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Pickleball is booming - and in South Florida, it's here to stay

JW and Jorja Johnson.
Courtesy of JW and Jorja Johnson
JW and Jorja Johnson of Boynton Beach.

Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America — and Florida has become quite the hot spot.

Across the state, cities and clubs are converting their tennis courts into pickleball courts. It’s attracted high profile athletes, like LeBron James, who recently invested in a Major League Pickleball team.

And now, a family who moved to South Florida to pursue tennis, find themselves ranked at the very top of a pro pickleball tour.

The pandemic is one reason pickleball’s popularity has surged. But people say it’s more than that — the sport is easy to pick up and a variety of ages can play. It’s affordable and fun.

All across Florida, great weather and an abundance of courts make it one of the top five places in the U.S. to play.

When the COVID-19 lockdowns closed Jon Federman’s local gym, the Boca Raton resident started playing pickleball. “When the pandemic started, most of us are are racquetall players and they closed the gyms. So we painted streets and then we just played in the street for awhile and then when we got better we played here,” Federman said.

Pickleball courts at El Rio Park in Boca Raton.
Photo courtesy of Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel
Pickleball courts at El Rio Park in Boca Raton.

Federman was playing at the El Rio Park in Boca Raton on a sunny, sweltering September afternoon. More than 25 people were at the courts — some were playing, others were socializing and talking about paddles and strategy.

Federman said early afternoon is a good time to get on one of the four courts at the park. Around 5:30 p.m., it starts to get pretty crowded. He’s a teacher at Coconut Creek High School in Broward County, and he comes almost every day after school.

“The games are fairly quick and anyone can play. There are teenagers out here and there are 80-year-olds that all can kick our butts!” Federman said.

Pickleball paddles lined up at El Rio Park in Boca Raton.
Photo courtesy of Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel
Pickleball paddles lined up at El Rio Park in Boca Raton.

When the courts are full, the players who are waiting place their paddle into a rack. It’s a sort of place holder, and lets other players know who’s up next. The rack hangs from a chain-link fence.

David Shaffer, a pastor at Victory Church in Boca Raton, also started playing during the pandemic. “We started playing in the church parking lot. We set up some courts and then we started playing and we fell in love with it and here we are two years later,” he said, enthusiastically.

Shaffer said he’s hooked and plays at El Rio Park four to five days a week.

“I’m in my 50’s so it just brought me back to kind of that childhood pick-up game, connecting [and] obviously the calorie burns are ridiculous,” Shaffer said.

Pickleball — a fusion of badminton, tennis and ping pong — has become wildly popular, especially with Floridians. On the state's west coast, The Naples Pickleball center, with sixty courts, calls itself the "pickleball capital of the world."

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, there were 3.5 million pickleball players in 2019. Last year, the number of pickleball players was up to 4.8 million. That's almost a 40% increase.

So, why this sudden pickleball mania? The game’s been around since 1965. The pandemic lockdowns are only one reason.

“Three-and-a-half years ago this club didn’t even know what pickleball was,” said Scott Golden, the pickleball pro at the Woodfield Country Club in Boca Raton.

Golden uses the alias 'Golden Boy Pickleball' on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. He’s been streaming games and playing pickleball since 2016.

Scott Golden, known as "golden boy pickleball" on Instagram and Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Scott Golden
Scott Golden, known as "golden boy pickleball" on Instagram and Facebook.

“A lot of people probably thought this was invented a few years ago, when in fact it was invented 57 years ago but it wasn’t popular until social media kind of picked it up,” Golden said.

Pickleball is played on a court, about a quarter of the size of a tennis court. Rather than a racket, you use a paddle to hit a plastic wiffle-type ball. The game, with its unusual scoring and non-volley zone called the “kitchen”, is easy to learn and affordable.

Golden said it brings different people together. Children play with their grandparents. Men play with women.

“I have talked to people who have literally said this has saved my marriage, this has given us something to look forward to together and we can go out and play with our kids. Or it’s connected a father and a son or a mother and a daughter who otherwise really wouldn’t have anything in common. It’s bridged that gap between old and young,” Golden said.

Pickleball is played on a smaller court with a shorter net than tennis, so the game is intimate and doesn’t require much mobility. Unlike tennis, only the team that's serving the ball can score points — for example, after winning a rally.

Golden said most of his clients in Boca Raton are 50 plus. Some are retired, some are empty nesters — people with extra time on their hands.

And, he said, it’s not just the weather that makes it appealing in South Florida, but the number of places to play.

Two years ago, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District converted some tennis courts into pickleball courts at Patch Reef Park. “We saw a need in the community. The six pickleball courts that we transitioned from tennis to pickleball get more play on than the remaining tennis courts that are currently there,” said Chair Erin Wright.

Next year, the park will have 18 pickleball courts.

There are now 10,000 facilities nationwide registered with USA Pickleball — with around three new venues opening every day. According to places2play.org, there are almost 80 places to play pickleball, from Jupiter to Homestead. That’s not including gyms or private country clubs. And, Florida ranks as one of the top five states with the most places to play.

Golden said national tours have helped pickleball gain traction. The Professional Pickleball Association’s Skechers Invitational in August was televised for the first time.

When he started playing in 2016, the professional scene was different.

“There was a professional scene but not like there is now. Pros literally worked full time jobs and then would travel on Friday Saturday Sunday and they would compete,” Golden said.

Today, there are two professional tours — the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) and the Association of Pickleball Professionals (APP).

“The tours are what really helped catapult the sport to what it is today from a professional standpoint,” Golden said.

In 2021, Major League Pickleball, MLP, a professional pickleball league, made its debut. It’s attracted high profile team owners like LeBron James and Tom Brady.

Anne Worcester is the strategic advisor for Major League Pickleball. The league consists of twelve individually owned four-person teams.

“Pickleball meets every single consumer need and this is why I think it’s so popular and why it really took off during the pandemic.” Worcester said. “It’s fun, it’s social, any age can play, any gender, any athletic ability, any income. It’s accessible. It’s affordable.”

Worcester said MLP is different from the other tours. She said their “coed team format, equal playing time for men and women, equal prize money for men and women” make them stand out.

MLP has also developed a universal rating system called DUPR–Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating.

“It rates players regardless of your age, regardless of your gender, regardless of your nationality, regardless of your socio-economic background, it just rates you based on results,” Worcester said.

JW and Jorja Johnson
Photo courtesy of JW and Jorja Johnson
JW and Jorja Johnson

Right now, pickleball ratings are kind of like the wild west — each tour has their own ranking system. MLP hopes their rating system will help make the play more universal. They also hope to make scoring simpler.

Boynton Beach brother-sister duo, Jorja and JW Johnson, who practice at Patch Reef Park, are the top-ranked singles players in the Association of Pickleball Professionals tour. They each belong to an MLP team.

“I like the community of pickleball. I like how there’s camaraderie. I also like the fast paced game of it,” said 16-year old Jorja Johnson. She’s ranked number one in women’s singles in the APP.

In 2018, the Johnson family moved to Florida for JW’s tennis career. During the pandemic, they started playing pickleball more seriously as a family. Then, they started signing up for tournaments. When Jorja and JW started playing doubles together, they never looked back.

“Most of my friends are on tour and I’m not a big fan of going to school everyday, never getting to travel and the routine of it all,” Jorja Johnson said. She’s a sophomore in high school and enrolled in an online school program.

Her brother, JW Johnson is 19 and he's ranked number one in men’s singles in the APP. He graduated from high school and is taking a gap year before going to college.

“The people are much more friendly and social for the most part, whereas with tennis everyone is just about themselves,” JW Johnson said.

Jorja Johnson is super relaxed and said she loves pickleball — there’s no stress like tennis.

“I got burned out at tennis — my dad made me play and I hated it. I started getting more into pickleball with my friends and then later joined my family who played at a higher level. Now we just have fun and travel together. We get to experience so many different places. We've grown closer, I feel, as a family,” she said.

Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel discovered public radio during a road trip in 1994 and has been a fan ever since. She has experience writing and producing television news. As a freelance reporter for WLRN, she hopes to actively pursue her passion for truth in journalism, sharpen her writing skills and develop her storytelling techniques.
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