On a crisp fall weekday, Meadow Park near downtown Springfield is filled with people playing pickleball. Walking toward the courts, the signature “pop” of a Wiffle-like ball hitting the Ping-Pong-esque paddle gets louder, coupled with laughs and the plop of feet hitting the court.
It’s about 10 am. There isn’t an open spot on the courts, and several people are waiting for their turn to play. The players range in age from older retirees to younger players, at least one of whom says he took a “personal day” from work so he could play pickleball.
Invented in 1965 in Washington state, pickleball, which is best summarized as a mix between tennis and Ping-Pong, has taken over the country nearly 60 years later. In March 2022, the Washington Legislature voted to make it the state’s official sport. In November, Late Show host Stephen Colbert hosted a celebrity charity tournament on CBS. And money is pouring in from professional athlete greats — such as NFL’s Tom Brady and NBA’s Lebron James — to pickleball teams.
Pickleball is unique compared to other sports. It’s a low-impact sport with a level playing field and allows players of all ages, sizes and body abilities to share the same court.
And the sport is booming in the U.S. According to a national poll by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, pickleball grew to 4.8 million players in 2021, an increase of 1.3 million compared to 2020. But it’s not just the Boomer generation that’s led to the surge of popularity. The poll suggests players under 24 accounted for 21 percent of the increase.
The paddle sport is continuing to grow in Lane County, too. The local Emerald Valley Pickleball Club (EVPC) has about 650 members, says Vice President Roger Schaljo, which is fewer than Bend, but it’s growing. And not everyone who plays pickleball has joined the club, he adds.
Pickleball has grown so much in Lane County that courts are getting crowded. In response to the growing pains, some have turned to backyard courts, but overcrowding is also a driving force behind constructing a 24-court complex at Lane Community College. Fanatics say the new facility would help grow the sport without alienating newbies from navigating filled courts, and it could be a catalyst for hosting regional and national tournaments.
In Their Backyard
As the sun sets at Scarlet Lee and her husband Chuck Spinner’s home near Fern Ridge Reservoir, she talks about the pickleball court’s unique view. Not only does it have an explosive orange sunset on clear days, but it occasionally has birds from the refuge that fly over during their pickleball games.
And it’s the birds that make her laugh, thinking about a time she had a Deaf friend over to play a game, who was confused for a moment why everyone on the court put a paddle over their head when they heard a flock of birds fly overhead.
Personal backyard courts have been a way to deal with the crowded public spaces in Eugene and Springfield. And pickleballers had used their own space to keep the sport alive — and their social lives intact — during the darkest times of COVID-19.
Years before pickleball caught its craze, Edwin Jaffarian, a retired PE teacher and tennis coach at Churchill High School, would play games at a Eugene Baptist church gym that had been converted to pickleball courts.
“That was when pickleball was nothing and we were just going to have some exercise and to have some fun,” Jaffarian says.
Today, pickleball has spread to several parks throughout the county. Eugene’s Westmoreland and Springfield’s Meadow parks have the biggest pickleball venues; each one has eight courts. But a common sight at these parks is paddles inserted into the fences, a sign that someone is waiting their turn to play on the court.
Jaffarian decided to build his own court in 2017. He says he’d always wanted a tennis court in his backyard, but that was too big. At one-fourth of the size, a pickleball court would fit well.
Jaffarian invites friends to his west Eugene house to play pickleball as a way to avoid the waits in public parks. “We can play for several hours at a time, and they really enjoy that,” he says. “That’s a special treat to them, and to have a good, solid surface.”
The condition of Eugene and Springfield pickleball court surfaces also leads to some frustrations for the advanced players. Because the courts have been used heavily since being installed years ago, some have cracks that can lead a ball to go in unpredictable directions, Jaffarian says.
But his court is used more as a place to coach a range of players, from those who are playing in tournaments to newbies. He says he teaches about 10 to 12 lessons a week and has a packed schedule and filled wait list. But he says he tries to find ways to cram in a quick lesson for beginners even if he’s booked. With his introductory lessons, he shows students how to hold the paddle, how to keep score and other basics of the game.
Lee says she and Spinner took lessons from Jaffarian and have remained immersed in the sport since then. They’ve built their own backyard court and now keep their schedules open for pickleball games with friends.
In 2020, Lee and Spinner both retired from intense professions. Spinner worked as an attorney and Lee as a real estate agent. They decided to build a backyard court after playing a few games, which Lee says was the best decision they had made.
A friend of theirs who worked in concrete had his business come to a halt at the start of the pandemic and was offering to work on their driveway. Instead, they decided to build a pickleball court. They laid the concrete, and hired someone to level and surface the court, Spinner says.
“It was a godsend,” Lee says. “It was a wonderful thing to do during COVID. We were not isolated. We have several couples who are good friends who live nearby, and we carried on this wonderfully normal outdoor social life.”
Some pickleballers have taken a guerilla approach to creating their own space. Spinner says he’s seen some use cul-de-sac roads, driveways and even garages used as temporary courts. In those settings, all you need is a temporary net, somewhat level ground and chalk to set up a court.
Spinner used to play tennis, which he stopped doing after a shoulder injury from serving. Pickleball is an easier sport to have fun in, he says, because there are fewer foundations and mechanics to learn. “That’s not true of tennis,” he says. “For most people, you’ve got to play tennis for a number of months before it’s anything other than chasing errant balls that have been hit all over the place because you can’t really make it connect.”
And pickleball has an environment that is less toxic and has fewer tantrums than other sports, Lee says. Playing softball, volleyball or soccer, she says someone losing their temper was a regular scenario. Pickleball, she adds, is a way for adults to play, to be competitive but have fun at the same time.
Being upset playing pickleball is harder to do, Spinner says. Players are facing each other closer than they are in tennis, and it’s too difficult to hit the Wiffle ball with a paddle in a terrifying way.
Pickleball has been a big part of the couple’s lives. “My friend has a couple of courts at his house, and he’s very organized, so he sets it up,” Spinner says. “When I get a text from him saying, ‘Anybody available at 1 o’clock?’ I rearrange my day so that I am.”
Lee says that she plays every day for about an hour or two. But she also plays with a group of women who are on the court two or three times a day, five and six times a week. “So that makes me seem sort of moderate,” she laughs.
The Future of Pickleball
When Alicia Hays moved to Eugene in the ’80s, she played in a wheelchair basketball league, as well as tennis recreationally. But pickleball, which she picked up about eight years ago, has been the only sport she’s played where a seated player can share the court with a standing person.
“I don’t have to find two other people who are in a wheelchair,” she says. “Mostly I’m playing with stand-up players. That’s great because it’s a very integrated sport. You don’t play wheelchair basketball with a bunch of stand-up players because you would hurt them.”
With so many new players diving into pickleball, courts need to be built somewhere. EVPC and its fundraising arm are working to construct a 24-court complex at LCC, a facility that could ease waiting times at public parks in Eugene-Springfield, as well as be a site for future tournaments that could possibly lead to a professional team.
A typical pickleball court can have a wide range of players, from young to old and standing to seated, Hays says. That’s part of what drives its popularity, but she reiterates what other players have said — courts are having trouble keeping up with the number of beginners coming to the sport.
Hays, a member of the Eugene School District 4J board of directors, says that a number of Eugene middle and high schools teach pickleball. She’s met younger players on pickleball courts who’ve said that they learned the sport in PE.
Ethan Smith, 22, is a tennis and pickleball coach who also plays doubles tennis with his grandfather, and both are ranked nationally in the grandfather-grandson circuit. But he’s been spending more time playing pickleball, teaching both racket sport lessons for Eugene Swim and Tennis Club.
On a recent trip to Denver, Smith was playing pickleball with his family, and he noticed about 16 other people his age on the courts. “There’s a lot of young people that are getting into the sport,” he says.
Some of Eugene’s schools are forming pickleball clubs, including South Eugene High School. And University of Oregon students who are playing at Westmoreland want to start an intramural league that would include UO, Oregon State University and LCC, Schaljo says.
But this wide range of players could be let down by the number of available courts in Lane County, which could dissuade beginners looking for courts to learn the sport on. “The hard part is that we get people excited and then say, ‘Here are the eight courts in Eugene that are public,’” Hays says, referencing Westmoreland Park. “What I’d hate to see is people deterred from playing because they don’t want to hassle with finding courts. That is happening now.”
In addition to not having enough public courts, pickleballers are dealing with the declining state of the public park courts, Schaljo says. Before the courts were redrawn to pickleball dimensions at Westmoreland and Meadow parks, they were tennis courts, so they had years of use. Eugene and Springfield’s Willamalane Park and Recreation District are planning for upgrades for the court surfaces, but “dead spots” in the foundation, areas that can kill the momentum of a ball, is what troubles the pickleball courts, he says.
Schaljo says he was driving around one day when he realized that LCC would be a perfect fit for a large pickleball court complex. It has parking, and the slated lot for the courts is being underutilized, he says.
LCC and EVPC announced the new pickleball courts in early 2022, which are planned to start construction in mid-2024 and be finished later that year. The 24-court facility, which will be built close to the college’s baseball field near 30th Avenue and Eldon Schafer Drive, will have some sheltered spots for rainy weather. The facility will be owned by LCC.
“It’ll be the largest outdoor facility in the northwest,” Schaljo says. “We’ll have the ability to do large tournaments, regional tournaments — that’ll have an economic impact on our community.”
Hays is president of the Emerald Valley Pickleball Foundation, the fundraising arm of EVPC. She’s leading efforts to find public money and grants and raise private money for the new complex and jokes that one of her goals is to get well-connected people in town hooked on the sport, so they’ll be more willing to donate for the new court.
The LCC court already has some financial backing after Lane County voters overwhelmingly OK’d the parks levy on the November 2022 general election ballot, which included $500,000 for the complex. Hays says the foundation is still working on the estimated cost for the facility.
Carolyn Burke, the city of Eugene’s parks and natural resource planning manager, says via email the city has spent $253,500 on pickleball to date. Most of that money was used to construct two pickleball courts and one basketball/pickleball court at Striker Field in north Eugene that opens in 2023. Burke says the city is also planning to spend $30,000 to resurface the Westmoreland courts. And the city is discussing adding pickleball lines on the tennis courts the city manages at local high schools, but that’s still in early talks, Burke says.
In 2016, Willamalane first invested in converting the Meadow Park tennis courts into pickleball courts, which cost about $35,000, spokesperson Kenny Weigandt says in an email. After receiving a $50,000 grant from the Oregon Association of Education Service District, Willamalane is resurfacing the park’s courts, as well as providing new equipment and covering costs associated for free youth pickleball camps.
A pickleball complex at LCC allows Lane County to compete against other Oregon regions where the sport has larger facilities, such as Bend, Corvallis and Portland. Schaljo envisions tournaments that can attract about 1,200 to 1,500 players, many of whom are from out of town.
“Our main goal is to take care of our local community, which we see how fast it’s growing,” Schaljo says. “In terms of tournaments, that is the icing on the cake for the community.”
The new facility could host tournaments, some professional, to the area, Smith says. One tournament he points to is the Oregon Team Cup, an annual tournament held in various cities around the state that brings together some of the best players. The Oregon Team Cup last had a tournament at Ashland’s Lithia Park, but with the 24-court complex at LCC, Smith says he could see a Pacific Northwest pickleball professional team on the horizon.
“It’ll bring more competition to the Northwest region,” Smith says. “There’s already a lot of good players here, but I think it’ll bring even more.”
For more information about the Emerald Valley Pickleball Club, where to play and how to get lessons, visit EVPBC.org.