While riding their bikes in Monument Valley Park one day in 2016, Joe Johnson and his wife stopped to watch a pickleball game and were invited to try the sport.
They were instantly hooked, and two years later, Johnson had become an accomplished player and was president of the Pikes Peak Pickleball Association, the first and largest pickleball association in the state.
Kevin Gardner and his wife, Jeanie Alaya, started playing pickleball in 2018 after a family friend introduced Alaya to the game. The couple loved it so much that, a year later, they built their own court in the warehouse beside their business.
“It’s so much fun, you don’t even realize you’re getting a cardio workout,” Alaya said.
Pickleball, an amalgamation of tennis, badminton and ping pong that’s played with paddles and perforated plastic balls, is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates there are 3.3 million pickleball players in the United States. Over the last five years, the sport has been experiencing a 9-10 percent annual growth rate.
Pikes Peak Pickleball has mushroomed from about 600 members two years ago to more than 1,400 now, Johnson said.
On an average Saturday morning in the summer, the 15 courts at Monument Valley Park are full, with 60 players engaged in doubles games.
“And you’ll have 60 to 70 players outside the fence waiting to get on the court,” Johnson said. Players come out even in the dead of winter, when weather permits.
The sport is attracting a range of players from children to adults 80 and older, and Johnson thinks there are several reasons for its growing popularity.
“Usually players can learn it very quickly,” he said. Beginners can pick up the basics in one lesson and start playing right away.
Because the court is smaller than a tennis court and games are shorter, pickleball is easier on the body while providing as much of a workout as a player’s skill level permits.
“It’s a very social game,” Johnson said. “Grandparents can play with their grandkids; husbands and wives can play together. So it’s a family-oriented sport.”
Another big attraction is that pickleball is “totally welcoming to everyone,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter about your race, your gender, who you love or whatever. It’s just open to everyone.”
A report compiled by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found that pickleball is most popular among older people, but the number of younger players is growing rapidly.
Pickleball’s economic impact nationally stems mostly from sales of equipment: Pickleball paddles range in price from about $45 for wood paddles to more than $150 for top-of-the-line graphite and composite paddles.
Paddle technology has developed to the point where players of all skill levels have a multitude of choices, and equipment is sold at all major sporting goods stores and vendors like Walmart.
Locally, Pikes Peak Pickleball hosts a couple of annual tournaments that attract visitors to the Pikes Peak region.
“They have a regional tournament in Monument Valley Park that brings in hundreds of people,” said Kurt Schroeder, park operations and development manager for the city of Colorado Springs. “It puts heads in beds.”
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the tournaments this year, but Schroeder thinks that people who come for the tournaments often come to town early or stay late to take advantage of the area’s attractions.
Johnson said Visit COS estimated that in the past few years, “we raked in over $2.3 million in revenue for the city from having the tournament and people coming in and staying in hotels and eating in restaurants.”
Monument Valley Park’s pickleball courts, remodeled and upgraded in 2018, are becoming an attraction in themselves.
“Maybe a tourist who’s coming to see the sights is also a pickleball player and says, ‘Let’s stay an extra day because it sure is nice down in Monument Valley Park and we can play a game or two,’” Schroeder said. “It’s bringing folks into our community who are in turn spending money” on lodging, dining and other activities.
According to the USA Pickleball Association, the game was invented 55 years ago by three dads who were looking to entertain their kids during the summer. They made the equipment themselves and created simple rules that everyone could grasp.
Several stories exist about how the game got its name, but the one that seems to be most acknowledged is that it was christened in honor of a dog that belonged to one of the founding families. Pickles the dog loved to chase the ball and run off with it, the story goes.
The court on which pickleball is played is 20 feet by 44 feet, roughly a quarter of the size of a tennis court, with a net strung across the middle. The court is divided into two zones. The area 7 feet back from the net on both sides is called the kitchen, and in that area, players are not allowed to volley — hit the ball before it bounces. The rear areas are the service courts.
Players serve underhanded into the diagonally opposite service court, and the opponents must let the ball bounce before returning it. The serving team must also let the return bounce before hitting it. After the first two bounces, the ball can be volleyed (outside the kitchen) or played off the bounce.
Players score points only on their serve. The serving team keeps serving until they commit a fault — hit the ball out of bounds or volley within the non-volley zone, for example. That results in a side out, and the serve moves to the other team. The game usually is played to 11 or 15 points, but a team must win by two points. Games usually last for 15 or 20 minutes, depending on players’ skill, and players usually play multiple games.
Pikes Peak Pickleball, founded seven years ago, partners with the city and county to promote the sport and assist in building and maintaining courts.
“We coordinated with the city to build the 15-court facility in Monument Valley Park, as well as a four-court facility at Venezia Park,” Johnson said. “We partnered with El Paso County this past year and were able to donate $120,000 to them to build a 12-court facility at Bear Creek Park.” The Bear Creek courts will be completed and opened this spring.
The association sought and received permission from the city to restripe little-used tennis courts around the city so they could also host pickleball play.
“We provided that free to the city,” Johnson said.
The association also serves as lead for the city in teaching pickleball and managing the Monument Valley Park courts.
“We’re all about providing the opportunities that people are hoping for to get outside and recreate,” Schroeder said. “Lots of times, people come to us with thoughts, ideas and suggestions. It’s not always that people bring money to the table, like this club does.”
The courts are used year-round, every day when the weather permits, Johnson said. The day after snowstorms, members are out at the park shoveling and sweeping the courts. Crews from the association also keep the courts clear of leaves in the fall.
Member dues of $20 a year go back into the community, Johnson said. The annual tournaments are the organization’s biggest moneymakers, through entry fees and sponsorships.
“We just picked up Scheels All Sports,” the massive sporting goods store scheduled to open March 27 in north Colorado Springs.
“Scheels is going to have a complete pickleball line,” Johnson said. “I worked with them when we developed our partnership so that they will start a demo program where people will go in, see a paddle, go out and play with it a couple of times and then purchase it if that’s the paddle they want.”
Pikes Peak Pickleball also partners with private organizations such as The Arena Athletic Performance Center.
“We helped them design their pickleball courts, and they offered them to the pickleball community for a very low price,” Johnson said.
Johnson and other members have individual sponsorships with companies like Selkirk to sell paddles and other pickleball gear.
In addition to the public, outdoor courts, private and indoor courts are being constructed and used in Colorado Springs.
After Gardner and Alaya were introduced to pickleball, they started playing regularly on the city courts.
Because they run Cutting Edge Tool Supply, they could only play after hours.
“We were playing at Venezia Park after it started getting dark early,” Alaya said. One 32-degree night in October 2018, “Kevin said, ‘I think I’m going to rearrange our warehouse and build a pickleball court in there.’ We got rid of a whole bunch of stuff, reorganized things, talked to people and learned how to build it,” Alaya said.
The court, built to professional standards with a permanent net, was finished in December. Although it’s an indoor court, it has an outdoor surface.
“Originally we made it for ourselves and let friends play,” Alaya said. But from their business, they could see the court sitting empty all day, and eventually the couple decided to rent it out.
Alaya, who serves as manager of the facility now known as Colorado Springs Pickleball or The Warehouse, said the court was instantly popular. This year she started taking reservations for permanent weekly times, and the court, which is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight, is booked through April except for early mornings and late at night.
“I have a wait list and we always fill it in the winter,” she said. “I have to turn away people all the time.”
Players are required to observe COVID-related safety rules including wearing masks while they play.
Players can access other indoor courts at several YMCAs, Nova Sports, The Farm and The Arena.
North Side Social will debut eight new courts inside a covered dome during a grand reopening Dec. 31.
For more information about pickleball, how to get started and where to play, visit pppa.wildapricot.org.