Pickleball has been in South Florida for the past five years or so, but it was just last year that the sport virtually exploded in popularity Broward County parks.
The creation of new courts to play on, all over the county, has attracted new players to the sport and reinforced more seasoned players’s love for the game.
The game was invented on Bainbridge Island in Washington State in 1965. Three dads became the founding fathers of the sport when they were tired of having bored kids during summer vacations.
What they created in a backyard tennis court is a combination of racquetball, tennis and ping pong.
Players serve each other neon-colored wiffle balls, with what look like oversized ping pong paddles, on a small court, (one-fourth the size of a tennis court.) There's no volleying the ball back and forth however. Players try to continually bounce the ball to their opponent across what is called the court's "kitchen line" instead.
“By the end of that summer, apparently everybody on the island was playing,” said James Santiago, a pickleball aficionado who plays it just about every day in Holiday Park, in Fort Lauderdale.
The most popular theory about how pickleball got its name is that one of those founding fathers had a cocker spaniel named Pickles, who liked to steal the neon wiffle ball that the game is played with, and run off with it.
That name stuck, and now a match anywhere in Broward can draw hundreds of players, which is a lot more than just a year ago.
Joel Eads started playing on the Holiday Park courts, with Santiago, about a year ago.
“Anything that keeps me active, that’s fun, that’s why I like to play,” Eads said. “It’s a lot more than just, you know, hitting the ball.”
Pickleball’s combination of different sports feeds his passion for all things athletic.
Eads works inside the Holiday Park indoor pickleball courts now, and stays after work to play outside with the more hard-core players.
There are 27 courts all over Broward County, and counting. They are indoor and outdoor, and free to play on. In addition to Fort Lauderdale, Davie has courts, and so do Coconut Creek, Tamarac, Oakland Park and Pompano Beach, just to name a few.
In Plantation Central Park, player Sandy Sirotowitz explained that, for her, it only took one lesson to connect with pickleball.
“I fell in love with it that minute, and then became totally addicted to it,” she said.
Sirotowitz’s first lesson in pickleball was about two years ago, and, like Santiago, she says she plays it nearly every day.
She called pickleball a “forgiving” sport for her and her group of friends, because some have old injuries.
“We have people who’ve had all kinds of knee problems, rotator cuff problems, heart problems...they can still play Pickleball,” she said.
Sirotowitz also said there’s a reason why Broward County’s pickleball community is booming while there are only two places to play in Miami-Dade: hockey.
“Hockey was very very popular with a very young group of kids...and it lost favor,” she said. “So here we are.”
Hockey rinks can be converted into Pickleball courts pretty easily. And in the late ‘1990’s, Broward County built dozens of hockey rinks. In fact, Plantation’s permanent pickleball courts were put in over a year ago inside of an old rink.
The players have already asked Plantation officials to convert another rink into more courts for pickleball.
Hockey rinks are oval-shaped with a tall wall around them. Pickleball courts are square, but the advantage is, you can fit up to six pickleball courts on the inside of one rink with a few nets and some lines drawn up.
Pickleball player James Santiago is also a landscape architect and he took it upon himself to draw up plans for permanent courts inside one of the hockey rinks in Holiday Park.
The city of Fort Lauderdale liked his plans enough to follow them almost line for line. But if he could have a clean slate? Santiago said in a perfect world, these courts wouldn’t be hockey-rink shaped.
“If I was going to design one from scratch, it would be on a square field so that you could get closer to the side walls,” he said.
Pointing to the tops of the Holiday Park bleachers, Santiago said this space will work for the new permanent courts because it could draw a crowd.
“This is going to be a great place to watch,” he said. “This was a hockey stadium essentially, and they built it so people could go up on those bleachers and watch the games.”
As of the end of January, those six new permanent courts are open for pickleball.