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Wednesday, November 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pickleball cabal: Growing sport takes tennis to court in Spokane

Tracy Lewis, a pickleball ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, stands on the new Peaceful Valley court for the sport, which is a mix of tennis, pingpong and badminton. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Tracy Lewis, a pickleball ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association, stands on the new Peaceful Valley court for the sport, which is a mix of tennis, pingpong and badminton. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

All’s not well in pickleball.

The sport, which was invented on Bainbridge Island in 1965, has grown more and more popular in the last few years, mainly among the retired set. Part pingpong, part badminton and part tennis, the paddle- and wiffle-ball game is regularly referred to as “one of the fastest growing sports in America” in profiles of players.

Courts – often repurposed tennis courts – keep popping up in communities around the country. They’re everywhere.

Except, some local players say, in Spokane.

“I’ve been contacting the city since last summer,” said Tracy Lewis, 70, the Spokane pickleball “ambassador” for the USA Pickleball Association. “I got one roadblock after another.”

“A lot of emails, a lot of unanswered phone calls, a lot of putting us off,” said Frank Street, 77, of how the city has responded to local efforts to get more pickleball courts in the city.

Street, the Spokane Valley ambassador for the association, describes the battle to bring pickleball to the masses as a match between David and Goliath.

Goliath, Lewis and Street suggest, is tennis. And he’s winning.

Lewis, who played tennis for 40 years before knee replacement surgery, has nothing against tennis players. In fact, pickleball is a lot like tennis, except the court is smaller and players swing paddles instead rackets.

Another difference, in Street’s telling, is the outsized power of tennis.

“This could be done on any of the tennis courts, but there’s a great resistance from the tennis people,” Street said. “The growth of pickleball is just huge. And it’s all grassroots. It’s not financed. It’s all about money. If there’s money in balls and paddles and nets, then it’ll grow. Like tennis. But we don’t have any great benefactors. We have to do it all on our own.”

Not all is lost for local pickleballers. Coeur d’Alene has numerous courts at Cherry Hill and Northshire parks. Post Falls has at least five courts. The HUB Sports Center has play every afternoon. North Park Athletic Club is a favorite spot to play morning and evenings. The county is building some courts at the Southside Family Aquatics Facility.

And the city of Spokane recently converted a degrading tennis court in Peaceful Valley to pickleball and “futsal,” what amounts to the game of soccer on a hard court.

Nick Hamad, landscape architect for the city’s parks department, admits more could be done.

“In general, we have a real lack of infrastructure for pickleball around town,” he said. “Part of the reason for going to pickleball in lieu of tennis, that’s just directly in response to the demand we’re hearing from tennis and pickleball players. We have more than enough tennis facilities, but not enough pickleball.”

Aside from the new Peaceful Valley court, there’s a court in Sky Prairie Park on Five Mile and another one planned for Comstock Park on the South Hill this spring. More might come, Hamad said, noting that Manito and Corbin parks have tennis courts that are out of service.

“That’s not a real great use of resources,” he said. “We haven’t been pressed that hard to fix these courts, because not a lot of people are using them.”

The Peaceful Valley court came after “five to 10, if not more,” years of disuse, a crumbling court and a sinkhole. After filling in the hole and resurfacing the court, pickleball arrived.

“The way it’s set up now, you have to bring your own net,” Hamad said.

That’s part of the problem, said Street. Pickleball players don’t want to haul around all that gear. He said Coeur d’Alene has lockboxes with nets, paddles and balls. You just have to get the combination for the lock from the city.

Tom Lilly built three pickleball courts in his hometown of Wilbur, Washington, and said during the summer he and four other players drive through Spokane to get to Idaho courts.

“There’s no place to play in Spokane, which is why we go to Post Falls,” he said.

In the winter, there are even fewer pickleball facilities in Spokane. That’s when many local players head south, as snow bird retirees, to the meccas of pickleball: Casa Grande, Arizona, and Naples, Florida.

“When I go south, I have 75 guys that play down there, in Casa Grande,” Lilly said.

Mike Barnes, 23, started Selkirk Sports with his brother, father and another partner in Hayden three years ago because of pickleball’s growing popularity and lack of professional equipment.

“It was a really corny, hokey industry before. There weren’t quality products,” Barnes said. “We thought there was a need for a high-performance brand. A lifestyle brand.”

Year by year, Barnes has watched his business grow. They manufacture paddles in a 6,000-square-foot factory and have more than 10 full-time employees.

He only expects the sport’s rise to continue. Retired people kicked off the pickleball craze, Barnes said, but it’s growing beyond those geriatric origins.

“With pickleball, you can just start playing and, right off the bat, have a lot of fun and have good rallies,” he said. “It really is a game for all ages and skill levels. Anybody can play with anybody. Pickleball’s getting out of the vibe that it’s an older person’s sport.”

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