🏓Pickleball popularity serves Volusia County $14M rec club expansion

Pictona at Holly Hill to expand to 49 pickleball courts with tournament arena

Why is pickleball so popular? It's the fastest growing sport for two years in a row.

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Have you ever heard of pickleball?

If the answer is no, you’re not alone. I was out of the loop until recently when a co-worker brought up that her husband got into the trend, spending hours at crowded pickleball courts.

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My first thought was, ‘Crowded pickleball courts? Seriously?’ Seemed like it would be a game played by retirees to pass the time. Boy, was I wrong.

Pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. for the second year in a row, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) 2022 Sports, Fitness, and Leisure Activities Topline Participation report. The sport has seen a 39.3% growth over the last two years, boasting more than 4.8 million players nationwide.

“Am I surprised at how fast pickleball is growing? No, because it’s competitive, it’s fun, it’s social, exhausting and it’s great exercise,” pickleball player Claire Merkle said.

Merkle said she’s been playing the game for five years and tries to get on the pickleball court every day, spending a lot of her time at Pictona at Holly Hill, a public recreational facility in Volusia County with dozens of courts centered around pickleball.

So what is pickleball? Many describe it as a combination of badminton, ping pong and tennis. It requires a paddle and whiffle ball. The ball is larger than a tennis ball, hollow, plastic and has a bunch of holes. During the games, you work as a single player or in pairs to strike the ball across the net without going out of bounds.

Sounds a lot like tennis, right? So what’s the big deal? How did pickleball become the fastest-growing sport?

Bob Panzak said it was the pandemic that turned him on to pickleball and he never looked back.

“There wasn’t much to do during the pandemic, so I started playing pickleball everyday,” Panzak said. “I reluctantly got into it. I went to a demo. My wife wanted to go and I thought it was for old people and I soon found out that young people played it and it was very competitive and I got into it. I’m addicted to it at this point.”

Panzak and Merkle team up to play pickleball at Pictona at Holly Hill. By the way Merkle describes her partner, you’d think they’re dating.

“He’s great. He’s tall. He’s got long arms, great wingspan, great control of the ball. I love having a partner like that,” Merkle said.

But they were strangers before I spoke with them. Just enjoying the game of pickleball, nothing more. Since pickleball is predominately played in doubles matches, there’s no need to bring a partner to find your ‘Bob’ or ‘Claire.’

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“We have a paddle system where a player can put their paddle up on a stand near the court. As soon as four people have their paddles up, they introduce themselves and head to the court for play,” said Deb Christensen, the community relations director at Pictona at Holly Hill.

Most of the matches are between strangers who become partners. Some end up as friends and meet for future matches.

Pickleball is also attracting younger players, like kids and teens, to Pictona, where they match up with the more seasoned players, like 86-year-old Richard Stapleton.

Stapleton has been playing the game for more than ten years. He said he likes that it’s simple with less impact on his joints.

“One of the great things about pickleball is that it’s easy to play and you can learn it fast. There’s very few rules and everyone with a bit of coordination can play just fine,” Stapleton said.

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And his partner takes the game seriously. So serious that I was basically shooed away while talking to Stapleton because I was distracting him from the match.

It was just for fun, not a tournament, but I understand no matter the game, the goal is to win.

More pickleball courts are going up across Central Florida, causing large crowds to gather.

“Most places are overcrowded, and you have to wait for hours to get court time. It’s that popular,” Panzak said.

“In (Holly Hill), there were lots of smaller courts around. It was hard to get on the court and get active because there was so much waiting time between games and that’s how this evolved,” Christensen said.

The demand brought together Holly Hill community leaders, businesses and private donors to build Pictona at Holly Hill. It’s a $14 million recreational center serving the greater Daytona Beach area, featuring 24 courts, eight of which are covered, along with a restaurant called The Kitchen, a clubhouse and other amenities.

It opened in 2020, with more construction underway to expand.

Twenty-five new pickleball courts are being added, including an arena-style court for tournaments and concerts with seating for more than 1,000 patrons. The facility is run by the city of Holly Hill, open seven days a week to the public. There is a membership cost.

Pickleball players I met at Pictona said they are excited about the expansion and encourage others to try the game. Pictona is located at 1060 Ridgewood Avenue in Holly Hill. It does require a membership (daily, monthly or yearly) to use the Pickleball courts.

“Life’s good; pickleball makes it better,” Panzak said.

Well, that’s certainly an interesting motto to live by.

Have you tried pickleball? Share your experiences below in the comments. I’d love to keep the conversation going.

I don’t know much about the game, but I learned what the terms ‘kitchen’ and ‘around the post’ mean so, that’s a start. And after playing a couple matches for the first time at Pictona, I’m looking forward to practicing a little more because right now, I STINK at pickleball!

About the Author:

Crystal Moyer is a morning news anchor who joined the News 6 team in 2020.