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Tampa Bay is bonkers over pickleball (move aside, tennis)

Tampa and St. Petersburg are working to accommodate demand for the country’s fastest growing sport.
The courts are filled as pickleball games get underway during the City of St. Pete Parks & Rec mixed doubles recreational league at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
The courts are filled as pickleball games get underway during the City of St. Pete Parks & Rec mixed doubles recreational league at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 28, 2022

It was a stealth sport until it wasn’t. Over the past decade in Tampa Bay, pickleball has exploded in popularity, mirroring the nation. Estimates put 5 million Americans as playing the racket sport, known for its fast action and less wear and tear on the joints than tennis.

And the pandemic just accelerated the trend.

Even Tom Brady has gotten in on the action. The Bucs future Hall of Fame quarterback announced last month that he’s investing in a Major League Pickleball expansion franchise.

Local governments have taken notice and started to adapt. It hasn’t always gone smoothly. Tensions between tennis players and pickleballers have sprouted up as municipal and county tennis courts have been adapted for pickleball.

In Hillsborough County, more than 200 people recently signed a petition to prevent more courts in the Northlakes tennis courts in Lake Magdalene from being converted to pickleball.

Brian Walsh, 24, hits a forehand while on the court during his doubles pickleball match at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
Brian Walsh, 24, hits a forehand while on the court during his doubles pickleball match at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“Pickleball lines on tennis courts make it hard for tennis players to judge balls and would also prevent tennis players from having courts available,” read the petition. “It is an expensive and grueling sport and quality of the court matters a lot to tennis players.”

Hillsborough County this summer allocated $3 million of federal stimulus funding for 36 new outdoor pickleball courts at six county parks.

In Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor’s administration announced a major expansion of pickleball courts. In 2020, there were just 9 courts at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. The city has added 14 more at Rowlett Park, Foster Playground and Skyview Playground. By the end of 2023, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will add 26 more pickleball courts spread across the city in Copeland Park, Williams Park, MacFarlane Park, Highland Pines Park, Al Barnes Park, Vila Brothers Park and New Tampa Park.

Sherisha Hills, the city’s parks and rec director, said Tampa has largely avoided rancor between tennis players and pickleball aficionados.

“What we intentionally did was we didn’t remove amenities. So we didn’t go in and take out all the tennis courts. Let’s say we had eight tennis courts, we made, you know, three or four of them like multi-sports. So you’re able to do pickleball. And we can convert it back to tennis,” Hills said.

The sport had steadily grown in popularity, but the coronavirus pandemic changed the game, Hills said.

“When the pandemic came and ... people wanted to be outside more, we saw a high influx,” Hills said, saying pickleball is popular in all parts of the city, but especially downtown, Cuscaden Park and Pool near Ybor City, at Rowlett Park and in Port Tampa.

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In St. Petersburg, pickleballers will be in Saturday’s Santa Parade. They’re hosting an event next month to teach the sport to elected officials and the media.

A cadre of pickleballers have shown up to the past few City Council meetings wearing orange “Pickle Power” shirts. They want the city to come up with a plan to build a facility with several pickleball courts fit for hosting tournaments, a potential moneymaker for the city, said Ed Carlson, president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association and USA Pickleball ambassador.

“We realize we’re now a political force,” Carlson said.

Maria Drew, 55, of St. Petersburg hits a forehand on the court during her mixed doubles pickleball match at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in St. Petersburg. Drew is also a tennis player who played in college at Florida A&M University.
Maria Drew, 55, of St. Petersburg hits a forehand on the court during her mixed doubles pickleball match at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in St. Petersburg. Drew is also a tennis player who played in college at Florida A&M University. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

St. Petersburg’s leisure services administrator, Mike Jefferis, recently learned that too at a recent national parks and recreation conference.

Those who are passionate and in love with pickleball, Jefferis said, are retired CEOs, political officials and homeowners association presidents. They have more free time and the know-how to navigate the system of government to expand the sport’s influence.

“The attraction to pickleball and the demands of that community, that stakeholder group, is a national phenomenon,” Jefferis said.

St. Petersburg now has 51 pickleball courts across the city, he said. Another eight are coming by March. And Jefferis said he recently toured a facility that may accommodate another six courts.

The city’s parks and recreation department is accredited, which means it must follow national best practices and is audited by colleagues in other states. The city has a committee to monitor trends like pickleball, which the city adopted as an official activity in 2010.

At Rowlett Park in North Tampa, the trend lines are already clear. One recent afternoon, Maxwell Trotta shot a pickleball instructional video for YouTube. His mother, Halle Ladd, in town for the Thanksgiving holiday, was filming.

Trotta, 24, teaches tennis and pickleball, and says the demographic has changed since the sport first became popular.

“It’s not just the older demo. The learning curve is quicker than tennis. Tennis is pricey and it takes three to four months,” Trotta said of how long it takes to get tennis basics down. A few lessons of pickleball, Trotta said, “and you’re good to go.”

Back in St. Petersburg, Carlson has been working to build critical mass among pickleballers to show the city that it could do more for players who have to wait as long as 40 minutes for a court while neighboring tennis courts sit empty. He recently arranged for pickleballers to survey the use of pickleball and tennis courts at four main play areas — Walter Fuller Park, Crescent Lake Park, J.W. Cate Recreation Center and Coquina Key — over 12 days.

Olivia Carson, 18, focuses in while preparing to return serve on the court during her mixed doubles pickleball match at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Olivia Carson, 18, focuses in while preparing to return serve on the court during her mixed doubles pickleball match at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

They found that there were 17 times more pickleball players than tennis players, Carlson said. He now has 34 pickleball leaders with over 3,000 contacts of pickleball players.

While Carlson’s group makes the case for a city-run pickleball facility, Jefferis says the city can’t be the only pickleball provider.

“Because I think that we are so ahead of the curve,” said Jefferis. “I think that where there’s a deficiency would be the private sector.”

Tennis is still popular, said Jack Bailey, the general manager and director of the St. Petersburg Tennis Center.

Bailey said membership is growing and the center’s 20 clay courts are full in the mornings and weekends, even though many ask about pickleball. Bailey points them to six pickleball courts next door at Frank H. Pierce Recreation Center.

“We’re all too happy to support all racket sports,” Bailey said. “I really can’t say that pickleball’s chasing people away.”

At Crescent Lake Park on a comfortably overcast Tuesday afternoon, Namaya, a 68-year-old artist and writer who goes by Namaya, played a pickup game with 17-year-old Christian Hernandez, an example of the sport’s growing intergenerational appeal.

“On a good night you have five to six different languages,” Namaya said. Plus, he says, “Age doesn’t make a difference.”

“Everybody kind of drops in,” he said. “It really forms a sense of community.”

The courts are filled as pickleball games get underway and others wait for their court time during the city of St. Pete Parks & Rec mixed doubles recreational league at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
The courts are filled as pickleball games get underway and others wait for their court time during the city of St. Pete Parks & Rec mixed doubles recreational league at Crescent Lake Park on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Namaya played tennis for 50 years and taught it, too. But pickleball is easier on the body. He says hardly anyone ever uses the tennis court next door, while pickleball players can hog courts for hours.

Namaya, however, says the city has other critical needs that need more prompt attention.

“It’s about white rich folks,” he said. “Can we lobby for the schools and the services below Central Avenue?”

“Let’s keep the sense of balance on the needs,” he said.

Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this story.