Franklin is helping save America…with pickleball?

OK. I’ll grant you that’s quite an attention-grabbing headline. Know that a wealthy pickleball investor in Texas firmly believes the sports that has captured the imagination of the country could be its savior.

Much more on that in a bit but first the local angle.

Back in January a Franklin Common Council meeting was loaded with one big announcement after another, with lots of excitement in the works at Ballpark Commons.

A 40-plus room boutique hotel.

A brewpub.

Live entertainment.

And pickleball, yes, pickleball which has become quite popular in Franklin.

A Pickleball court is a quarter of a regulation tennis court with two teams of two players. Franklin Recreation repainted a tennis court to establish Pickleball play at Franklin's Lion's Legend Park II on Drexel Road.

A Pickleball court is a quarter of a regulation tennis court with two teams of two players. Franklin Recreation repainted a tennis court to establish Pickleball play at Franklin’s Lion’s Legend Park II on Drexel Road. Photo: C.T. KRUGER/NOW MEDIA GROUP, June 2018

The upcoming “Rock N Pickle” in Franklin’s Ballpark Commons discussed during that January council meeting will have five outdoor courts and five indoor courts – paired with a small concert venue, large bar and a new restaurant concept. “Rock N Pickle” is scheduled to open sometime in the fall of 2023.

Ballpark Commons is wise to take advantage of the pickleball sensation that has swept America.

The print edition of the July 25, 2022, issue of New Yorker magazine contains a more than 6,500 word feature on the allure of pickle ball. The author buries that whole idea of how it will salvage the nation (more than a bit much if you ask me) but the piece captures the huge demand there is for the game.

Here’s a portion of the column:

As in politics, a few famous families dominate pickleball, the fastest-growing sport in America. One is the Johnsons, of Florida. In January, on a breezy afternoon in Boca Raton, J. W. Johnson, a strapping nineteen-year-old with short brown bangs and a leather necklace, took to the court for a semifinal match at a tournament. Johnson is taciturn, with an often impenetrable expression. He was seeded second in the tournament; his opponent, Zane Navratil, a twenty-six-year-old former C.P.A. from Wisconsin, was seeded first. Pickleball, a tennis-like sport played on a smaller court, places a gentle strain on the body, and both men had the oxygenated flush of a long day of exercise. They began by dinking—softly bouncing the ball back and forth—before Navratil, with gazelle-like grace, executed two snazzy moves at once: an Erne (which involved a flying leap) and a body shot (which involved hitting Johnson in the gut). He chuckled with contentment. Then, as a storm front moved in, the tide began to turn. “Wow, what an inside-out dink there from J. W. Johnson!” a commentator at a nearby media booth said. Johnson, jaw slack with concentration, took control.

Pickleball, which is played with paddles and a Wiffle-like ball, has exploded in popularity in recent years. During the pandemic, more than a million Americans began playing it, bringing the total to around five million. Stars and athletes play pickleball (Michael Phelps, Leonardo DiCaprio, the Clooneys); so do grandparents, parents, and children, often together. It’s simple to grasp—“easy to learn, hard to master,” many told me—and is social and inexpensive. Its design, which includes a no-volley zone near the net, minimizes running, as does the vast popularity of doubles. For these reasons, it can blur the lines between sport and hobby, amateur and pro, celebrity and mortal. In June, at a court near Pittsburgh, a petite grandmother named Meg texted her daughter a photo of herself with three burly strangers. “The guy in the green shirt and I whooped the other two,” she wrote. “Then everybody else there wanted to take our photo.” All three were Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Boca Raton tournament was held at a tennis center, and it displayed the sport’s particular brand of homespun giddiness. People played pickup games on mini courts by an arepa stand; kids posed with a smiling yellow pickleball mascot. A small village of venders’ booths sold refreshments (restorative CBD drinks, fresh fruit salads) and pickleball products (a self-massager, pickleball vacations). Two wiry middle-aged women passed me in matching shirts that said “ENERGY”; one, nearly skipping, was talking about how happy she was. At a nearby match, a man, apropos of nothing, hollered, “Pickleball!” He seemed to speak for everyone.

Pickleball can be snappier than tennis, as when dinking escalates into frenetic, close-range volleys known as “hand battles.” In Boca Raton, spectators had the quick, frenzied head movements of a cat ready to pounce on a toy. The game offers pleasures familiar from tennis—rallies sustained amid startling attacks; stunning angles overcome, or not—but very little drama in the way of serves, which are underhand. (A bedevilling underhand spin serve, the Navratil chainsaw, has proved controversial.)

Most of the sport’s popularity is in the recreational realm, in public parks, converted tennis facilities, and the expanding zone of party-friendly pickleball restaurants. But, since 2020, a burgeoning pro scene has been accelerated by two tours in the U.S., the A.P.P. Tour and the P.P.A. (Professional Pickleball Association) Tour, which, combined, run more than fifty tournaments a year. The prize money isn’t huge, but sponsorships augment it, and hundreds of players have restructured their lives in order to follow the circuit. Some earn a living—Ben Johns, the sport’s biggest star, estimates that he made two hundred and fifty thousand dollars last year—but many lose money. Members of the pro-am community and the economy surrounding it (the picklesphere, as one pro called it) hope that this will change as the sport grows.

Pickleball is known for good sportsmanship; Zane Navratil has a theory that its intimacy has something to do with that. “In tennis, you’re a hundred feet from your opponent, and if you cheat on a call you can sort of look at the court,” he told me. “In pickleball, you’re fourteen feet away, and you’ve got to look ’em in the eye.” The A.P.P.’s head referee, Byron Freso, told me that bad behavior is actively discouraged. “You’ll hear comments like ‘That’s tennis. Don’t bring your tennis here,’ ” Freso said. “ ‘What kind of tennis attitude is that?’ ” (That week, the losing player in a men’s singles match had refused the handshake of his opponent, and the crowd gasped in horror. “That’s not nice!” a woman said.) From this perspective, the P.P.A.’s actions could seem a bit tennis.

Pickleball was invented in 1965, on Bainbridge Island, Washington, by three dads—Joel Pritchard, a Republican state representative and later a U.S. congressman; Bill Bell, a businessman; and Barney McCallum, a printing-company owner. The men and their families, who lived in nearby Seattle, summered on Bainbridge, and they wanted to amuse their bored kids after returning from a game of golf. The Pritchards’ house had a badminton court, but there wasn’t enough functional equipment to yield a game, so the dads used paddles and a Wiffle ball, and lowered the net to three feet. They wanted the game to be equally playable by kids and adults; the area close to the net was restricted, to deter smashes. “We had it pretty much worked out in four or five days,’’ Pritchard told a reporter in 1990. “What makes it such a great game is that the serve isn’t so dominant, like it is in tennis.” The court was small—about a quarter the size of a tennis court—and the rules further minimized the unfairness of height and strength disparities. “We got pretty fussy about the rules,’’ Pritchard said.

In 1972, McCallum founded Pickle-Ball Inc., a marketing and production company, to produce paddles and punch holes in balls imported from Ohio. They were shipped around the country, and the game grew, especially in school athletic programs. (By 1990, Pickle-Ball Inc. was selling about a hundred and fifty thousand balls and thirty thousand paddles a year, mostly to schools; in 2016, it was sold to the sport’s biggest equipment retailer, Pickleball Central.) In 1976, Tennis published a story about “America’s newest racquet sport,” and the first known pickleball tournament was held, in Washington. (It is now the official state sport.)

Pickleball is ideal for snowbird couples looking to befriend their new neighbors, and in the late seventies and the eighties its popularity soared in retirement communities. In 1978, Charlie Penta, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, introduced pickleball to the Villages, a Brooklyn-size retirement hamlet in central Florida. It caught on like wildfire. “As Village snow birds returned home,” one resident devotee observed, “they brought back pickleball and spread it throughout the land.” A friend of Joel Pritchard’s owned a nationwide network of R.V. parks and outfitted each with a pickleball court; a player named Sid Williams, of Tacoma, Washington, co-founded the U.S.A. Pickleball Association in 1984. Its first honorary member was President Ronald Reagan, to whom Williams sent a complete pickleball set. (“I don’t think he ever played,” Williams said. “He wasn’t very athletic.”) The U.S.A.P.A. became the sport’s governing body; in 2002, the Villages hosted the first national championship.

“If I knew it was gonna be this slow, I would have waited to say goodbye.”

As pickleball fever has intensified, so have confrontations. “The residents presented us with a petition,” a board member of an active-living community outside Hartford, Connecticut, told me. “ ‘We want pickleball and we want it now.’ ” In Sonoma County, tennis courts central to a pickleball turf war were vandalized with motor oil, presumably by an angry tennis player. And, in communities from Provincetown to British Columbia, the sport’s distinctive “pop-pop-pop” has become the new leaf blower. On a peaceful, rural island in the Salish Sea, a pickleball noise dispute—involving elderly neighbors, players who use a hard ball and players who use a soft, quieter ball—has led to a rift unlike any the community has seen. “At music-trivia night, the hard-ballers and soft-ballers sat on opposite sides of the room,” a resident told me. “What is it about pickleball that does this to people?”

At one tournament, a senior pro told me, “The most important thing about this sport is the friendships. I just lost my husband a week ago, and the only reason I’m here today is because of my pickleball community lifting me up.” She got teary. “There’s no other sport like that. Tennis isn’t like that. You go to a tennis tournament, it’s them against you.”

People tend to have vivid stories about their first games, can tell you the exact moment it all clicked. “I called my wife and I said, ‘Hon, I found my new sport,’ ” Raul Travieso, the president of the Boca Raton Pickleball Club, said. Its blend of challenge and accessibility makes it addictive—one of the sport’s mantras is “One more game”—and the common experience of being taught to play by senior citizens, and then being walloped by them, only heightens the intrigue. Byron Freso and his wife, Marsha, started playing pickleball after retiring to Florida, in 2011. “I heard a pop-pop-pop sound,” Freso told me. They went to investigate, and met a couple in their seventies who showed them the basics. “They proceeded to spank us, 11–3, 11–1,” Freso said. “I never forget the score.” The Fresos practiced hard and watched helpful YouTube videos, and “a month later we gave them a drubbing.” Now they officiate thirty tournaments a year, driving around the country in an R.V.

The game’s ethos is fundamentally democratic. “You sign your name up on the board, and you have a blast,” Sherry Scheer, a former tennis coach and a pickleball senior pro, told me. Scheer lives on Cape Cod; during the pandemic, she and her wife had a court installed in their yard. One day, a man in a hat and sunglasses cycled by, saw her playing, and stopped to call out, “What is that?” She taught him to play, and only belatedly realized that he was a famous TV personality. “That’s just how pickleball is!” she said. Pickleball doubles partners tap paddles between every point, win or lose, and skilled players have tended to be generous about playing with less skilled players. But that’s been changing.

Most of the people I talked to at the Houston Street event, like most pickleball players I talked to everywhere else, cited the appeal of community. Players can show up alone and take part in open play; the short games and smaller spaces are conducive to conversation.

“Pickleball will save America,” (former hedge-fund manager Steve) Kuhn told me. (Kuhn unveiled a pickleball mecca in Dripping Springs, Texas, called Dreamland). “A lot of people think we’re going to have a civil war if this election is close. We’ve got) “A lot of people think we’re going to have a civil war if this election is close. We’ve got to get people out there playing pickleball with people who will vote the other way, so they don’t want to kill each other. It sounds ridiculous and dramatic, but I kind of mean it. Pickleball can save us, and we need to be saved.”

Watch the pros in action!

One thought on “Franklin is helping save America…with pickleball?

  1. Pingback: My Most Popular Blogs (07/25/22) | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

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