakewood YMCA - Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.comPickleball at the Lakewood YMCA - Photo © Bob Perkoski, www.Perkoski.com“After I retired, my wife and I started going to the Lakewood Y,” says Jim Mason, 71, an avid pickleball player. “I noticed people in the gym hitting an orange ball back and forth and have now been playing for about four years. Many picklers love the game primarily because it is so social. But I was mainly struck by how fun the game is.” 

Pickleball is easy to learn and inexpensive to play. A couple of pickleball paddles, a whiffle ball, and a net and you’re ready to get started. The sport can be played outdoors or indoors on a badminton-sized court with two or four players.

“The game is so fun, you don’t realize you’re also getting exercise,” says Rasell.

Often, there isn’t even a need to reserve court time. Most places with pickleball courts offer open play—a concept relatively specific to the sport in which blocks of court time are set aside specifically for pickleball players.

Players just need to find out where and when and then show up, paddle in hand, and play against whoever else shows up at that same time.

Players rotate in and out, so everyone gets a chance to play. Mason says it’s almost as much fun sitting on the sidelines and watching the game. “We’re all cheering and laughing,” he says. “We just have fun.”

While Boomers originally dominated the sport, recent trends show younger players are increasingly taking to the court. “There is a younger demographic that is looking for something new to do or a new sport they can participate in after working hours,” says Michael Jurek, Cleveland Pickleball founder and Chief Pickleball Officer, who founded the organization with his wife, Maddie last year.

Jurek was introduced to pickleball while vacationing in Florida in 2021 and he was hooked. He returned to Cleveland with a goal: to promote and help grow the sport across Northeast Ohio. Later that year, he launched Cleveland Pickleball—an “everything pickleball” website dedicated to helping aspiring players find courts, instructors, and tournaments in the Northeast Ohio region.

“We started out by organizing the information and then began creating events for beginners to test out their new skills and have a fun competition,” says Jurek.

Cleveland Pickleball now hosts an annual tournament that garnered 100 players in 2022, published a monthly newsletter with 500 subscribers, and has a rapidly growing player base.

“This past winter, we partnered with Urban Community School to launch a seven-week indoor pickleball league,” says Jurek. “We had 48 players and more than 100 people on a waitlist.”

Jurek adds that younger generations are particularly drawn to pickleball. “Younger people these days are shifting to more experiences that don’t involve going to a happy hour at a bar,” he explains. “They want some kind of physical activity that has social aspects and provides a sense of community. There is also significant growth on the professional side of [pickleball] that is contributing to the excitement.” 

Andy Chen, center, with Iris Peng and Jackie DiazAndy Chen, center, with Iris Peng and Jackie DiazAndy Chen, 24, a student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, never imagined himself being involved in a sport as an adult.

“I first became interested in [pickleball] about a year ago when I met someone who introduced me to the sport,” says Chen. “I played a lot of badminton growing up, but I was looking for something that was more active and a bit more competitive. Pickleball is everything I was looking for in a sport,”

Chen says pickleball provides easier access to entry than many other paddle sports. “You can come in with basically no training and still learn pretty quickly,” he explains. “I just showed up and learned how to play.”

While pickleball is easy to learn, scoring is one of the trickier parts of the game. Scoring in doubles includes three sets of numbers: the serving team’s score, the receiving team’s score, and the number of the server’s team.

Other rules of the game include:

  • Only the serving team can score points.
  • Games are commonly played to 11 but must be won by a two-point margin.
  • The ball must be bounced once per side after the serve.
  • Volleying isn’t allowed within “the kitchen,” the seven-foot area on either side of the net.
With the interest in pickleball continuing to grow, many community and recreation centers, area YMCA branches, and private clubs now offer pickleball clinics for beginners. Some locations include North Ridge Racket and Paddle, Sussex Park in Shaker Heights, Denison Park in Cleveland Heights,  Studio West 117 in Lakewood, Tri-City Park in Fairview Park, and Brainard Park in Lyndhurst. Some of these locations offer outside courts.

Cleveland Pickleball offers a beginner’s guide specifically for people who are interested in getting into the sport.

“We think it is a great first step to knowing how to get started, understand the basic equipment needed, and find best places for beginners to play,” says Jurek.

Additionally, Columbus-based Pickle & Chill indoor-outdoor pickleball facility announced in late May that it will be opening a location in the former Beachwood Stein Mart in Pavilion shopping center on Chagrin Boulevard. The new location will house 12 indoor and six outdoor courts, a bar and lounge, and multiple event spaces. 

“I’ve met people of all ages playing Pickleball,” Chen says. “If you want to play a competitive game, you should probably partner with someone who is equally competitive and is going to push you. But if you want something more casual and low-key, there are always people who are interested in that as well. You just have to find your people.”

Jo Donofrio
Jo Donofrio

About the Author: Jo Donofrio

Jo Donofrio is a freelance writer and marketing professional with an interest in medical and health care topics and human interest stories. Her work has been published in various outlets including Cleveland Magazine, MD News, and Angels on Earth (Guideposts).She enjoys the outdoors and recently tried her hand at Pickleball.