“People can be divided into two categories,” I was once told. “Those who are playing pickleball and those who will be playing pickleball.”
While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, in 2022 the Sports and Fitness Industry Association rated pickleball as the fastest-growing sport in America for a second consecutive year. Over the past two years, the sport has exploded over forty percent to 4.8 million players nationwide. Dozens of pros earn a living from the sport.
The Fort Smith area is riding the crest of pickleball’s growing wave of interest. In 2017, Western Arkansas Pickleball Advocates (WAPA) was organized to serve as a unified voice to help grow the sport in the River Valley. Since 2019, WAPA membership has increased from thirty to over 200.
The popularity pickleball is experiencing can be traced to the resourceful ingenuity of Congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell. A summer afternoon in 1965, the men returned to Pritchard’s Bainbridge Island, Washington, home to find their families bored, with nothing to do. They suggested everyone play a game together. An old badminton court at Pritchard’s house became the obvious choice. Equipment for the sport could not be found, so they improvised using ping-pong paddles and perforated plastic balls.
To make the sport fair and competitive for all the family members, they tailored rules to eliminate the advantages of height and strength. One such rule was they designated the seven-foot area on each side of the net, known as the kitchen, a no-play area. This eliminates a tall player standing at the net, dominating play. Another rule was a server’s arm must be moving in an upward arc at the time the ball is struck. This eliminates the high-reaching overhand smash seen in tennis. They continued to refine the rules with the goal of making the sport fun and enjoyable for players of all ages and physical abilities. Thus, pickleball was born.
Note: I’m sure Pritchard and Bell had a chuckle naming the game after a “pickle boat,” the term describing the last boat of a flotilla to return to port.
When I picked up a paddle and walked onto a court for my first pickleball experience, I began to understand the game’s increasing numbers. As I stepped through the gate at the Chaffee Crossing Pickleball Complex, someone called out, “There’s our fourth player.”
I explained this was my first time and I did not even know the rules. One of the players responded they were just hitting the ball around for now. They would explain the rules as we warmed up. He then lobbed a neon green ball in my direction.
Wham bam, within minutes, I had the basics down, and I was “competing” in a game.
As other players arrived to play on nearby courts, I noticed the elitist attitude in some other sports was nowhere to be found. Even when I was paired with advanced partners in a round-robin rotation, they were very understanding of this newbie. They patiently explained the somewhat quirky rules and provided tips to help improve my game.
Newcomers who played other racket sports often excel in pickleball. The athletic abilities in tennis and racquetball are similar, making for a quick transition to pickleball. This was one reason Rob Ratley of Fort Smith enjoys pickleball. Rob played tennis in high school and college. He switched to pickleball for the faster-paced competition and better cardio workout. Witnessing many tennis players leaving the game in their thirties and forties due to injuries also influenced his decision.
Pickleball is an easy game to learn. Anyone with minimal hand-and-eye coordination can be able to pick up a paddle and enjoy a social game of pickleball on their first outing. Cultivating new friendships in the process is a bonus.
It can become a fast-paced competition for those so inclined. When skilled players are lined up some fourteen feet apart at the kitchen, smacking a ball at each other across the net, the reaction time of the exchange is .24 seconds. Compared to a baseball batter’s .50-second reaction time facing a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball, you understand how fast the action can be.
There are a variety of shots and angles players use to improve their game. Master the “dink” and baseline volleys, and the sport is even more fun and challenging.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Pickleball is not only easy to learn but also requires minimal equipment. A paddle, ball, net, and court are all that’s needed. First the paddle. As with most sports, you can spend a lot on your equipment, but you can purchase a decent paddle for around fifty dollars. Next, we have the balls which come in two types, indoor and outdoor. A pack of three for either style is about fifteen dollars. Then you’ll need a net. Portable pickleball nets sell for under one hundred dollars.
And finally, the court! Any level, hard surface twenty feet wide and forty-four feet long will suffice. You will need open space beyond the court boundary for when momentum carries a player off the court. Having your own portable pickleball net is not a great expense and is a convenient way for players to hold their own friendly competitions.
Basketball courts, badminton courts, and parking garages are all places you can adapt with your new, handy net. Lower the center of a tennis court net two inches, and game on. Vint Allison, owner at Allison Sales Co. Flooring & Glass, even set up a pickleball court in their warehouse! He and his son, Chase, invite friends over regularly for friendly competition, a bite to eat, and comradery.
For those wanting to try out the sport before making an investment, there are many established courts throughout the River Valley. Depending on where you choose to play, equipment may be rented or included with your facility membership.
FUTURE OF PICKLEBALL
Fort Smith’s city and county departments are aware of pickleball’s growth and are working on plans to accommodate area citizens. “Although the quorum court has yet to approve it,” states Jay Randolph, Sebastian County Park Administrator. “Conversation is happening now for installing pickleball courts at Ben Geren Park where the former go-kart track was located.”
Doug Reinert, Fort Smith’s Director of Parks & Recreation, says the Parks Department realizes Chaffee Crossing courts are out of the way for many citizens. Plans are underway to remedy this by constructing fourteen pickleball courts at John Bell Jr. Park, located on Riverfront Drive. “This will provide Fort Smith’s pickleball players residing in North, Central, or South locations to play with very little drive time. The strategy is in place,” explains Doug. “We just need to have funding.”
The future looks bright for River Valley picklers, so “Pickle on!”
Chaffee Crossing Pickleball Complex, Barling
Open to the public on a first come, first served basis.
Members receive access to paddles and balls stored at the courts.
Fort Smith Athletic Club, Fort Smith
Indoor and outdoor courts available for members.
River Valley Fitness & Training Center, Fort Smith
Three indoor pickleball courts available for members.
Van Zandt City Park, Van Buren
Two pickleball courts. No reservations are needed.
Alma Tennis Courts
Pickleball boundaries are painted on two of their newly resurfaced tennis courts.
Open to the public, free of charge.
Craig Park, Greenwood
Five dedicated pickleball courts, free of charge.
Download the USA Pickleball Places2Play app to locate courts in your area.
Update: The December 20th Sebastian County Quorum Court approved $558,013 for construction of eight new pickleball courts at Ben Geren Park. The increased scope, from the original November 15 proposal for six courts, resulted from considerable feedback from local pickleball enthusiasts.
“The Sebastian County Quorum Court has been very supportive of the current and future recreation needs of the region,” stated Jay Randoph, Sebastian County Park Administrator.
The new facility will positively impact the city’s ability to host tournaments. These events will attract players throughout the region, much like softball and golf tournaments have drawn visitors to the area. These participants will require a place to stay and eat, resulting in a win-win for local restaurants and lodging.