by CATIE CHESHIRE-NOVEMBER 30, 2021
Head to Congress Park any time on the weekend — and most times during the week, too — and you’ll hear the thwack of the ball and the laughter of players at the park’s four pickleball courts.
Invented on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington in 1965 by a trio of fathers, pickleball looks like ping-pong played on a sized-down tennis court, with players, often called picklers, hitting a plastic ball similar to a whiffle ball back and forth, usually with two people to a team. The game was named by the wife of one of the inventors for the "pickle boat" in crew races that holds the rowers unwanted by other boats.
But these days, pickleball is the most sought-after game in town and the fastest-growing sport in the country. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2021 Topline Participation Report, pickleball grew in popularity at a rate of 21.3 percent from 2019 to 2020, with more than 4.2 million players getting in the game.
Marc Nelson, a rugby referee and Congress Park pickler, compares the game with rugby, once the fastest-growing sport in the country, to show how unprecedented pickleball’s growth has been. The first game of rugby was played in the United States in 1874, USA Rugby was founded in 1975, and Major League Rugby hosted its inaugural season in 2018. USA Pickleball was founded in 2005 — forty years after the game was invented — and Major League Pickleball had its first season this year.
Factors contributing to pickleball’s addictiveness include its accessibility, its easy-to-pick-up nature and its multi-generational appeal. Games are fun even when people are first learning how to play, explains Kim Copeland, co-founder of the Lavender Pickleball Club, an LGBTQ+-focused group in the metro area.
“If you play beach volleyball, you have to be pretty good, and you have to know how to play volleyball,” she says. “I'm five-foot-three-and-a-half; volleyball is never going to be my game. But in this, that doesn't matter. You can get together with your friends — it doesn't matter how tall they are, how strong they are, how athletic they are — and you can still have a really good time and play.”
It doesn’t cost much to try, either. Forty dollars and an Amazon search will get beginners four wooden paddles and eight balls.
Many players took up pickleball during the pandemic, including Nelson, who says it’s been a great way to safely build community outdoors.
Hermann Li, who is sometimes called the commissioner because of his organizational efforts in Congress Park, started playing pickleball there in July 2020 because racquetball courts, which he'd frequented, were closed by COVID concerns. At first he was hesitant to make the switch.
“All my racquetball friends were playing pickleball, and I was holding out,” he says. “‘I don't want to play that sport. It's not a sport. I mean, it's a game for old folks.’ That’s what I thought.” He was wrong. Congress Park pickleball players have formed a community. Marc Nelson From the retirement home to Congress Park Kim Copeland first played pickleball twenty years ago at her mother’s retirement community in Florida. She’d just had a baby, and her mom told her to go play pickleball while she watched her grandchild. Copeland remembers thinking that she didn’t want to play a game with a stupid name with strangers she didn’t know, but her mother insisted — and Copeland is glad she did. She says she had “the best time” with three retired men who helped her pick up the game in just ten minutes. That experience mirrors what she sees at community centers now, with experienced players teaching novices and everyone enjoying themselves. “You may play with somebody ten times better than you, and then the next time you'll play with somebody that you're twice as good as,” she says. “And you're laughing.” Tamar Arbeli, a Denver resident who owns a pickleball apparel line called Super Fly Goods and often plays at Congress Park, had a similar experience when she took up the game. “Even if you don't hit the ball, you're still smiling,” she says. She and her family started out playing with older retirees in the mountain community of Eagle
Vail during the lockdown. “Then we came to Denver," she recalls, "and we were like, ‘Oh, we're the older people that play.' Pickleball, I feel like, has been kind of a staple in older communities for quite some time. Post-pandemic, and maybe even a little bit pre-pandemic, it really picked up in younger communities.” Arbeli attributes this shift to the scene becoming more social. Matthew Crance, who lives right by Congress Park, didn’t know what pickleball was when the courts were first installed about a half-dozen years ago. But when he began seeing people play, it looked like so much fun that he had to investigate. Crance gathered some neighbors and they started playing. Since then, he's watched the pickleball community grow into the congenial crowd it is today. “People are hanging out, enjoying their evening, meeting friends — and part of that growth was really fueled during the pandemic, when you couldn't go do anything,” he says. “It's outside, and it's somewhere where you can actually go socialize with people, which we were all dying to do.” What makes Congress Park different, according to Arbeli, is a community that's both active and welcoming. Instead of having to first find enough people to fill a court, anyone can head to Congress Park and rotate in to play some games. She credits Li with helping to create the paddle-stacking system at the park that ensures that people get a turn to play, remembering a time before he got involved when there wasn’t much organization at the park’s four courts. Picklers stack their paddles to reserve games at Congress Park. Marc Nelson In this system, players make columns of four paddles in the chain-link loops of the fence, reserving their spot with their paddle. Each column represents a game to be played; individuals can easily hop in. When Li hosted a barbecue at the park over Memorial Day, there were six or seven rows of people waiting for courts to free up. Congress Park regulars have a running joke that describes the courts as “the toughest courts you’ll ever love,” and have even invented the “dead spot drop shot” because of dead spots on the courts' surface. But they say they wouldn’t play anywhere else because of the community. Picklers are so committed to Congress Park that someone from the neighborhood shovels the courts whenever it snows so that people can keep playing. Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon started playing pickleball during the pandemic. “It's a great sport as we're coming out of this pandemic to kind of get to know one another,” he says. He plays all around the city and the suburbs but frequents Congress Park because “it’s always fun when you go to Congress Park.” Crance and Altreuter started a pickleball apparel company called Spicy Pickleball that sells T-shirts, mugs and stickers. Along with pickleball-themed items like Miami Vice-style shirts that say “Pickle is my vice,” Spicy Pickleball has Congress Park-specific merchandise. Altreuter works in the graphic-arts industry; when he saw that there wasn’t much fun pickleball gear, he decided to design some. The two enjoyed brainstorming early looks, lighting several pickleball items on fire to try to get the silhouette right for apparel with flame designs. “It started as kind of just a jokey thing, but now it's really grown,” Crance says. “Every time you go over to [Congress Park], you see somebody is wearing something Spicy Pickleball, and it's cool to see the community support.” "It's a great sport as we're coming out of this pandemic to kind of get to know one another." tweet this The Congress Park version is the most popular of all the designs, Altreuter notes, because people want to represent the community if they play in other cities. He himself has played all around the country, and even on vacation in Mexico. While preparing for a recent family trip to Arizona, the first thing he researched was the location of the pickleball courts. When people do the same for Denver, he says, they tend to end up at Congress Park. One player from Rhode Island got dropped off at Congress Park straight from the airport. “He's like, ‘Yeah, I gotta get in a couple games before I go to this convention. My boss doesn't land for another couple hours,’” Altreuter recalls. Although Congress Park has become a city hub, it doesn't have Denver's only pickleball courts. The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation has installed pickleball courts at seven parks, with plans to add courts at two more within the year. Facilities in such suburbs as Arvada and Littleton attract many players, and Gates Tennis Center in Cherry Creek now has eight courts, after creating four in 2017 and adding four more this year. Gates Tennis Center offers eight courts, and could have more. Gates Tennis Center “The friendliest pickleball club on the planet” One group growing as quickly as pickleball itself is the Lavender Pickleball Club. Started by Copeland and longtime friend Susan Swern on July 14, the club already has 600 members on Facebook. Copeland and Swern always wanted to go into business together but didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do. Swern, 62, couldn’t participate in the sports she once did because of injuries; after some of her friends invited her to play pickleball this past spring, she was hooked. She and Copeland started a group that communicated by texting, but after that became too cumbersome, Swern suggested Facebook. Eventually, they hope to transform the Facebook group into a business that reaches every state, but they say that their goal will always be community and inclusivity, as promised in their slogan: “More than pickleball friends — we’re family.” Swern says she believes the group has grown so fast because it serves the niche of LGBTQ+ people who want to get into pickleball, and also because it's mission-oriented, focusing on sustainability. “It's particularly geared toward the LGBTQ+ and allies community, but not with a heavy hand,” Swern explains. “We welcome anybody. But I do think that people who come know that it's a welcoming, inclusive, diverse space in every way, including ability, gender expression, orientation, level of athleticism, previous experience.” The only requirement is that a member needs to be over eighteen. That inclusivity, combined with the focus on sustainability, is why the members collectively call themselves the "friendliest pickleball club on the planet": They’re friendly to people and the Earth. Susan Swern is the co-founder of the Lavender Pickleball Club. Lavender Pickleball Club Swern thinks it’s been important during the pandemic that the club offers a space for the city’s lesbian community to come together that isn’t a bar, though she does appreciate those places. “It was sort of just like the perfect storm where, build it and of course they're going to come! Because it filled a need inside of people — not just for the athleticism, but a yearning to really connect because we were so isolated,” she says. “What better kind of community-building could you ever want to envision for yourself?” Members of the group organize drop-in play at various locations in the metro area, including Gates, the Northfield Athletic Complex and Superior Autrey Park. The club hosted its first tournament in October in Arvada. Both at Congress Park and through the Lavender Pickleball Club, people report finding community in ways they hadn’t before. But what makes the sport uniquely suited to building those relationships? Some say the key is in the game itself. “It's really geared toward playing with many different partners,” Copeland says. "Instead of two people on a court, there's four people on a court and you're switching around.” Rugby referee Nelson agrees, explaining that with the partner system, you’re always communicating — even if it’s just discussions about who will hit the ball or what the plan is for the next point. The community transcends age. Thirty-year-old Matt Green often brings his elementary-school-aged cousin, Dave, to play at Congress Park. Dave says he admires the skills of the older picklers, describing how his favorites are able to jump like frogs despite their age. And Green appreciates the fact that he got his job as a wine and spirits salesman through connections he made on the pickleball court. But while the community is strong, the sport's success has created a problem: The city doesn't have enough pickleball courts. Gates Tennis Center hosted the Pro Pickleball Tour this year. Gates Tennis Center The pickle at Congress Park The way Nelson sees it, Denver Parks and Recreation is “putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound” when it comes to meeting the demand for pickleball courts across the city, especially at Congress Park. Next year, because of noise complaints from neighbors, the department plans to move the four Congress Park courts from the eastern edge of the park, near Detroit Street, to the interior of the park, where the western-most tennis court will be resurfaced and turned into four pickleball courts. When Congress Park picklers heard about the relocation, they immediately questioned why the plan didn't include adding courts. Nelson and Li reached out to the department, asking for at least four more courts. Their bucket list calls for sixteen, but they see eight as the minimum number that’s acceptable. While Nelson likes the fact that the relocation will move the courts to a spot with lights, allowing evening play, he says he doesn't understand why the department won’t add more courts. There's plenty of space, he points out, and it wouldn’t be more costly than replacing the tennis court. That's true, acknowledges Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Parks and Recreation. The total budget for the project, including Americans With Disabilities Act improvements, is $1.6 million, he says, and the cost of resurfacing each court is about $400,000 — whether the new court becomes one tennis court or four pickleball courts. Many of the city's tennis courts were built in the 1970s and 1980s and contain asbestos, he notes, so the department takes extra precautions when resurfacing courts in order to protect the environment, and the people, by removing the hazardous fibers. After trying to communicate with the parks department in an experience he likens to The Shawshank Redemption's Andy Dufresne sending endless letters asking for more funding for the prison library, Nelson says he finally received a response saying that the plan was to proceed with four courts and nothing more. He felt like they might as well have said, “Just take your gruel and go be happy that you're getting four new courts,” he says. But while the current plan is to create four new pickleball courts to replace the existing ones, Gilmore says the department hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adding additional courts — including potentially transitioning the basketball court into pickleball courts. Players wait at Congress Park. Marc Nelson Efforts to switch out tennis courts encounter an unusual hurdle: To be eligible for league play, the United States Tennis Association requires six courts at a location. League play is the only play that counts toward official rankings and national qualification, so tennis players need to participate in league-sanctioned tournaments if they want a chance at national championships. Congress Park currently has seven tennis courts, so it can only replace one with pickleball courts if it wants to remain within USTA limits. Denver maintains 144 tennis courts across the city, many of which have existed for over thirty years. While people campaigning for more pickleball courts point out that city tennis courts frequently go unused while people wait to play pickleball, Gilmore says that the department has to balance the needs of the tennis community and its relationship with the USTA with the desire for more pickleball courts. That USTA relationship is also the reason that the department can’t stripe pickleball courts over tennis courts, another suggested solution. The USTA won’t allow league play on courts with additional striping. In a public statement to tennis centers earlier this year, the USTA said that the only lines acceptable on a tennis court are those for smaller tennis courts. “No additional lines (permanent or temporary) may be on a court to be used for USTA-sanctioned play," it warned. Sam Hitman, longtime manager of Gates Tennis Center, sympathizes with the difficulties that the parks department faces. Gates started with four pickleball courts striped over its kids' courts; this year, it decided to convert one of its tennis courts into four pickleball courts, so it now has eight courts. Anyone can reserve a court and pay the $5-per-hour fee to play, or attend scheduled open play that doesn't require a reservation and costs $6. “We're lucky enough to have so much land that we have dedicated pickleball courts and dedicated tennis courts," Hitman says, "so that's really not a problem for Gates specifically, but it really affects the smaller clubs.” Gilmore says that the department will try to add more pickleball courts whenever it can, but it wants to be sure there are courts spread across the city so that everyone has access to the sport, not just those in a specific area. Altreuter says he doesn’t mind driving to get to other courts. But while the courts at Martin Luther King Jr. park are “beautiful,” he points out that he has to arrange a group with the right number of players for the experience there to be as fun as it is at Congress Park. “It's not just that Congress Park is right down the street from me,” Altreuter adds. “People come from Lakewood and Aurora, all over the city, to play in Congress Park. And the reason that they go there — it's not because it's the closest court. It’s because that's where the players are.” Arbeli points out that Congress Park is close to Capitol Hill, which has long been considered the city’s most densely populated neighborhood, so courts there serve a large proportion of the population. "There's nothing I like to hear better when I go outside than pickleball being played." tweet this But the density of the neighborhood creates another challenge for the department: Pickleball’s hard paddles and whiffle-style balls make the game much louder than do tennis’s softer balls and stringed racquets, and residents complain about the sounds. Anywhere the city builds new courts, Gilmore says, impacts ranging from noise to parking are a concern. Denver's parks department has received so many noise complaints about pickleball at both Congress Park and Eisenhower Park (though the complaints there are mainly from one person who claims to be part of a registered neighborhood organization that does not exist, Gilmore says) that both parks have limited pickleball hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. At other parks, the players are merely limited by park hours, which stretch from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. One resident who lives near a pickleball court says that when he moved to his current home, tennis courts were the only racquet sport at the park. Now there are pickleball courts, and that game is much louder. Susan Swern gets ready to serve. Lavender Pickleball Club “It's a great sport, and from what we can see, it's enjoyed by people of all ages and gets people out and moving,” says the resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “I'd have to say, though, in residential areas, it's the wrong location.” He's measured the noise level in his backyard while people play pickleball and says it can reach 70 decibels, comparable to traffic noise. The difference, he adds, is that traffic’s whoosh becomes white noise over time, while pickleball’s noise comes from constant plonks and jarring thwacks. The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment generally lists 55 decibels during the day and 50 at night as the maximum allowable noise, the resident points out. But according to Gilmore, park rangers have officially measured noise at the property line of several homes near pickleball courts, and those measurements have never exceeded the noise ordinance. Gilmore also notes that plenty of other park activities — from workers mowing lawns to people cheering for their children during football and soccer games — can be loud, too. He says he tries to be understanding about neighbors' concerns, but noise is part of living near a park, and people know that when they move nearby. The resident who lives near the pickleball courts agrees that the family was prepared for tennis and general park noise when they moved in, and says that was even part of the appeal. But the pickleball noise is constant rather than occasional, and his family and some of their neighbors feel like they can’t spend time in their yards anymore because it’s simply too loud to be pleasant. “You came in with one quality of life...and then something new comes along and just makes things not as good as they were before. It's obviously upsetting,” the resident says. Crance's house backs up to the pickleball courts at Congress Park, but he loves the noisy activity. “I think it just depends on your own personal situation," he says, "but for us, I mean, we're four doors down from the pickleball courts, and there's nothing I like to hear better when I go outside than pickleball being played." He understands that the noise isn't for everyone, though, and encourages players to be considerate. “Just know you are literally in somebody's backyard, and be respectful of those people,” Crance urges. “Be conscious of what you're doing, where you're parking, and try not to have a negative impact on those people that are living there.” Rich Naha also lives by the Congress Park courts; he says he considers pickleball a net positive for the community but hopes the city will figure out a solution to the noise and parking problems. “Is there noise? Yes. Is parking an issue? Yes,” Naha says. “But it seems to be a very popular activity, so a little noise/parking is a small price to pay. We live in the city because we appreciate people congregating and enjoying Denver’s beautiful weather.” Both Crance and Naha endorse Parks and Rec's plan to move the pickleball courts to the interior of Congress Park. Crance just wishes the department would build more than four rather than simply replace the existing courts. Parks employees have an open invitation from the Congress Park pickleball community, Nelson says. He promises to provide a barbecue, a great time, and proof that the park needs additional courts. In the meantime, he's considered making improvements of his own, like buying a lighting system or portable windscreen to help keep the fun going over the winter. As for the noise, that comes with the game. Tennis may be quieter, but “they’re playing tennis," Nelson points out. "Are they having fun?” Gates Tennis Center is a popular pickleball destination. Gates Tennis Center Don’t miss the pickle boat Some Congress Park players cite Gates Tennis Center as an example of how to effectively adapt to changing trends in recreation. According to manager Hitman, Gates expanded its pickleball offerings because the organization wants to serve as many people as possible, giving them something healthy and safe to do during the pandemic. “We could see the trend was happening, and we would rather be on the front end of trends and, you know, part of the trendsetters, [than] on the back end,” Hitman says, adding that Gates offers pickleball programming such as leagues and tournaments because it recognizes that people can play free in Denver parks, and additional amenities keep them coming. Gates even has three pickleball pros. At first, Hitman wasn't sure there were enough people pickling professionally to hire pros, but he soon found them. Now Gates is searching for more pros as it looks to expand its kids' pickleball programming. Some tennis pros want to get certified in pickleball instruction because it’s so fun, he adds. Hitman says that Gates was able to add courts and grow its pickleball services more quickly than the city because it doesn’t have as many considerations to juggle. Besides, the reason Gates has so much land is because the city leases it to the tennis center. “So any of our successes, we share that compliment with the City of Denver, because they helped make it happen,” he adds. Gilmore says the city does the best it can to adapt to recreational trends, but it will never move fast enough to satisfy everyone. “People want to see things, especially nowadays with technology...they want an answer immediately,” he adds. “They want things to change yesterday.” Denver is not the only city having trouble adapting. When the Lavender Pickleball Club was planning its tournament, Copeland reached out to parks departments in Superior and Westminster, without any luck. “Those folks are underpaid and overworked, and they have strict rules because of public safety and liability issues,” she explains, noting that she previously worked in parks and recreation. “They move really slow.” When the club contacted the Apex Park and Recreation District in Arvada, it finally got a yes. Lavender Pickleball Club members appreciate a place to gather. Lavender Pickleball Club Copeland thinks it would be a smart business move for local governments in Colorado to invest more in pickleball. “If you look at some of the municipalities in Arizona, they're building huge facilities,” she says. “It's a revenue producer the local governments are totally missing the boat on.” In its attempt to stay on board, Denver Parks and Recreation will open courts at Sloan’s Lake and Rosamond parks next year. Gilmore says that Sloan’s Lake was a priority because the department wanted to build the courts ahead of the ongoing redevelopment in the area. “Then people, when they move in, it's like [the courts] were there,” he says. That way, he hopes the department will avoid the complaining neighbors it's encountered at Congress and Eisenhower parks. Active neighbors help explain why one of the city's most popular parks won't get pickleball courts anytime soon. Washington Park has space and extra tennis courts, so while there “could be a discussion” about adding pickleball, “I would think that we wouldn't do that, just because it would end up causing some noise issues," Gilmore says. “Wash Park being the park it is, there would have to be a pretty significant amount of public outreach and public support for any kind of pickleball courts there,” he continues. Gilmore says that he thinks the department could find a location in another park that needs similar activation but would be better suited to pickleball expansion. Nelson likens the need for more courts to highway construction projects. “They redo I-25, it’s immediately full. They’re redoing I-70, it's immediately full," he says. "They're going to put four courts over there, and they're going to wish they had put in sixteen.” Hitman jokes that he knew pickleball had made it when he and his wife saw a pharmaceutical commercial featuring pickleball on TV, indicating that the sport is fully integrated into mainstream American life. “I believe pickleball is here to stay, and I believe pickleball will be an Olympic sport in the near future,” he says. “I do feel the pickleball trend is a little more than a trend. It's a tidal wave.” But if Denver Parks and Recreation doesn't start riding that wave, picklers warn, the city could wind up swamped.