Saratoga Springs

Having a ball: pickleball enthusiasts say the social racket sport is growing in popularity

Mike Silver, Pickleball Ambassador, returns a serve from the back line at the outdoor pickleball courts at East Side Rec in Saratoga Springs Tuesday, April 12, 2022.
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Mike Silver, Pickleball Ambassador, returns a serve from the back line at the outdoor pickleball courts at East Side Rec in Saratoga Springs Tuesday, April 12, 2022.

SARATOGA SPRINGS Mike Silver, 55, met his girlfriend playing pickleball. Ann Garbiras, 71, met some of her best friends on the court. Frank McGarity, 54, is willing to meet anyone who’s up for a game.

That’s pickleball for you – a social racket sport that continues to gain popularity. In fact, there are 4.8 million players in the United States, representing a 2-year growth rate of 39.3%, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2022 Topline Participation Report, released in February.

What’s more, pickleball seems to be gradually shedding its reputation as a senior citizens’ game. The average age for all players is 41 years old, a decrease of 2.5 years from 2019, according to the report. Meanwhile, the average age for casual players is 34 years old, and growth from 2019 to 2020 was the fastest among players 6 to 17 years old (50%) and 35 to 44 years old (31%), according to the report.

This data was borne out on a recent sunny midweek afternoon at the East Side Recreation courts in Saratoga Springs, where the age of players ranged from elementary school-aged and college students to mid-career professionals and retirees.

Still sweating following a fast-paced singles match with his buddy, 43-year-old Saratoga Springs resident Jonathan Albert said he loves pickleball because it’s more universal than tennis.

“I picked it up because my kids, who are 8 and 10, but also my father, who is 75 years old, plays it,” Albert said. “It’s a wonderful sport for all ages, all sizes–and it’s a lot of fun.”

A cross between tennis and ping pong, pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with the net set to a height of 34 inches at the center. Players use a perforated plastic ball – think Wiffle Ball but with more holes–and composite or wooden paddles that are about twice the size of ping pong paddles. Those paddles typically cost between $75 and a few hundred dollars. The sport can be played indoors or outdoors, and is known for being relatively easy for beginners to learn–but it can also develop into a fast-paced, competitive game for experienced players.

Watching the Arciero family play was a lesson in the sport’s potential intensity. As Paul Arciero, 60, took on two of his 20-something sons at once, he bent low and bounced swiftly, firing backhands with the finesse of a tennis professional – as a matter of fact, Arciero is a retired tennis professional.

“It’s a game that has a little bit lower barrier of entry, so it neutralizes variation and skill,” Arciero said. “There is also a lot of adaptability to it. Like you saw us playing two-on-one. You can do that with tennis, but pickleball lends itself to it more easily because the court is smaller. So it’s just a fun game to be able to come out with the family.”

Arciero said doubles tends to be more touch and dink, with a lot of play happening at the net, while singles requires more athleticism, with a lot of running, staying low and making shots.

Serious players can compete in the 153 USA Pickleball sanctioned tournaments. The USA Pickleball National Championships are in November in Indian Wells, Cali. The USA Pickleball Diamond Amateur Championship is in December in Holly Hill, Fla.

Arciero’s son Noah is a 26-year-old former college basketball player who incorporates the game into his exercise routine.

“Pickleball is a full workout. You get out here for 2 hours, get a good sweat in,” he said.

Still, Noah Arciero said he hasn’t seen many of his peers take up the game.

“I think the hangup is that they still think it’s an older demo,” the 26-year-old said. “I think the transition hasn’t happened yet.”

Silver, a USA Pickleball Ambassador for Ballston, is working to help grow the sport. Silver’s main selling point is pickleball’s social aspect. Because it’s played on smaller courts, players can easily talk to each other throughout the match. And Silver, who is one of 2,025 USA Pickleball Ambassadors, said after matches, players commonly make plans to meet for a drink or a bite to eat – he actually met his girlfriend playing pickleball, and they started dating after getting to know each other on and off the court.

“It’s very social. You meet some great people,” Silver said.

April happens to be National Pickleball Month, and this year marks the 57th anniversary of the sport’s invention on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. Using handmade equipment, three fathers created the sport because their children were bored by typical summertime pursuits. The unusual name has a couple different explanations. One says that the name of the sport – which combines several activities – comes from pickle boats in crew, in which oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats. Another account says pickleball was named after a creator’s dog, who was fond of running off with the ball.

McGarity, who works in law enforcement, said he plays pickleball to meet new people and stay in shape, including when he travels–whether it’s to South Carolina or Florida.

“I just walked onto the courts and jumped right in,” McGarity said of his “away” matches. “Unlike other organized sports, it’s real welcoming. If a beginner walked in right now we would adjust the game.”

Garbiras picked up the game in retirement after moving from New Jersey to Saratoga County in 2009. The Malta resident said a lot of her social life now revolves around pickleball.

“It’s harder to find four people to play tennis than it is to find four people to play pickleball. Because tennis is a game you needed some kind of instruction to play,” Garbiras said. “Pickleball, you don’t really need to be a super athlete, and you don’t need a lot of instruction. If you can play ping pong you can play pickleball.”

Pickleball’s popularity in Saratoga County is evidenced by the relatively new pickleball-specific courts at East Side Recreation in Saratoga Springs. Part of the Saratoga Springs City School District’s Great Outdoors Project, the idea to include new pickleball courts came from pickleball enthusiasts, said John Hirliman, the city’s administrative director of Recreation.

The city already had pickleball court dimensions painted onto existing tennis courts, but Hirliman said that due to growing popularity, it made sense to give pickleball players a place all their own. The city ultimately decided to convert three of the six tennis courts at East Side Rec to 10 pickleball courts, which opened in October 2020, according to Hirliman.

“It’s just a fun sport. It’s a social sport where it doesn’t matter your skill level. There’s really, really high-end players, and there are beginners,” Hirliman said. “They can go on the court together and they find people of equal skill and you rotate through, and it’s like a community. It’s a social event.”

Silver said on summer Saturdays dozens of people will turn out to play pickleball at the East Side courts. Pointing to the tennis courts on the other side of the fence, he said: “We’ll fill these courts, and those courts will be empty.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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