Pickleball, America's fastest-growing sport, has SLO County captivated
Four times a week, Lanny Hernandez heads to French Park for his morning ritual: a game of pickleball. Players hit perforated plastic balls with paddles, darting around the court and calling out to one another. Lately, Hernandez can’t help but notice that the people coming to the court are getting younger.
“More and more younger people are playing, which I happen to hate because they have all the attributes that I don’t have,” he said, laughing.
A hybrid sport that incorporates elements of tennis, table tennis, and badminton, pickleball is the new activity of choice among local park patrons — and, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, is now America’s fastest-growing sport.
Hernandez started playing in 2018, and is an active member of the SLO Pickleball Club, a group that aims to encourage others to pick up the sport and works with the City of San Luis Obispo to develop plans for new courts.
Despite his experience with the sport, he frequently plays with newcomers. Cole Meusel, a recent Cal Poly graduate, got into pickleball by playing with friends. Now he comes to French Park for pickup games with players like Hernandez.
“We’ve been coming out here for three weeks now, just coming out and beating on my friends,” said Meusel. “Getting beat by guys like Lanny here is really humbling.”
According to Hernandez, the pickup model implemented at most courts in San Luis Obispo adds a level of socialization to the sport.
“You don’t have to schedule in advance, you don’t have to find three or four other people to play with you, you can just come and play,” he said. “And that model, that paradigm of play, is just great for increasing socialness.”
The social nature of pickleball makes sense, given that the sport was created by three friends with nothing to do on the weekend.
The year was 1965. Washington state congressman Joel Pritchard, his friend Bill Bell, and their families were bored at Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island. According to the USA Pickleball Association website, the two men improvised a game using ping-pong paddles, a perforated plastic ball, and a badminton net that was installed on the property. Another family friend, Barney McCallum, came by to help develop game rules. After working out the kinks — and lowering the net to 36 inches — pickleball was born.
The sport gained a grassroots following in the following decades, but the 2010s saw pickleball explode, with its number of devotees only growing.
Mike Patterson coaches pickleball for LevelUp Pickleball, which offers 139 camps for all skill levels in 33 states across the US. Patterson, a former tennis player, began playing in 2017 after a friend convinced him to start.
“The name put me off at first, you know, I thought it sounded silly. And he told me it was played with a plastic ball,” he said. “And I thought, you know, that's even worse. But I'm glad he stuck with it, because as soon as I played a game, I was hooked.”
LevelUp’s camp program offered at Pismo Beach Athletic Club often draws players from hundreds of miles away, like Caroline Normile, who came from San Francisco with her partner to attend the camp.
“It’s been a really nice way to meet folks of all different levels and all different age groups, which has been really fun,” said Normile.
One aspect of pickleball that makes it unique from other sports is its level system, where players are ranked on their ability to perform skills and techniques.
“After a few tournaments, you get a ranking,” said Patterson. “And you can confidently say, I'm ranked 3.5, or I'm ranked at 3.6. If you don't play tournaments, you're always kind of guessing at your rating.”
According to Patterson, most players in the San Luis Obispo area estimate their level themselves. Since the county is not a hotspot for competitive play, the demand for public courts is only growing.
Greg Avakian, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department for the City of San Luis Obispo, said that locals began asking for designated courts in 2016. To gauge public interest, the city launched a pilot program indoors, using basketball courts at the Ludwick Community Center, and outdoors with courts at Meadow Park.
“It’s like the difference between a trend and a fad,” said Avakian. “As we went through that first pilot program, we could see the numbers growing.”
After the program concluded, the Parks and Recreation department started on a capital improvement project in 2018 to renovate old basketball courts into pickleball courts. The department consulted the SLO Pickleball Club for information on court and game logistics.
“We did talk to them a lot and say, ‘Hey, is this the style of netting, is this the appropriate fence dimensions to have enough room?’” said Avakian. “A footprint was there so we kind of had to work with what we were given.”
The city now has three designated public courts — including the one in French Park — and plans to build private courts within the Righetti and Avila Ranch living communities. But Avakian says the rapid development isn’t enough for some people.
“I think even the city has been put in the box of not offering enough pickleball because we only have three courts,” said Avakian. “But I have to remind people that that all happened in a five year period…there's certain fields and certain sport activities that people have been requesting for 20 years that haven't happened.”
Pickleball’s rise in popularity in SLO County — and the rest of the United States — can only be described as meteoric. But aficionados say it’ll maintain that buzz, and seasoned players welcome these newcomers to create a positive play environment.
When asked why people of all ages are flocking to pickleball, Hernandez summed up the ethos of the game:
“It’s fun, it’s good for your body, and it’s a great game for everybody.”
The verdict is in: pickleball is here to stay.