Pickleball gains following among Sacramento-area seniors

Gene Cochran, 75, and Randy Julian, 67, play a game of pickup pickleball at Sun City retirement community in Roseville. The friends play about four times weekly.
Gene Cochran, 75, and Randy Julian, 67, play a game of pickup pickleball at Sun City retirement community in Roseville. The friends play about four times weekly. blyles@sacbee.com

The aging of Sacramento’s population has been accompanied by the rise of a novel sport – pickleball.

A cross between tennis, racquetball and ping pong, pickleball is played by doubles teams within a smaller space painted on a tennis court. It doesn’t require as much running, which helps explain its popularity with seniors.

About 2.5 million people around the country played last year, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. In a feature story, former NBC news anchor Brian Williams called it “the fastest-growing sport in America” – a label that is often tossed around by local pickleball enthusiasts.

“Pickleball is becoming more and more popular in the area,” said Gary Hyden, landscape architect with the city of Sacramento. “A majority of the requests (for courts) have come from active older adults, but really any age can play.”

Locally, there are over a dozen indoor and outdoor pickleball arenas and players clubs in communities like Lincoln and Folsom, according to the USA Pickleball Association, or USAPA.

In early August, the City of Sacramento completed renovations on Curtis Park’s tennis courts, which now double as pickleball courts. Previously, the city created outdoor playing spaces at Valley Oak Park and Magnolia Park.

“People in 55 and older communities are starting to move away from tennis toward pickleball as they become less agile,” said Sacramento resident Vince Angell, 69, who led the effort to get the city to create courts in Curtis Park.

In response to the sport’s growing local popularity, parks and recreation agencies plan to designate more space for courts throughout the region, including in McKinley Village, a new housing development under construction in East Sacramento.

The process to install pickleball courts involves restriping existing tennis courts – a relatively low-cost project at $3,000 to $5,000, Hyden said.

“City Council members were happy to add pickleball courts to local community parks,” said Hyden. “The courts are now serving twice the purpose and getting more use than ever.”

Pickleball is a quick back-and-forth sport played to 11 points. Played with a wiffle ball and squared composite paddle, the sport is known for its loud, sometimes irritating popping sound, according to Lincoln pickleball enthusiast Andrea Mayorga, 62.

“There’s not too much running, which is great for us old guys with knee problems – but it’s still aerobic and fast, which is great for former athletes,” said Gene Cochran, 75, who plays four times weekly at Sun City retirement community in Roseville.

Mayorga, one of 450 members of Lincoln Hills Pickleball Club at Sun City in Lincoln, has lost 60 pounds since picking up the sport six years ago. As early as 7 a.m., Mayorga and several Lincoln Hills Pickleball Club members meet at one of Sun City’s six courts to begin three to five hours of practice.

Beyond its health payoffs and low-impact nature, pickleball offers active older adults an outlet for camaraderie and competition. On the courts, banter and friendly rivalry come in healthy doses, said Cochran. Between games, players chatter and joke on the sidelines over water and sports drinks.

“My pickleball friends have truly become my family,” said Mayorga. “We go to dinner, have holiday parties and travel together.”

USAPA hosts regional and national pickleball tournaments for more serious players throughout the year. This year’s national championships will be held in November in Casa Grande, Ariz. – a state with a huge pickleball following with close to 30 pickleball clubs and hundreds of playing venues.

Every year, the Lincoln Hills Pickleball Club sends dozens to compete at USAPA tournaments and even hosted a championship of its own in May. Tournaments give pickleball enthusiasts an opportunity to travel and meet players from around the nation and world, said Mayorga.

A pickleball explainer with lessons and a basic introduction to the sport will be held on Saturday in Curtis Park. Angell, who organized the event, said in an online posting that it has already drawn interest from over 30 community members. He expects a large turnout.

“I really see this sport picking up – people are getting interested,” said Angell. “We’re doing what we can to spark even more interest.”

Want to learn Pickleball?

Where: Curtis Park tennis courts, 3561 W. Curtis Drive

When: 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday