The pickleball phenomenon is hitting the sweet spot across Alberta.
Widely considered to be the fastest-growing sport in North America, the increase in participants--among all ages--has been explosive.
"There has been a tsunami of players coming on board," said Doug Fogg, a founding member of the Edmonton Pickleball Club.
Numbers show there are 10,000 registered pickleball players, ages 8 to 80, at the 40 clubs in the province, up from 4,000 in 2019. (The St. Albert club welcomes members age 12 and up), St. Albert Pickleball Club - Home (pickleballstalbert.ca)
Pickleball Alberta (https://pickleballalberta.org/) president Kirk Jensen, 63, is a former badminton and tennis player who switched sports five years ago because of two things: it's easy to play, and it's inclusive.
"The learning curve isn't very steep. You can be doing a rally within 10 minutes of playing," said the retiree, adding, "It's one of the most social games there is. I've heard people say pickleball saved their lives. They weren't accepted in other sports because they weren't good enough."
Not surprisingly, the demand has made it difficult to find a place to play. While most centres across Alberta have stand-alone public pickleball courts, Calgary and Edmonton have many players scrambling to find a spot.
Calgary Pickleball Club (CPC) president Sue Stevenson Brown says there are no designated outdoor city courts in the city and as a result the CPC pays a booking fee and brings nets to play at 47 of Calgary's 66 outdoor tennis courts. Naturally, she's thrilled to learn there will be a new, privately-run 12-court indoor facility opening in Calgary this fall.
"It's a big boost for pickleball here," said Stephenson Brown, adding indoor pickleball is currently only being played at converted volleyball courts in Calgary. Hopes are high that work with the City of Calgary will result in an outdoor park in the near future.
In Edmonton, demand eased slightly this summer with the opening of 12 public outdoor pickleball courts. Fogg, who first met with the City about creating standalone pickleball courts in 2015, says they were long overdue. "It has been brutally slow."
Mike Dingwall, co-owner of the company opening the indoor Calgary facility, also owns the 17-court Edmonton Volleyball and Pickleball Center | The Center | EVP in south Edmonton. and will soon open another 14-court indoor facility in the west end.
The 33-year-old switched from volleyball to pickleball a few years ago, and says his friends followed suit.
"A lot of guys my age are getting into the sport," he said, adding, “For a while it was the plus-60 crowd, but it has definitely gotten a lot younger.”
Jensen confirmed the average age of all players is 58 years, but more and more juniors are joining in. Because of the increase in demand, he says the volunteer board of Pickleball Alberta may increase annual dues for members (from $5 to $20), and look at hiring staff.
The sport received another big boost in early September as inaugural season playoffs for the Canadian National Pickleball League (CNPL) were held at Edmonton’s Expo Centre. Thirty-two of Canada's best professionals competed on eight teams; a qualifier for the league championships in Ontario in late September.
"As we continue with the league, expect it to gain more traction among Canadians nation-wide," said CNPL commissioner Mike McAninch, pointing to the two-day event drawing a crowd of about 500 spectators.
Jensen, who squeezes in four games every week, is excited about the sport's future.
"We've got some of the best programs in Canada. We’ve been contacted by other countries on how we do things, we have a YouTube channel that live streams our tournaments and we are active on our Facebook page.”
"The sky's the limit.”