© 2023 KSUT Public Radio
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The pickleball boom reaches the Mountain West

Murphy Woodhouse
The Mountain West News Bureau

Pickleball, often described as a cross between tennis and ping pong, is a smash in the Mountain West. New courts and playing clubs – and some controversies – are popping up throughout the region.

In Laramie, Wyo., Undine Park is one of the best and only places to play pickleball. Treece Sisneros, who was wearing earrings with paddles and yellow balls on them on a recent Thursday, picked up the sport about five years ago.

“I was getting a little bit old for volleyball and softball, and I heard that it was a good sport for older people. And, of course, we know that that's not the case anymore. It's for everybody,” she said. “Just a fun game [that’s] pretty addictive right away.”

Will Walkey
Wyoming Public Media

Now, Sisneros plays three to four days a week and is president of the Laramie Pickleball Association. She said she’s met several friends “that I wouldn't even have known” through the sport, including another self-described “addict,” Carl Gose.

“Community to me is addictive. Relationships are addictive. Wellness is addictive,” Gose said. “Ultimately, it's just growth for me. And it just keeps feeling better and better.”

There’s a lot Gose likes about pickleball, including improving his fitness and coordination. But one of his favorite parts is the fact that the game is played slowly and with finesse. He recalls losing several times to players who appeared older and slower than him because of their control of the ball.

“Once you start to control your reactions, and build patience and you build control, it's more chess-like. You move. You divide and conquer," Gose said. "Utilizing the rules is a slower, more intense, mindful patience game.”

Pickleball is also relatively cheap and easy to learn, factors contributing to its soaring popularity. A recent Association of Pickleball Professionals survey found that there are more than 36 million players nationwide, putting it nearly on par with running and cycling. Participation also more than doubled in the U.S. the past three years.

Brandon Mackie, co-founder of the pickleball website Pickleheads, said the pandemic helped the sport evolve from something played mostly by retirees in warmer states.

“Maybe a young person was exposed to it in LA, and then they decided, ‘Hey. I could work remote. I don't want to live in a big city anymore. I'm going to go move to Wyoming or Bozeman, Montana.’ And they brought pickleball,” he said.

Courts are being proposed and built all over the Mountain West, including in Park City, Utah, eastern Idaho and other Wyoming towns. But Mackie said new construction still might not be meeting skyrocketing demand for space.

“By the time that the courts had been built, it's already not enough," he said." They do an analysis – they say, ‘We need four pickleball courts to serve the demand.’ – it takes a year to build them, and then [they] come to find out they should have built eight or ten or 12.”

And crowded courts, he added, can be intimidating for new players, potentially preventing some would-be pickleheads from getting into the game.

The demand has large companies looking to build massive pickleball complexes, convert big box stores to courts or take over less popular tennis facilities to create space.

In some communities, the pickleball boom is causing friction. In Centennial, Colo., the city council passed a ban earlier this year on new pickleball court construction while they study noise complaints.

"I want to hear the kids playing. I want to hear the birds chirping. I don't want to hear, ‘click, click, click,’ all day long,” said local resident Joanne Larzik.

That has at least one pickleball enthusiast and entrepreneur creating paddles that muffle sound. Others argue the benefits of the sport outweigh the complaints of a few neighbors.

“My grandsons, and children of their age, they like to play. It's a game they can pick up quickly. And they can play competitively with their parents,” said Centennial resident Michael Evans. “It gets them off their iPads, out of the house and outside. And I think that when you're looking at the City of Centennial, these are the types of activities you want to be making your children and your residents doing.”

Apart from controversies at the city level, others are just building their own facilities. Heather Glass in Boise, Idaho, faced crowded courts at times. So, she laid asphalt on her property and invited the public to play and take lessons through an online reservation system.

 Heather Glass observes a pickleball tournament on her property.
Murphy Woodhouse
The Mountain West News Bureau
Heather Glass observes a pickleball tournament on her property.

“I said, ‘Hey, neighbors! Come play pickleball. And I'll teach you how.’ And I built it. And they came,” Glass said. “It's very welcoming to new people. I have people show up at my house from all over the country.”

The former teacher and tennis player said she never gets noise complaints, even on more raucous “pickleball happy hours” on Wednesday evenings. The most rewarding part for her is watching someone grow from a beginner to an expert after just a few lessons.

“I'm a better teacher than I am a player – I have about seven, eight girls who have bypassed my skill level and play that higher level than I do now,” Glass said. “It [makes] me feel like a million dollars."

Glass said friction with any game that booms this fast is inevitable, but she expects there’s still room for pickleball to grow responsibly and organically. But one thing is clear from her experience: People will find a way to play no matter what.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey
Related Stories