CNY Pickleball community flourishes on and off court

CNY picklers flourish on and off court

The country's fastest-growing sport is making noise among roughly 1,000 enthusiastic local players.
Published: September 5, 2022 | Updated: September 6th, 2022 at 10:09 pm
Players face off in a match at a recent pickleball tournament at Ellis Field Park.
Picklers compete in a recent tournament at Ellis Park.

Janet Reilly was running on the indoor track at the Northwest Family YMCA, when suddenly she heard a plink plink plink from the courts a floor below.

Reilly slowed her pace and noticed a group of players engaged in a pickleball match. She ran a few more laps and kept a watchful eye on the yellow pickleball as players hit it back and forth with paddles.

Reilly recalled her own experience playing racquetball and ping pong and thought, “I can do that.” So, she ventured to the courts to inquire about the noisy sport.

“They stuck a paddle in my hand, and I fell in love instantly,” Reilly said.

Reilly is now a USA Pickleball Association ambassador involved in a growing community of pickleball players in the Syracuse area.

The growing popularity of pickleball in Central New York mirrors the expansion nationwide, where it’s the fastest growing sport, by one industry estimate.

Here, CNY Pickleball has more than 1,000 players involved, said Brook Bregman, another ambassador of the sport. According to Bregman, an estimated 300 players joined the organization’s email list in the past six months.

CNY Pickleball offers open play for picklers of all levels, weekly beginner lessons, frequent tournaments and community events. Pickleball matches are short with frequent breaks, making it easy to get to know competitors. It’s an effective workout, but one that players of all ages can compete in, Reilly and others said.

Within the last month, CNY Pickleball hosted its Battle of the Parks tournament and aired a live demonstration on NewsChannel 9’s Bridge Street in celebration of National Pickleball Day.

The Sports and Fitness Industry Association says pickleball is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. in the past two years. Pickleball has expanded 39.3% since 2020 and attracted 4.8 million players in the U.S., according to the association.

CNY Pickleball began at Cicero Family Fitness in 2007, said Mary Gillen, 82, who helped coordinate the group. Local players had access to one court with a broken-down net for an hour twice a week. Gillen said CNY Pickleball players were denied court space at local YMCAs.

So, Gillen became a pickleball ambassador to give the group the title and clout they needed to be taken seriously as a sport.

“With that title, it opened doors,” Gillen said.

Gillen visited different facilities in the CNY area to give demonstrations and spread word of the game. Along the way, other players joined Gillen and became ambassadors too.

“If you want to build something, you have to find people who will have a passion for it and who might have better ideas and more energy,” Gillen said. “So that’s the kind of people I looked for.”

Today, CNY Pickleball has access to more than 80 outdoor courts and nearly 30 indoor courts, Bregman said. In the summer many players like to soak up in the sun and play outdoors. Those who stay in-state for winter typically renew memberships to play at indoor facilities, she said.

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Pickleballs, which are similar to wiffle balls in design, are known for the loud noise they make when hit by a paddle.

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Pickleball paddles range in cost, depending on make and style.

Pickleball is a quick game that combines the basic elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong. The sport was invented in a backyard on Bainbridge Island, Washington by Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum in 1965.

Two or four people face off on a badminton-size court separated by a net and kick off the game with an underhanded serve. Players score a point for each rally they win. To win the match, a team must score 11 points with a lead of two points.

Throughout the game, players banter and laugh. And when the match is complete, they complement each other’s plays and tap paddles.

Bregman, 37, spent eight years traveling to 85 countries before the pandemic halted her travels and she returned to Syracuse. While exercising at a gym last March, a CNY Pickleball flier caught her eye. After her first experience playing, Bregman dropped her gym membership without regret.

“Now that I found pickleball, I don’t want to leave anymore,” she said.

Bregman spends around 10 hours a day playing, coordinating and giving free lessons at Syracuse parks. Since she discovered pickleball, Bregman said she has never felt more involved in her hometown community.

She’s also become a key person in growing the pickleball community since the start of the pandemic.

Bregman launched a new CNY Pickleball website, which can be viewed by scanning the QR codes she has scattered around local parks. She also developed promotional efforts for the community on Instagram and Facebook. Bregman said almost every day she responds to emails from people seeking involvement opportunities.

Pickleball is a sport where you can walk on the court with no experience and players will teach you the game, Reilly said. Players usually don’t have a set partner. They join the people — of all ages and abilities — that they find on the courts and establish friendships as they chat on the sidelines, she said.

“And it seems like this is also now people’s social lives,” Reilly said. “These are the people they hang out with outside of pickleball.”

Players often socialize at parking lot tailgates, grab drinks after night games or coordinate trips, Bregman said. Throughout the pandemic, a group of pickleball players hiked together every weekend for 54 weeks straight, Reilly said.

“We didn’t miss a week except for two pickleball tournaments,” Reilly said.

The sport is growing among younger crowds in the CNY areas, but for older generations, pickleball is more than just exercise. It gives them the opportunity to revisit the competitive side of sports that were more accessible to them at younger ages, said player Tammy Zarichny.

“We can get free exercise, and stay healthy, and make friends too, which is a lot harder when you are retired,” Zarichny said.

Many picklers play at indoor facilities in the winter, but the community is facing a shortage of indoor courts, Bregman said.

And pickleball has its critics, specifically because of the noise that attracted Reilly to the game.

In local Facebook forums, Zarichny said she often sees people who live near pickleball courts complain about the sound from the pickleballs hitting paddles.

“I wouldn’t want to live next door to it,” Zarichny said. “And I love pickleball.”

Zarichny said picklers often joke that they’ll invite those living nearby out of their houses and onto the courts to play.

But as a player, Bregman said, you find yourself so invested in the match that you don’t even hear the noise.

“You could play pickleball for so many more hours than you can play any other sport because you’re just happy and having fun with your friends,” Bregman said.

The sport is fairly low-cost. To start playing, all you need is a paddle and a pickleball. Paddles range from $30 to $150, while pickleballs are usually shared by players at parks. Bregman said that depending on the park you attend, you might need to invest in a pickleball net.

“The one warning I have is that it will become an addiction,” Reilly said. “It’s just so much fun that you can’t get enough of it and people just love to play and play and play.”

But for those in the community, the sport is more than just a game.

Gillen said that she will always remember the day she played pickleball alongside a woman and her husband who had Parkinson’s disease. Throughout the game, she coached her husband, and when it was his turn to serve, he was rotated in the match. Every player on the court treated him as an equal, she said.

“These are the kinds of people who are involved in this pickleball community,” Gillen said.

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Pickleball players chat on the sidelines between matches.