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Fruitless to Fruitful

The city of Hiawassee, Georgia, in Towns County is tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is home to the Georgia Mountain Fair, the Georgia Mountain Big Green Egg festival, music concerts and a stream of car, bicycle and motorcycle events geared toward young active retirees. It’s also home to a very vibrant community known as Georgia Mountain Pickleball.

Two and a half years ago the county was completing a new recreation center and agreed to put permanent lines for four indoor pickleball courts on the basketball courts. This started the wave of pickleball in the county and, as word spread, more and more people were drawn into the sport.

The community was soon bursting at the seams and, due to the growing numbers and to many disruptions of the three-day-per-week schedule at the recreation center from basketball camps, games, etc., players began to look for possible additional venues. County Commissioner Bill Kendall is very sports-minded and was impressed with the commitment, drive, enthusiasm and growing numbers. He agreed to help renovate an abandoned county-owned four-court tennis complex that was both unsightly and non-functional (with multiple cracks, weeds, rusted fencing, and mold and mildew covering the court surface).

The original plan was to clean up the courts, repair the cracks and paint the surface. The pickleball group formed a work party and did the cleanup and were preparing to fill in all the cracks when the county, in a desire to help, filled all the cracks with road tar. Unfortunately, this rendered the courts unusable due to the soft nature of tar and the fact that paint won’t adhere to tar.

The complex sat for several months in that condition. In the meantime, the pickleball group received permission to revamp two abandoned tennis courts at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds and play there for over a year on four makeshift courts, even though the surface was quite rough and uneven.

Eventually the commissioner, who remained impressed with the group’s dedication, enthusiasm, and still growing numbers, entered into negotiations with Signature Tennis Courts, Inc. out of Woodstock, Georgia. With the county’s help with some of the materials, grading, and equipment, they would completely resurface the complex with 6"-8" of compacted gravel, 2"-3" of asphalt, and a sealer coat followed by two coats of paint, court lines and permanent nets. The project was completed in September, 2015, just two days before the first regional tournament. The Towns County Pickleball Complex is now a dedicated 14-court state-of-the-art facility situated on Lake Chatuge with beautiful mountain views as a backdrop. A paved parking area, windscreens, several benches and awnings for shade have since been added. The total cost for this renovation to date has been just under $100,000.

Future plans include the addition of a covered pavilion, restrooms and lights.

Since opening, several tournaments for charities have been staged and the group just completed its first major one this past May that exceeded all expectations. It is estimated that the economic impact to the community for this tournament was over $400,000.

The first sanctioned tournament, the Georgia Mountain Pickleball Fall Classic, will be held September 16-18. Look for it on PickleballTournaments.com.

The goal is to make the county a pickleball destination whereby visitors can come and experience the beauty of the area and play pickleball at this beautiful complex. There are several wineries in the area, which is rich in bed and breakfasts, cabins and cottages, hotels, motels and resorts, as well as several four- and five-star restaurants. The area has three TVA lakes: Chatuge, Nottely, and Hiawassee. Thirty minutes away is the German Village Town of Helen and there’s Brasstown Bald, the tallest peak in Georgia, and over 10 beautiful waterfalls. There are dozens of hiking trails and the Appalachian Trail passes through Towns County.

For campers, there are several large RV resort centers in the area, including one adjacent to the Towns County Pickleball Complex. Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa is a world-class resort with a long list of amenities including a championship golf course.

For a fun-filled sightseeing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, water skiing vacation combined with playing pickleball, this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains should be on everyone’s “bucket list” of things to do.

John Hall, USAPA Ambassador in Hiawassee, GA, is retired and a former lead engineer for the Space Shuttle program. He’s also the creator and organizer of the largest satellite eggfest in the country, the Georgia Mountain Big Green Eggfest. John’s next goal is to make Hiawassee a real pickleball destination for players all across the country.

Destination Pickleball

WHETHER IT’S A HOTEL, RESORT OR PLANNED RESIDENTIAL COMMUNITY, PICKLEBALL HAS BECOME AN ESSENTIAL AMENITY.

The sport of pickleball has burst into the mainstream from pockets all over the country—and commercial businesses and home developers are taking notice.

Perhaps the most accommodating businesses are those in the hospitality industry—hoteliers and RV communities, where pickleball isn’t just another activity to offer guests but an integral part of bringing in new guests.

At the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, pickleball has been elevated to the heights of luxury rarely found elsewhere. Not only did the resort convert three of its tennis courts into 12 pickleball courts, each court comes with all the amenities the resort has to offer.

“Our guests have access to our locker rooms, great restrooms, connectivity to the rest of the resort, sandwiches, cocktails, whatever they could wish for,” says Steve Hart, General Manager. “We built these courts so players could be part of the resort experience and have total resort amenities, whether it’s just a few folks who want to play or a large round robin tournament. The real sweet spot is to be able to continue the love of the sport for families that come here because of our courts, or people who are curious because they’ve heard about it and want to attend clinics or lessons.”

Hart says the transition toward pickleball as an offering at the resort was thoroughly researched and decisively implemented. The process was initiated by guests asking about the sport. “It all started with a couple people inquiring, so we began to do our own research,” Hart says. “We saw it was really taking off. I wanted to see the coolest places in Phoenix that had pickleball and then looked at the best resorts in the world and found none of them had anything.”

Hart says although many places claim to have pickleball, they just tape off tennis courts. As a result, he insisted that JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa do it right. “When we saw the energy and excitement, age levels and family play, we saw an opportunity. JW is 15 years old and by all accounts one of the great resorts in the country. We have stunning golf, a fabulous spa, the best pools anywhere, gorgeous grounds. How could we compromise pickleball at this resort? Instead of having a court or two to accommodate somebody who may want to play, we thought we’d add pickleball as one of the key positioning points for the JW Desert Ridge. We built 12 world-class, dedicated pickleball courts as part of our tennis complex, which is now a racquet complex.”

The JW Marriott’s pickleball courts also offer players spectacular views of the gorgeous Arizonian desert. Hart says players can witness extraordinary sunsets from the courts. What’s more, the courts have already been available to regional players for tournament play. Hart says the regional seniors tournament was recently held on site and communication between the resort and the local pickleball organizations is ongoing regarding future events and tournaments.

On the other side of the country, in Florida, Sundial Beach Resort and Spa has long been a staple that prides itself on its history of tennis amenities.Brett Lindsay, Director of Sales and Marketing for Sundial, said that like other resorts, the addition of pickleball facilities was an amalgamation of guest inquiry and managerial recognition of the growing sport.

“It was both, actually. Sundial Resort and Sanibel have a long history of tennis. When new ownership came in, they revitalized and realized the value of pickleball as an added amenity, even more so,” Lindsay said. “They realized that pickleball was growing fast. It was a perfect fit for our demographics and our climate, so we set up a dedicated pickleball facility.”

Sundial boasts the largest pickleball facility in the area, complete with 12 Plexicushion courts and stadium seating. Resort guests receive complimentary court access and equipment rentals. Lessons and clinics are offered at the beautiful waterfront facility, voted the Best Pickleball in Southwest Florida. In addition to being a boon for guests, the facilities are also available to the public for open and tournament play.

On the residential side, Minto Communities, developer of communities such as the new Latitude Margaritaville and the award-winning Isles of Collier Preserve in Naples, includes pickleball courts in developments because the demand has grown exponentially.

William Bullock, Senior Vice President of Minto Communities, says pickleball has been on his company’s radar since around 2009. “In the 20 years I’ve been involved in development, you can see where things are trending and where they’re headed. A great example is how the trend shifted from shuffleboard to bocce,” he explains. “In 2009, we acquired Sun City Center and sat down with the board and association members. This is a community of 17,000 units, and they told us they wanted things like a dog park. They didn’t want a playground. Then they said they wanted pickleball, and I said, ‘What’s pickleball?’ When they explained it and why it applied to the demographic, it was obvious it would be a trendsetting sport. We helped convert tennis courts and, within a year, had dozens of pickleball courts. That real-world experience was validation for us.”

Since then, pickleball courts have been included in Minto’s Isles of Collier Preserve in Naples, LakePark in Port St. Lucie, and the new Latitude Margaritaville communities in Daytona Beach and Hilton Head.

Residents of Isles of Collier Preserve have their own pickleball courts and club—and compete in area tournaments regularly. Residents simply walk through a gate that connects the community to East Naples Park where there are championship-level, covered pickleball courts.

Bullock says not only has Minto embraced pickleball where it thrives, it has also embraced the pickleball community by sponsoring events that are important to the players. The company was the title sponsor for the 2016 Inaugural US Open Pickleball Championships and continues to be a title sponsor of the event. “There’s been no wavering on our zeal for the sport,” says Bullock. “We’ve seen the US Open grow from a few hundred people to more than 5,000. It’s growing by leaps and bounds, and it’s because of how accessible the sport is. It’s intergenerational and crosses all boundaries.”

As far as the communities being built, Minto’s enthusiasm for pickleball will continue for the foreseeable future. Bullock says the company’s strategic marketing surveys continue to show pickleball’s popularity in the top 10 out of 20 athletic activities that customers and interested buyers want to see in their neighborhoods. “We’ve seen golf go from being in the top 5 to 15 of 20, but pickleball just ticks up the ladder every time we survey people,” he says. “It’s always in the top 10 or better.”

On the other end of the country, for communities like Robson Ranch, located in the southwestern Arizona desert, pickleball courts have been a standard recreational amenity for some time.

Win Oppel, Vice President of the Robson Ranch Pickleball Club, says not only did Robson have pickleball courts when he looked into the community more than four years ago, they’re actively discussing ongoing expansions as the community grows. “We have pickleball courts at all of the Robson facilities in Arizona and have been discussing them during the buildout here,” Oppel says. “We have a membership of more than 300 and just closed on our 1,000th house, so it’s a pretty big draw.”

Oppel says sports like tennis are no longer bringing people to the community and, in fact, tennis courts remain all but vacant. “The tennis courts don’t get any use, not like they did 10 years ago,” he says. “With the pickleball program, we constantly have players out there. At night, we have lit courts and run a couples program in the evening.”

While Oppel has been a resident for more than four years, he was an avid pickleball player prior to discovering Robson. Oppel had been coming to the area in his RV with his family for five years before looking to put down roots. “The pickleball community is fairly active in Casa Grande, and most RV parks have some sort of pickleball program going on,” he says. “I learned to play, and Robson’s courts were a big attraction for us, a big piece of our decision to move here. There are 16 courts, a dedicated program, and the management of Robson is extremely supportive of the program.”

With two in-house tournaments a year, Robson residents play amongst themselves. Other tournaments throughout the year open up to neighboring communities. “Our Sixth Annual Pickleball Tournament drew more than 400 people—100 from inside the community and the rest from four or five other communities in the area,” Oppel says. “They’ll play here one day and Palm Creek or Mission Royale at other times.”

The goodwill generated by local and regional interplay is giving back to the community in spades. Robson is home to two pickleball ambassadors, Mickie Storckman and Larry Kraus. Residents in the community travel to local high schools to teach pickleball lessons several times a week. There’s also an official outreach program in place. Oppel says every pickleball event typically has a benefit for the community involved. “Tournaments usually are where we give back the most,” he says. “At Christmas, we had an in-house event where all the money raised went to the Eloy Fire District’s Children’s Christmas Fund, which gives gifts for disadvantaged children.”

As pickleball takes the country by storm, dozens of resorts and communities are jumping on the pickleball train—to the delight of their guests and residents.

Tennis Club Evolution

Watching the various players at Nationals this last year, it is easy to recognize what type of background a player comes from: tennis, racquetball, table tennis or even basketball. Talking with some players, though, it seems to be a common factor that tennis players transition to pickleball quite directly. It is no surprise, therefore, that a tennis club would be a prime location for the introduction of pickleball. Here are a few stories of how pickleball has transformed tennis clubs into something more.

The Lakes Country Club in Palm Desert, California
About three years ago, Marcin Rozpedski, former professional tennis player and currently the tennis director at The Lakes Country Club, was approached by a member with an idea of putting one pickleball court on the back tennis court of the tennis center –“just to try it.” Soon after, the demand for the sport forced Marcin to start taping two more courts, and he knew that he would have to get some permanent lines down soon. The demand from the members caught his interest.

When Marcin first heard about pickleball, it was a struggle to come to terms with the sport. How could he convince himself, as a tennis director and former tennis professional, that this game of pickleball would catch on and be successful at his club? Well, he decided to give it a try. And he loved it. But how could he convince the general manager to endorse pickleball? Naturally, the numbers spoke for themselves.

Since starting the program, the club now has nine individual permanent pickleball courts. The club sacrificed three tennis courts for those pickleball courts, but now has over 150 pickleball club members. Marcin coordinates an easy-to-follow program, with given start times. Equipment is provided by the club to new members for the first year, and the club has equipment for sale through its pro shop. Now the club is called a “racquet center” instead of “tennis center" and, according to Marcin, it is the best thing that ever happened to the facility. He is glad that The Lakes Country Club was progressive enough to introduce and embrace the game of pickleball three years ago.

Yakima Tennis Club in Yakima, Washington
In a small city located just south of the center of Washington, Tyson McGuffin, a two-time National medalist, is the Teaching Pro at the Yakima Tennis Club. With the club being run by a board, Tyson and his pickleball friends had to convince the group that pickleball was a good idea. It was slow going, but eventually the board consented and right now

Your Club's Organized Play

While increasing members participation and engagement with your club can also be improved through
social venues, special events, clinics, other club training and tournaments, probably the greatest way to improve participation is to “simply” provide more organized opportunities for members to play, both recreationally and competitively. Thus providing more and varied opportunities for organized play can be very important to your club.

What kinds of organized play are there? Truly there are many, but here are a few we like.

1. Round-Robins (RRs) are the backbone of most clubs, taking sometimes more than 50% of the time slots available. They give players a chance to play against many others in a predictable time frame. One typical variation is played across six games in a two-hour block. To start, each player is assigned a number and a posted sheet then assigns the player, each game, to a different court, a particular side and a partner. Over six games you will play with and against (typically) 12-15 different players. Benefits to this are near-constant play, opportunities to play against/with many different folks, and predictability of knowing you will have a solid two-hour block of play at a designated time. RRs are often segmented by skill levels, either separated by gender or mixed, and can be competitive (club or USAPA ratings required) or more recreational (self-rated). Another great use of a RR is to ensure that newly trained players have an appropriate venue to play and hook up with other newer players. We often provide mentors at those RRs to help the new kids learn the game quickly and focus on fundamentals. RRs can also be used, with varying success, as “feeds” into your rating system...e.g. In the Bend Pickleball Club, on specific competitive RRs, scores are kept and those who have point tallies that are at 92% of points available across multiple RRs over time are offered the opportunity to play at the club’s next highest level.

2. Shootouts and Ladder Play are competitive in design. A Shootout is a form of RR (see above) in which points are tracked during the event, people are assigned to a court based on past performance, people play against each other on a given court over three games, and afterwards the three the players shift up a court or down a court. Scores are tracked and each event players may shift up or down. Ladder Play is designed to have people play against each other within a skill group, rankings are kept and the objective is to win matches and move up the ladder if possible.

3. Team Pickleball and Speed Pickleball (Thanks to Dave and Linda Scott, USAPA Ambassadors for Chesterfield County, VA, for their detailed explanation!) These variations are what their names imply...ways to organize and run team play and also a venue for rapid play against lots of folks in a controlled block of time.

4. Challenge-Court Play is designed to allow people to self-select who they are going to play against next. Often a team format, two people will pick a court that has a likely game where they could compete, challenge in, and play the winners. Rules are established dictating how long winners can stay on a court; during busy times perhaps they come off after two games but this varies. This is often one of the most popular venues for those looking to increase their skills.

There are certainly many other forms of organized play, and they all have lots of upside. What are the downsides? The organization time needed to schedule and provide all of these venues, the volunteers necessary to host (captain) the various events, and so on. All of these are different subjects and will be covered later. Good luck and Play On!