Pickleball popularity rising here, across U.S.

Addison DeHaven/Register: Above, the regular pickleball group poses for a picture at the Hillcrest tennis courts on June 30. The group plays almost every weekday morning. Below, pickleball players compete at the Hillcrest courts on July 8.

BROOKINGS – “Pickleball?”

“What’s that?”

“How do you play?”

This type of exchange is quite common nowadays, but it won’t be for long as more people learn about the fastest growing sport in the country. 

The sport of pickleball – yes, the sport that some residents may remember from middle school P.E. – is rapidly spreading throughout the entire country, and Brookings has a substantial group of pickleballers that play almost every day.

“There’s probably 30 to 40 regulars who show up most of the time,” said Theresa McLagan, a regular who began playing four years ago.

The group, whose members’ ages range from early 50s to late 70s, play every morning at the Hillcrest tennis courts, starting at 7:30 a.m. or earlier, depending on the weather.  

The game itself is a cross between tennis and ping pong with a slight bit of racquetball mixed in. Players use rackets, shaped like a large ping pong paddle, made out of either wood, composite or graphite. The ball, a harder exterior that looks and feels like a classic wiffle ball, is used. 

Pickleball, according to those that play, is incredibly easy to pick up and very addicting. Some players have tennis backgrounds that translates to better racket skills, but no experience in racket sports is necessary to enjoy the game. 

“The scoring was the hardest to pick up,” McLagan said. “But after you learn, it’s easy.”

The group rotates teams constantly all the while enjoying some friendly competition.

“We take turns, and we take breaks,” said Kim Dahl, a regular who plays nearly every day.

The games stay fairly casual; however, they can get pretty competitive when a rally goes long.

“I don’t think most people know when they leave here if they won or lost,” McLagan said. 

Pickleball started in 1965, near Seattle, when Congressmen Joel Pritchard and neighbors invented the game on a lazy summer day. According to Pickleball Inc., they wanted to create a game that would engage them, be challenging, but still accessible. The game took off almost immediately and spread throughout the country. 

How it came to be known as “pickleball” is up for debate, however. According to the USA Pickleball Association, some believe that Pritchard’s wife started to call it pickleball because the combination of different sports reminded her of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Others say it got its name from Pritchard’s dog who was named “Pickles.”

Brenda Peterson, of Brookings, first started playing at Arrowhead Park in Indian Hills. There wasn’t a pickleball net. They used the tennis net, which is a little higher than a pickleball net, and began playing regularly. 

Eventually the sport grew in Brookings, and more began to play. Many of the “regulars” learned at an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute class at First Lutheran Church that taught people the basics of pickleball. By 2019, there were nearly 20 regulars who played all the time.

Pickleball has grown in popularity over the years, starting out as a niche sport. It now has almost 2.8 million players in the U.S. The sport has become so popular that in Florida and Arizona entire communities are being built around pickleball courts. The sport, open to play for all ages, has become very popular with the older generation, as 75% of all players are over the age of 55.

“It’s not as strenuous as tennis, the court is smaller (than tennis), and you play with a partner,” Dahl said. “Plus, it’s not costly.”

“They say that orthopedic doctors love pickleball,” McLagan said. “Not so many injuries.”

“I love the socialization and friendships of it,” she added. “I knew most of the people by name but just to say hi to them but now you’re friends with everyone, that is the good part of it.”

In South Dakota, pickleball leagues have formed in Watertown, Sioux Falls and Mitchell, and even in small towns, like De Smet, White and Volga, pickleball is being played. Sioux Falls recently even hosted a pickleball tournament, attracting over 150 players. 

The group in Brookings play year-round. In the summer they stay mostly confined to Hillcrest, where the city has painted lines for six courts and has provided pickleball nets. In the winter, pickleball is played in nearly every gym, from Fifth Street to the SDSU Wellness Center to St. Thomas More Catholic Church.

“The real problem is in the winter because we don’t have enough courts,” McLagan said.

The pickleballers aspire for courts of their own, citing the increasing popularity of the sport and the attractiveness of pickleball-only courts.

According to McLagan, the city was scheduled to build pickleball courts three years ago, but the Park and Rec budget was cut by $500,000 and so went the courts. 

There is hope among the group, however, that the city will eventually create pickleball only courts, ideally both indoor and outdoor. 

The group welcomes all comers to come and try out the game. They play every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. at Hillcrest tennis courts on the west end.

Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]


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