Cynthia Etheridge has a full, busy life: she’s a lifeguard and singer, and is happily married. But once she’s on a pickleball playing court, all of her outside titles melt away.
“I could stay out all day every day if I could,” she says with a laugh. “You would think I have nothing else to do.”
Although Etheridge’s dedication to the game may be more than most (she plays at least two to three days a week), she’s far from the only person in the Triangle who’s taken an interest in pickleball over the last few years—or in the country, for that matter. Created in the 1960s, pickleball—a lively, quick-moving combo of tennis, badminton, and Ping-Pong loved by 8- and 80-year-olds alike—is the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with millions of players appreciating its ease, low barriers to entry, and friendly competition.
There are new courts popping up constantly across the nation, including in the Triangle, which boasts an estimated 4,000 players in Raleigh alone, according to Swing Racquet + Paddle, a new racquet-sports facility. Set to open in 2022, the facility will offer courts for tennis, pickleball, beach tennis, table tennis, and a buzzy racquet sport called Padel.
In Durham, meanwhile, a new, 14-court pickleball facility is being installed at Piney Wood Park, with a space that will feature lessons, tournaments, and more. In Cary, Chapel Hill, and Apex, courts regularly attract hundreds of players on a daily basis.
For longtime fans of the game, pickleball’s recent rise in popularity isn’t surprising.
“It’s such an easy sport to learn and it’s fun,” says Brad Hemminger, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science and a Chapel Hill-based player. “That’s why the growth is so huge.”
Since first picking up a paddle in 2012, Hemminger has become not just an avid player but also a coach and ambassador for Chapel Hill’s growing pickleball community.
Four years ago, he organized the town’s first-ever pickleball tournament, featuring more than 170 teams; in the time since, Hemminger has advocated for the sport’s inclusion in schools and campuses throughout the Triangle. Pickleball, he argues, is more than just an enjoyable activity—it’s also a major money-maker, thanks to players coming in from out of town for competitions and other events.
“It’s really positive for the local governments,” he says, “It brings in revenue; it brings in people.”
The addition of a business like Swing—a $55 million project which bills itself as the largest multi-racquet sports complex in the world, and will feature 76 courts on its 45 acres—will only help, Hemminger believes.
“When you have a large facility like that, then you can draw national scale and national tournaments,” he explains. “We already bring in tens of thousands of dollars, but we could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the town, as well as many visitors.”
Even before the space opens, though, the Triangle is already making a splash as a fast-growing hub for the game.
“I think pickleball is going to eclipse tennis in terms of the eventual number of players,” says Banks Talley, a member of the Raleigh Pickleball Fanatics, an offshoot of the larger Raleigh Pickleball Club Facebook group, which boasts nearly 1,000 members. That would really be saying something, if Talley’s prediction proves true, since the Triangle is also home to a booming tennis community (it’s the #4 market for membership activations, according to the United States Tennis Association.)
In a friend’s recently built Cary development, he adds, the planners put in more pickleball courts than tennis courts, “because they know they’re going to be used more.”
Etheridge, meanwhile, says that, during her pickleball adventures, she’s met players coming from as far as Wilmington and past Fayetteville who’ve made the trek to the Triangle due to a lack of courts in their own towns. The area’s prestige has its downsides—Etheridge notes that at Method Community Park, where she often plays, courts are so crowded she’s had to wait nearly 45 minutes for a game—but for the most part, pickleball fans are glad to see their hometowns thrive through the sport.
“Raleigh has grown exponentially in the last 25 years… [and] I think they’re trying to be ahead of the trend instead of behind it,” says Talley. The game, he notes, has been popular in other cities for decades—but it wasn’t until fairly recently that Raleigh and its surrounding towns became hubs in their own right. Part of it, he explains, is due to the Triangle’s warm weather.
“It’s one of those sports that can be played almost 12 months of the year, at least here,” Talley says. Barring the (very) occasional snow, even the winter season isn’t a problem for devout local pickleball fans; the game requires enough movement and energy that players typically leave sweaty.
“If you play pickleball the way it’s supposed to be played, you leave with a very aerobic workout,” he says.
The game’s year-round outdoor setting is especially appealing during the ongoing pandemic since players can socially distance across a net and wear masks without affecting play. Over the last year and a half, similar sports like racquetball or Ping-Pong became harder to play safely—but pickleball’s popularity rose, especially in the Triangle.
The area’s demographics, too, make it a perfect fit for the sport. With a surplus of retirees and college students, two of pickleball’s biggest playing groups, “anywhere you are in the Triangle, it’s easy to go find people to play with, and to play all different skill levels,” says Hemminger.
Eric Zeigler, a Zumba and chess instructor who’s also a certified pickleball coach with the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association (IPTPA), recalls feeling skeptical, at first, that the sport would be a fit for him. Asked by a player if he wanted to learn, Zeigler hesitated until the man added, “unless you think the game’s just for white old men.”
“I was shocked because that’s exactly what I was thinking,” Zeigler recalls with a laugh. “So I ate some humble pie and said, ‘yeah, that’s a nice thought,’ so he said, ‘here, take a moment and I’ll show you,’ and that moment became 12 years.”
As a coach, Zeigler thrives on teaching new players—even those who’ve never played a single sport before, let alone one with a paddle—how to get into the game. “You can immediately, whether you know all the rules or not, get out and start having fun,” he says.
And once a player gets initiated, it’s easy to find a local game or session, thanks to the Facebook groups and other Meetup groups such as the Apex-based Triangle Pickleball Enthusiasts.
Or, you can simply come by the Y or Method at any time and ask players if there’s room for one more. Chances are, you’ll be welcomed onto the court.
“Every day there’s someone that’s brand new, which is always exciting,” says Zeigler. After all, he adds, pickleball’s “whole point is to bring the community together, to cross lines of division, as well as to bring a love and a sense of purpose to this game that we all love.”
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