Pickleball fans from across the country converged on Sun City Festival in Buckeye to compete in Nationals Tournament, the largest such event to date.
The Buckeye tournament is the biggest in the U.S. so far, according to the national governing body of the sport. This year’s national tournament had 640 sign-ups, up from 425 from in 2012 tournament, said David Jordan, president of Surprise-based USA Pickleball Association.
The next largest was the 2011 Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, which had 545 players in the pickleball competition, according to the association.
There are about100,000 to 150,000 players nationwide, Jordan said.
Enthusiasts call pickleball America’s “fastest-growing sport.” It blends tennis, badminton and ping-pong. Participants play with large paddles like those in Ping-Pong and a ball that resembles a smaller Wiffle ball. The game is played on a badminton-sized court. While matches resemble tennis, the sport is less physically taxing, players say.
The Buckeye tournament brackets are organized by age, starting with players under 19 up to players 85 and older. Anyone can come watch the matches for free.
Earlier this week, players from as far away as Netherlands, vied for a spot in championship matches or came to play for fun. The event also includes players from from 39 states and Canada.
It easy to find the Nationals Tournament inside of the sprawling Sun City Festival community. Follow the the chorus of "thwaks" as players volley balls across dozens of nets.
Earlier this week, hundreds of fans lined the courts’ fences, to watch matches from lawn chairs.
Brian Ashworth, a 29-year-old pickleball player from Billings, Mont. traveled to Buckeye to play.
“It’s fun to compete with everyone,” said Ashworth who started played at his local YMCA. “I’ve been beat by older people,” he added.
The West Valley is a hub for the sport.
Sun City Festival has hosted each of the five past national tournaments, saidRuth Rosenquist, USA Pickleball Association’s Media Relations Chair.
Sun City Festival is also an ideal location because pickleball’s appeal to older players has made West Valley communities with many retirees such as Buckeye and Surprise, hotspots for the growing sport, Rosenquist added.
Some pickleball players say they have moved to the West Valley just to pursue their passion.
Steve Wong, a 35-year-old former Seattle resident, moved to Surprise three years ago because of the opportunity for pickleball growth. Wong’s life is immersed in the sport. In 2012 he won gold medals in open men’s doubles, doubles for men 19 and older as well as open mixed doubles. He owns the pickleball pro store in Peoria, Onix Sports. He is also the founder of the nonprofit Surprise Pickleball Association.
“It’s muli-generational, it’s a fun sport and people have a great time without even knowing that they’re getting some exercise,” said Wong, who said he has been a pickleball fan since eighth grade.
Through his non-profit, Wong teaches pickleball clinics across the nation and in metro Pnoenix to introduce people to the sport. The Surprise Pickleball Association raised over $35,000 last year to build new pickleball courts and improve the lighting in Dreamcatcher Park in Surprise.
Wong believes the sport positively impacts the local economy, in part because of transplants like himself.
Snowbird Jeannie Branin, 68, splits her time between Bend, Ore. and Buckeye since she bought a house in Sun City Festival in 2008.
Branin was primarily a tennis player before she moved to the West Valley, where she soon picked up pickleball.
“There weren’t many people playing tennis, but there were many people playing pickleball,” she said.
Branin said she enjoys pickleball’s social side. Since the game only goes to 11 points, players regularly get to switch courts and meet other picklers.
There were few signs of pickleball’s popularity in Bend in 2008. Now when Branin goes back, she’s greeted by a 600-member pickleball club she said.
“It’s growing like mad,” Branin said.
There are eight pickleball clubs in the West Valley, and the newest was established in Verrado over the summer according to Rosenquist. An average of 39 new clubs across the country come to the USA Pickleball Association’s attention each month.
The association also awards $20,000 in grants every year to help develop courts and has more than 700 ambassadors nationwide to promote the sport, according to Jordan.
Wong works closely with Surprise to promote pickleball and to help execute his fundraisers like the one for the Dreamcatcher Park courts.
While Surprise’s youth still gravitate mostly to traditional sports like football and basketball, the Surprise Pickleball Association’s efforts to raise the sport’s profile have been successful according to Mark Coronado, Surprise’s Director of Community & Recreation Services.
The city has also been in talks with the USA Pickleball Association to help bring in more national tournaments to the West Valley and eventually Surprise, according to Coronado.
“Our courts are well-utilized every morning, every weekend.” he said. “It’s obvious that they have a tremendous following.”