Federal Covid Aid is Funding a Pickleball Court Construction Boom

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 17: Thomas Chow and Patti K. play pickleball at the courts near Louis Sutter Playground in McLaren Park in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, August 17, 2021. In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in pickleball, America's fastest growing sport.

SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 17: Thomas Chow and Patti K. play pickleball at the courts near Louis Sutter Playground in McLaren Park in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, August 17, 2021. In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in pickleball, America's fastest growing sport. Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Pickleball is the nation's fastest growing sport and cities and towns are using money from the American Rescue Plan to build facilities for the legions of new players.

When Sally Hudgins of East Lansing, Michigan was introduced to pickleball more than a decade ago, few people had heard of the paddle sport with the whimsical name.

There weren’t many pickleball courts in Central Michigan back then, but Hudgins finally found a place to play. 

Now she ticks off the names of at least nine municipal courts within a short drive of her house. More are in the planning phase, including six new courts approved by the city of Lansing to be paid for with federal Covid-19 relief funds.

“They’re popping up everywhere,’’ said Hudgins, a retired teacher and official ambassador for Greater Lansing Pickleball, who instructs newcomers on how to play the fast-growing sport. “Pickleball is just storming the country.”

Dozens of municipalities are adding pickleball courts to their park and recreation offerings – and many are using a slice of their coronavirus aid package to underwrite the construction boom. 

If the Hoover Dam and the Lincoln Tunnel are enduring monuments to the New Deal’s infrastructure spending, perhaps pickleball courts will become a lasting legacy of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. 

From Seguin, Texas to Chesterfield, Missouri to Groton, Connecticut, dozens of cities and towns are planning to use the historic infusion of federal cash to support the growing demand for pickleball venues.

“We get asked everyday ‘what does it cost to build a pickleball court and how can I get my community leaders to invest in one?’’’ said Laura Gainor, spokeswoman for USA Pickleball, the sport’s governing body. The group provides a toolkit on its website for those seeking public support for a municipal pickleball court.

A quirky mix of tennis, ping-pong and badminton, pickleball was  invented by three dads from Washington state in the mid-1960s. The game is played with a paddle and a plastic ball about the size of a wiffle ball. Opposing players take turns hitting the ball back and forth over a net; the game can be played outside or indoors.

Pickleball slowly grew in popularity over the decades before spiking sharply over the past five years. “A lot of people learned to play during the pandemic,’’ Gainor said. “We were all stuck inside and were looking for ways to get exercise outside.”

Last month, lawmakers in Washington designated pickleball as the state’s official sport, saying the game provided hope and fun during the dark days of the coronavirus crisis.

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade group, estimates 4.8 million people played pickleball in 2021, up 14.8% from 2020, making it the nation’s fastest growing sport. “We don’t have enough courts to keep up with that,’’ Gainor said.

The game is especially popular in the Southeast and the Upper Midwest: the pickleball belt stretches from Florida to Wisconsin. But it’s gaining popularity in New England and the Deep South as well.

Cities and towns aren’t the only entities looking to accommodate all those new players: private country clubs, hotel groups and apartment complexes are also building courts. 

But the money flowing to state and local governments through the American Rescue Plan has provided a boon for localities seeking to build or upgrade their pickleball amenities.

The cost to build a public pickleball court can range from $20,000 to more than $250,000, depending on the site, whether the courts are fenced and if other amenities are added. The playing area on a pickleball court is 20-feet by 44-feet, roughly the size of a badminton court. (The game can also be played on a tennis court or simply by stretching a net across a driveway.)  

The city of Sidney, Ohio decided to spend $75,000 of its $2 million Covid relief pot on pickleball courts after 130 people signed a petition supporting the project.

Groton, Connecticut is considering setting aside $25,000 of its American Rescue Plan allocation to repair and paint outdoor pickleball courts, noting that the sport offered residents a safe recreational opportunity throughout the pandemic.

And last week, officials in Gulfport, Florida approved spending ARPA funds to demolish the old combination pickleball/tennis facility and build separate courts for each sport, with enhanced lighting.

“For years, we’ve been asked by members of the public and residents to construct pickleball courts so they wouldn’t have to share the tennis courts,’’ City Manager James E. O’Reilly told the city council on April 5. The project is expected to be completed by late summer.

The Covid relief money was initially pitched by Democrats in Congress as a way to boost local economies, promote vaccinations, create jobs and help local schools. But the federal government gives communities broad latitude in how to spend ARPA dollars. Under the rules, the money can be used to provide premium pay for certain essential workers, invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, and replace public sector revenue that was lost during the pandemic.

That last category is often used to justify spending on pickleball projects. In Haywood County, North Carolina, commissioners are considering setting aside $345,000 in ARPA funds to build a six-court outdoor pickleball complex, after hundreds of residents in a public survey said adding the amenity was a priority for them. Supporters also said adding courts could help the county win tournaments, a potential driver of economic development. 

But County Commissioner Jennifer Best raised objections to the plan. "I just want to make sure that we’re very mindful of how we allocate these dollars,’’ Best said at an April 18 meeting. “It would be nice for us to use it to for something that could serve a greater population.’’

Best noted that the county already has pickleball courts, although they are all indoors. “I certainly don’t want the pickleball people to be upset with me,’’ she said. “I guess my concern is we do have other pickleball facilities already in the community.’’

The commissioners put off a vote on the proposal.

Other critics say pickleball is primarily a sport for older adults, so construction of new courts doesn’t benefit the entire community.  

But USA Pickleball notes that the game is growing in popularity among a younger crowd. The average age of pickleball players fell to 38.1 in 2021, a dip of 2.9 years from 2020.

Pickleball had an “image problem” before the pandemic because it was seen as a sport primarily for retirees, Gainor said. “Over the past year and a half, that’s really changed,’’ she said.

Hudgins, the pickleball enthusiast from East Lansing, said she’s noticed more young people and families on the courts in recent years. 

“Everyone’s getting totally immersed in this crazy, fun sport,’’ she said. “It’s just getting bigger, and bigger and bigger.”

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