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Passion for Pickleball: Springfield looks to boost interest to the rapidly growing sport

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As more people show interest in a nearly 60-year-old sport, local tourism, business and sports officials want to capitalize on its increasing popularity.

Pickleball, which originated in 1965, is an indoor or outdoor racquet activity that combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong, according to the USA Pickleball Association, which governs the sport. It can be played in nearly two dozen venues in the Ozarks – a number which local participants say is on the rise.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 8.9 million people over the age of 6 played pickleball across the United States in 2022. That total – approaching double the 4.8 million the organization reported participating in 2021 – is up roughly 157% since 2019.

The USA Pickleball Association’s Places2Play online database noted at the end of 2022 there were 10,724 known locations and 44,094 courts to play in the U.S. That’s an increase of 1,557 locations from 2021.

There are myriad reasons for the sport’s growth, said Matt Battaglia, president of the Ozarks Pickleball Club. The organization, which became a 501(c)(3) in 2021, loosely started as a Facebook group in 2005, he said.

“One, it has a real low barrier to entry. Almost anyone can pick up a paddle and a ball, and as long as you have a net somewhere, you can play,” he said. “It’s one of those rare sports that a lot of different people can play together.”

Much like other outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as hiking and biking, Battaglia said pickleball attracted an increasing amount of interest. The online group, which began to communicate with other players, has surpassed 2,600 members, he said. However, he added there’s no official membership total for the club, as it doesn’t collect fees.

“We formed the club to centralize and organize all the players and get everybody together, as well as get the word out and organize events,” he said, noting the free monthly social events typically draw 100-125 people.

The club also organizes several tournaments a year in Springfield, with venues including Meador Park, Cooper Tennis Complex and Gillenwater Tennis Complex. Participants pay to compete, Battaglia said.

“We’re running tournaments with easily over 200-300 people every single time,” he said. “The growth has been very much evident in everything we do.”

Tournament time
One of those tournaments, the Queen City Open, debuted last year at the Cooper Tennis Complex as a collaboration between the pickleball club and the Springfield-Greene County Park Board. Battaglia said over 300 people played, and attendance was around 500. A second edition is planned June 23-25.

“Through the tournament proceeds and sponsorship donations, we raised over $45,000 for Springfield-Greene County Park Board. With that money so far, they’ve been able to upgrade and expand the pickleball courts that are at Meador Park,” he said, noting the court count doubled to 12.

Battaglia said Meador Park has the only public dedicated pickleball courts in Springfield, although several other venues, such as the Pat Jones YMCA, Schweitzer Church and Redline Athletics, allow for pickleball games in their gymnasiums.

Additional pickleball-related work is planned, Park Board officials confirmed. A proposed second phase at Meador Park would add six more courts, as well as permanent restrooms. The third phase would rebuild the existing courts slab, while adding new lights and fencing. No timeline is in place for the work, Battaglia said, noting an estimated cost of $1.5 million. Financing for the work is still to be determined.

Springfield also got a win in the sport when the Park Board, Springfield Sports Commission and regional organization Pickleball Blast secured the city as the host site of the USA Pickleball Middle States Regional Championships for the next two years. The Cooper Tennis Complex will host the tournament, set for June 1-4 this year, and May 30-June 2, 2024.

“I understand we beat out some competition from Chicago and Milwaukee,” said Springfield Sports Commission Executive Director Lance Kettering. “Our hopes are to prove ourselves with this one and that it expands into an even bigger opportunity in the future.”

He estimated the competition, which has drawn 700-800 participants in past years, will generate $500,000-$600,000 annually in spending from visitors.

“The growth of the sport is really quite staggering,” Kettering said.

Making investments
Some future developments want to have pickleball among the amenities.

GDL Enterprises LLC seeks to include green space for pickleball courts as part of its $1 million development dubbed the Loose Goose, which is a planned coffee shop, bar and recreational venue on the Grant Avenue Parkway. The sport also is expected to be part of outdoor games to eventually be offered at 4 by 4 Brewing Co.’s recently opened taproom in Fremont Hills, according to officials.

In Republic, voters approved renewal of a quarter-cent capital improvement sales tax last year that will, in part, provide revenue for the $40 million Republic Sports Park and Athletic Complex. Development of the property that fronts James River Freeway between U.S. Highway 60 and Farm Road 156 is currently in progress. Part of the project’s second phase includes up to 12 pickleball courts, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

A new offering from the owners of Classic Rock Coffee LLC has added a pair of indoor pickleball courts in its facility at 1900 W. Sunset St. Classic’s Yard spans 20,000 square feet connected to the coffee shop, said co-owner Mark Schwien. It opened to customers Feb. 1 and has indoor sport and yard games, such as cornhole and a golf simulator, he said, declining to disclose startup costs.

The pickleball courts, which can be rented for $30 per hour, became available to customers around five months ago, he said. Rentals are frequent, noting a recent Friday already had 13 reservations by early afternoon.

“That stuff has really taken off quick,” he said, adding Gerald Perry Tennis Co. built the courts.

Sophie Pierpoint, vice president and business development officer at Old Missouri Bank, got into the sport in 2020 and frequently participates in tournaments in women’s and mixed doubles. Besides the social aspect, Pierpoint said she saw the networking and relationship building potential.

“As I’ve met people throughout the community that play, I’ve just brought them on board as new bank customers,” she said, estimating the current total has surpassed 100. “I saw that there were a lot of bankers playing golf but not a lot of bankers were playing pickleball.”

She said OMB is involved in tournament sponsorships and has made an undisclosed investment in branded gear such as pickleball rackets and T-shirts.

“The new thing I did this year for the bank to spread the word even more is take on what we’re referring to as brand ambassadors,” she said, noting Battaglia is one of them. “They’re helping us with promoting the sport and promoting the bank.”

With newer venues welcoming pickleball and the demand seeming to grow every year, Battaglia said the demand for the sport with the quirky name shows no slowdown.

“The sky’s the limit. Both nationally and locally – even with all the growth – we’re still on the uphill slope,” he said.

Sophie Pierpoint, right, says the sport is good for business networking. She's pictured with pickleball partner Michelle Billionis, owner of The Coffee Ethic. Photo provided by Sophie Pierpoint

Matt Battaglia: Local pickleball club draws hundreds to its tournaments.

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