Pickleball slams into 55-plus crowd

by Dan Holland

The popularity of pickleball has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, especially among the 55 and older crowd.

The paddleball sport is often played in doubles much like tennis yet on a smaller court and with the use of polymer “wiffle” balls.  Some describe it as a cross between tennis and table tennis with much less area to cover compared with a full-size tennis court.

According to the USA Pickleball website, 52% of “core” players – those who play more than eight times a year – are aged 55 and up, and the sport counts nearly five million participants of all age groups nationally.

Communities all around Northeast Ohio have incorporated the sport into their recreation programs with some locations offering both indoor and outdoor play. Many offer lessons and set aside designated times for novice or experienced players to take to the courts.

Independence, which first introduced a pickleball program in 2013, offers four indoor courts at the Fieldhouse and  six outdoor courts at Elmwood Park. The response has been overwhelming, said Recreation Director Tom Walchanowicz.

“A resident approached me with the idea back in 2013,” he said. “At the time, we had an old basketball court that wasn’t seeing a lot of activity, so we converted it into a couple of pickleball courts. Ten years later, the number of people playing now is unbelievable. You drive by the courts on almost any morning in spring, summer or fall, and it’s loaded with people playing, especially seniors.”

More than 100 pickleballers in Brecksville take part in the sport at the city’s community center and new Blossom Hill Fieldhouse, according to resident Scott Campbell, who approached the city in 2021 about beginning a program. Campbell and his wife, Kim, play the sport four-to-five times a week.

“We’re very fortunate to have such a wonderful group of pickleball players here in Brecksville,” said Kim. “It’s snowballed into friendships, camaraderie and supporting one another. It’s a win-win for the community, for us and for the recreation department.”

Broadview Heights Recreation first instituted a pickleball program in 2014. The program continues to grow each year. Maureen McGinty, of Richfield Village, who has been playing pickleball for five years, frequents the Broadview Heights Recreation Center to participate.

“I like the camaraderie, the socialization, the competition and that everyone is very kind and willing to help other people along to learn how to play at every level,” said McGinty. “I play five days a week here, as much as I can.”

Broadview Heights couple Brian and Karen Wolf decided to take up the sport in early January.

“It’s a lot of fun without being overly strenuous, and it’s easy to learn,” said Brian. “Once you learn the rules, it’s not too difficult to pick up. It’s an all-ages sport. There are some younger kids coming over and playing from the basketball side, and then you have the older seniors playing – some who are very good.”

Richfield Village is planning to build two outdoor tennis courts and eight pickleball courts with lighting on the grounds of village hall sometime this year. Mayor Michael Wheeler said the village is receiving design input from a local tennis pro. 

“I need a rendering that I can take to planning and zoning, to put their stamp of approval on it, and then we’re going to start construction as soon as we can,” said Wheeler. “Pickleball is going to be fun. Many people have asked me when the pickleball courts are going in. It will go seven days a week and past dark in the summertime.”

Residents of many area senior living communities have become pickleball enthusiasts with some playing on site while others travel to local recreation facilities.

“Pickleball is very popular with our independent living residents, as they are pretty active and mobile,” shared Bob Pontius, regional director of business development for Danbury Senior Living. “Those who play say they love the similarity to tennis but on a much smaller court. They basically already know how to play; it’s just smaller and easier. The favorite style of game is definitely ‘doubles,’ which helps make the game a little easier as well as making the game much more social.”

The city of Hudson opened a brand-new $1.8 million tennis complex in October 2022, which features five tennis courts and 12 pickleball courts. Bath Community Park, located at 1615 North Cleveland-Massillon Rd., provides four tennis courts and four pickleball courts. ∞