Alabama Coast: Pickleball a Local Hit

By J. Mark Bryant, lagniappemobile.com

When people hear the term “pickleball” for the first time, the image of a brine-soaked cucumber being tossed around is a pretty common misconception. The truth is pickleball players can be found across the U.S.

The sport’s impact is being felt along the Alabama Gulf Coast, as many organizations in Baldwin and Mobile counties welcome participants. With the influx of young players into the mix, the growth of the sport is expected to exponentially increase.

“In the last three to four years it has really taken off,” said Eddie McDonald, an official pickleball ambassador in Baldwin County. “Many publications call it the fastest-growing sport, not just locally but all over the country.”

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According to the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), there are more than 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the U.S. and at least one in every state. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2016 Participant Report said there are more than 2.5 million pickleball participants in the U.S.

In a nutshell

According to the USAPA website, pickleball was created in 1965 by Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell near Seattle, Washington. Their families were bored, so they took some pingpong paddles and a perforated plastic ball out to a badminton court on the property. Once they found the ball bounced well on the court, they lowered the net to 36 inches, and a new sport was born.

The origin of the name, though, is not quite as clear. Pritchard’s wife, Joan, said she started calling the game pickleball because “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew, where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.” Others have said it is named after the Pritchards’ dog Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it.

As for the local game, the Coastal Alabama Pickleball Club’s website said Gene Beaver and Mike Boileu played perhaps the first contest in the state on Jan. 24, 1995, at Rainbow Plantation RV Resort in Summerdale. Keith and Roberta Bisel, snowbirds who were spending the winter at the site, had introduced the sport to the area.

According to pickleball.com, the game is played on a badminton-size court of 20 feet by 44 feet. The ball is served diagonally (starting with the right-hand service-square), and points can only be scored by the side that serves.

Players on each side must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed, and there is a 7-foot no-volley zone on each side of the net to prevent “spiking.” The server continues to serve, alternating service courts, until he or she faults. The first side scoring 11 points and leading by at least 2 points wins. The game can be played with singles or doubles.

“It doesn’t take long to play a game,” McDonald said. “It is usually 15 to 20 minutes for one game. Then people rotate in and out. This way you don’t sit around waiting to get onto the court.”

The USAPA said each player needs a pickleball paddle, which is smaller than a tennis racquet but larger than a pingpong paddle. Originally, paddles were made only from wood. However, today’s paddles have evolved dramatically and are primarily made of lightweight composite materials, including aluminum and graphite.

Players also need a net and a pickleball. The ball is unique, with holes through it like a whiffle ball. Different ball models are intended for indoor and outdoor play (indoor balls have larger holes as wind is not a factor, while outdoor balls are made of a harder plastic and have smaller holes). Balls come in several colors, including white, yellow and green, but must be a single color to meet International Federation of Pickleball specifications.

As for attire, anything that is comfortable and appropriate is accepted. This includes athletic shorts, sweatpants or tennis-style clothing. Eye protection is also recommended.

“Some venues have paddles and balls to use for a small fee,” McDonald said. “Most regulars will have their own equipment. I recommend you try the sport before going out and buying equipment. Most sporting goods stores have them now.”

Booming in Baldwin

Since the first games were played in Baldwin County, it would only make sense that the area is a hotbed for the sport. In fact, the newest outdoor courts designed specifically for pickleball were dedicated in December at the ONE Club in Gulf Shores.

McDonald is the resident expert on the sport. He is certified as an instructor by the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association.

“I was an educator in Georgia in the 1990s, and I once taught a six-week P.E. course on pickleball,” he said. “After that I went back to teaching history and did not think about it again.

“Then my wife, Joan, and I moved to Montana. I went to a gym and saw them playing it. I had forgotten a lot of the rules from 20 years ago. My wife was doing other exercises, but I got her to play and she fell in love with pickleball. Now we play all of the time.”

The McDonald family eventually moved to the ONE Club. He had earned his ambassador status in Montana, so he was able to continue as a USAPA representative in Baldwin County. Other ambassadors in Baldwin County are Bob Webb in Foley and Bruce Cuddy in Fairhope.

“I am passionate about pickleball,” McDonald said. “It is my job to grow the sport. I let people know about the places to play, and then just try and increase the number of places in Baldwin County.”

He is succeeding in his mission. McDonald said the number of participants in Baldwin County has doubled in the past year.

“We have a league made up of five areas: Daphne, Gulf Shores-Orange Beach, Fairhope, Mobile and Gulf Breeze (Florida),” McDonald said. “They play competitively against each other. We just finished up the first season in early December at the Foley Events Center with about 110 players that day. The next season will start in January.”

The Foley Event Center is also set to host the USAPA’s Atlantic South Regional Aug. 23-25. Participants must enter to qualify for the national championships, which were broadcast on ESPN in 2018. More than 2,000 amateur and professional players competed in those nationals.

“This will be the first tournament of its kind here,” McDonald said. “You must play in a regional to qualify for the nationals. We expect upwards of 350 people.”

For local players, the city league sponsored its first outdoor tournament in November at the Bodenhamer Tennis Center in Gulf Shores; 170 players signed up.

“In Gulf Shores we used eight of their 18 tennis courts and made it into 16 pickleball courts,” McDonald said. “We used painter tape to mark the boundaries, and then pulled it up when we were through. We didn’t use tennis nets. We used portable pickleball nets like we use at most indoor sites.”

Because many pickleball courts are played on surfaces originally intended for other sports, the new facility at the ONE Club is quite unique.

“This is the first dedicated outdoor pickleball court open to the public,” McDonald said. “A lot of people would rather play there than on a tennis court.”

There was a single tennis court at the ONE Club before McDonald suggested it be repurposed.

“We wanted to increase participation, so now we have three courts just for pickleball,” he said. “We normally have between 20 to 25 people playing doubles there.”

Besides being a great way to get exercise, McDonald said the social aspect of pickleball may be its biggest draw.

“My wife and I have a pickleball family in Montana, North Georgia and now Gulf Shores and Orange Beach,” he said. “We do so much other things together besides play pickleball, but it was pickleball that brought us all together.”

Catching up across the bay

Pickleball in Mobile County is not quite at the same stage of development as with neighbors to the east. At this time, the only consistent location for players to gather is the Via Health, Fitness & Enrichment Center on Dauphin Street in Mobile.

“Snowbirds have helped Baldwin County a lot,” said True Nicolson, who became USAPA ambassador for Mobile County 18 months ago. “We are trying to convince elected officials here that there is a need for more places to play.”

Nicolson started to play pickleball six years ago after learning about it through a friend from Maine. At that time she just thought it was a sport for our northern visitors.

“My first match was at the Mobile Tennis Center against a 12-year-old, who put me in my place pretty quickly,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about the game. At that point I knew the rules, but I needed more help on what I was doing.”

She spoke to the Mobile City Council and told them the game was needed in all parks. At this time, Nicolson said, some of the locations that have hosted pickleball in the past are the Spring Hill Recreation Center, Crawford Park, Sage Park, Connie Hudson Senior Center, Palmer Pillans Middle School, Spring Hill Baptist Church and the Country Club of Mobile.

The one constant site has been the Via Center. The indoor basketball court is converted into three pickleball courts and one small area where players can warm up.

“All ages can play together,” she said. “At Via, we have players ages 11 to 85. Differences disappear on the court. People of all backgrounds play together, from high school educations to doctors. From all backgrounds, including economic, race and gender.”

On a recent Saturday at Via, 28 people came to play. Three were from out of state while six were from Baldwin County. Also included were a grandmother and her two grandsons. Nicolson said there are about 80 active players who come to Via during the week.

“Overall, I believe there are now 100 to 120 active players in Mobile County, which is three to four times the number from 18 months ago,” she said. “And that number literally grows steadily daily.”

This is the reason she is working hard to get additional permanent locations for pickleball.

“More places for people to play pickleball will help grow the game,” Nicolson said. “The economic impact pickleball it can have will also help Mobile. Travelers will spend a night here as opposed to somewhere else if they can play pickleball. We have a group of people who come on Saturdays from Baldwin County because Via is the only place to play on Saturday.

“Since I approached the City Council, 18 outdoor courts have been completed in Griffin, Georgia. They hosted six tournaments in 2018, the last with 350-plus players. Opelika, Alabama, is completing 12 outdoor covered courts. The new event facility in Foley will host the USAPA Regional tournament in August, being able to have 18 indoor courts with an estimated 350 to 400 players. A tournament being planned in the Hoover area is expected to bring 500-plus players.”

Nicolson is confident the sport will continue to expand.

“We are slowly growing,” she said. “My first email list had 17 people on it. My newest list has 80 people, and that is not counting all of those playing at the Country Club of Mobile.

“I would say there are several hundred people in Mobile playing. I’m always learning of more pockets of people.”

Nicholson continues working to make Mobile County a destination for pickleball.

“I first approached the City Council not knowing what I was doing or how things work,” she said. “I will approach them again at some point with more concrete plans, and more player support, than I had earlier.”

Where to play

The places2play.org website offers many locations where pickleball courts are available. Many players will carry their paddles with them on trips, and use the website to find a place where a game can be found.

Here is a current list of courts along the Alabama Coast (other locations like Crawford Park in Mobile have tennis courts lined off with pickleball dimensions):

• Via Health, Fitness And Enrichment Center (1717 Dauphin St., Mobile);

• Bay Minette Pickleball Courts (303 McMillan Ave., Bay Minette);

• Nicholson Center (1410 Captain O’Neal Drive, Daphne);

• Lake Osprey RV Resort (2906 County Road 95 and County Road 20, Elberta);

• Fairhope Recreation Center (803 N. Greeno Road, Fairhope);

• Pandion Ridge RV Resort (22800 Canal Road, Orange Beach);

• Orange Beach Recreation Center (4849 Wilson Blvd., Orange Beach);

• Gulf Shores Church of Christ (2414 W. First St., Gulf Shores);

• Gulf Shores Cultural Center (19470 Oak Road West, Gulf Shores);

• ONE Club Gulf Shores (4000 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores);

• GulfWay Assembly of God Church (541 Cotton Creek Drive, Gulf Shores).

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