Five years ago, Santa Cruz pickleballers like Terrance Long were limited to a single court at Louden Nelson Community Center in downtown Santa Cruz. Today, because of the hard work and passionate lobbying efforts of Long and other members of the Santa Cruz Pickleball Club (SCPBC), there are 28 designated pickleball courts scattered throughout Santa Cruz County.
”The growth of Santa Cruz pickleball has been tremendous in the last four years,” says the 59-year-old Long. “The game is a great way to get some exercise and to have fun at the same time. It’s easy to learn, and even easier to get good quickly.”
A cross between tennis, badminton, and ping pong, the explosive growth and popularity of pickleball—in Santa Cruz County and across the nation—has been astounding.
There are an estimated 2.46 million pickleball players in the United States, and even though the sport (in its earliest form) has been around since 1965, most of its growth has occurred within the past decade. Often touted as the country’s fastest growing sport, the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) in its annual “Listings of Places to Play” report, estimates that 76 new pickleball courts are being constructed each month in the U.S. and Canada, with a current total of around 3,748 courts in the U.S. The Santa Cruz Pickleball Club (SCPBC) boasts more than 200 active members, and the unmistakable pick-pock of the whiffle-like pickleball can be heard across the county each and every day of the week.
As a founding member of the SCPBC and an official ambassador for the USAPA, the youthful-looking Long has seen his “little fringe sport” blossom into a full-on recreational craze. He and his wife Karen Long, now president of the SCPBC, have been instrumental in bringing and promoting pickleball within county lines.
“We have an awesome group of players,” says Long. “A mix of ages, genders, and ethnicities that continues to grow. It’s easy to learn and it’s really getting popular.”
In a Pickle
On a cool and cloudy Friday morning in late December, Brommer Park swarmed with pickle ballers of all shapes and sizes. Eight courts, four players to a court, were filled completely, and 15 people stood eagerly in the wings, waiting for a chance to play their favorite game.
Experienced picklers happily hit with pickleball neophytes, offering helpful tips, suggestions, and encouragement. The mood was light, airy, jovial, and totally welcoming. After each game, tired and sweaty pickle ballers approached the net and tapped paddles in good spirits.
The “sport that no one’s heard of” is actually a pretty big deal here in Santa Cruz County. Pickleball regulars do their best to explain their passion: “It’s much like being a ping pong player on the surface of the table,” some say. Other players just throw in the towel, and say “it’s four dudes with paddles hitting a ball.” Most diehards have a ready answer for the incessant and inevitable “what the hell is pickleball?” question, though, which they follow with an encouragement for newbies to try the sport for themselves.
So what the hell is pickleball?
Here are the basics: Pickleball is played on a court measuring 20 by 44 feet—the same size as a doubles badminton court—and players (singles or doubles) use aluminum/graphite paddles to hit a ball (similar to a wiffle ball) over a 34- to 36-inch net. The paddles (usually ranging from $80-$150) are smaller than a tennis racquet, but larger than a ping pong paddle. The game is fast-paced, even though the white or yellow wiffle-esque ball travels at only a third of the speed of a tennis ball.
Like in tennis or ping pong, players serve cross-court, but underhand, to bring the ball into play. The “double bounce rule” ensures the serving team lets the ball bounce when returned. The court is striped similar to a tennis court, with left and right service courts, but with no alleys. There is a 7-foot non-volley “death-zone” in front of both sides of the net, affectionately known as “the kitchen.” Much of the fast-paced action occurs at the net, and the kitchen equalizes the power players from the not-so-strong players.
The first team/individual to 11 points wins, though they must win by two points.
It really only takes one session to grasp the game’s nuances and funky scoring, and to remember to stay out of the bloody kitchen.
Ball for All Ages
Even though the sport was officially invented for kids—three fathers created the game to entertain their hell-raising sons in Seattle in the summer of 1965—most pickleball players are, interestingly, senior citizens.
The USAPA estimates that 66.1 percent of pickleballers are above the age of 60. Seniors say they enjoy the sport for the social aspect, low-impact exercise, and because there is not as much running around as there is in tennis. The learning curve is fairly mild as well; pretty much anyone who’s ever played a racquet sport can pick up the game easily.
Jerry Louis is 70. Now an expert 5.0 player, Louis says his physical and emotional health improved markedly once he started to play pickleball regularly.
“The social aspect is fabulous,” Louis says. “Many older people have no real social interaction. It gets you out of the house to do something physical, and the health benefits are enormous. After just a little while, you feel better.”
Louis and a huge number of ex-tennis-playing seniors have switched allegiances, abandoning tennis for pickleball. Their reasons are both physical and mental. Pickleball is a sport that can be enjoyed at any level of intensity, and the perfect form/amount of physical exercise for anyone healing from overuse injuries. It’s proven to be less strenuous, requires less running and most importantly, the people are much, much chiller.
“It’s the most welcoming group of any sport I’ve ever been involved in,” says Louis. “And in my 70-71 years I’ve been involved in a lot.”
This sentiment is echoed by pickleballers across the nation. The people who play pickleball are just nicer. Maybe it’s the funny name or the silly wiffle ball. Maybe it’s the sage wisdom of an older generation—but no matter where you play, pickleball courts are always full of laughter, hope, joy, and encouragement.
That’s a far cry from tennis, say many.
Long admits that “tennis is a game with too much etiquette. No laughing, no helping each other out with tips, no smiling. With pickleball you can laugh and joke around. People exchange phone numbers. It’s a community. That never happened with tennis.”
Long believes that the social part of the game is the reason so many people are abandoning tennis in favor of pickleball. “Pickleball is welcoming to all,” he says.
Not everyone is happy about the meteoric rise of pickleball, though. The “country’s fastest growing sport” has drawn the ire of tennis players across the nation, especially here in Santa Cruz County.
Many tennis players have become increasingly weary of the up-and-coming sport of pickleball—and of losing precious tennis courts throughout Santa Cruz County. A vicious battle between the SCPBC and disgruntled tennis players has raged for years. Both sides have sent numerous letters to the Board of Supervisors, and have accused each other of wrongdoing and outright lies. The debate of whether or not to build four permanent pickleball courts at Brommer Park became especially divisive. Pickleball uses a different kind of net than tennis, and Brommer Park is the only court with pickleball nets—at other courts, players set them up for each match. Websites and social media posts like “Santa Cruz Pickleball Club: Lies by the Truckload” were met with claims from the SCPBC about the benefits of pickleball, the county’s need for more courts, and its growing popularity.
“For some, change is hard,” says Long. “We show up at city council meetings in large numbers. Peaceful and respectful, but with a story.”
The SCPBC’s steering committee has been actively working with the city of Santa Cruz, the County, and Scotts Valley. Their numbers at City Council meetings dwarf those of tennis players.
“There has been animosity with tennis players. We’ve been battling them for five years,” says Louis wistfully. Louis points to the rise of pickleball and equates it to that of snowboarding.
When snowboarding first began, skiers didn’t want people snowboarding on their ski slopes.
“Now there are more snowboarders than skiers,” says Louis. “I think that’s what’s going to happen with pickleball and tennis.”
For more information, including courts and times of play, visit santacruzpickleballclub.org/courts.