By ALAN SHACKLETON
Considered North America’s fastest growing sport, pickleball’s popularity across Toronto is leading to calls for more courts and facilities for people to play the game.
Formed two years ago, the East Toronto Pickleball Association (ETPA) sees first-hand the immense popularity of the sport along with the challenges of finding spaces and places to locate courts
“The number one issue is that the space available is far exceeded by the number of people wanting to play. It’s becoming more and more popular,” said Mary Beth Denomy, chair and co-founder of the ETPA.
Pickleball has been described as cross between tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It can be played on both indoor and outdoor courts, and features either two or four (doubles match) players. The court the game is played on is the same size as a badminton court, but the net is lower like a tennis court. Instead of long-handled and stringed-racquets like those used in tennis or badminton, pickleball is played with a plastic racquet or paddle (more like what is used in ping-pong but bigger) and the ball is made of plastic with holes in it to control speed and force.
One of the ways the ETPA is working with the City of Toronto to overcome the shortages of places to play is by becoming creative and finding locations for the courts at what would be otherwise unused or under-used facilities. For example, a number of outdoor hockey rink pads have had pickleball court lines put on them, which allows for five courts to be set up along the length of most rinks. The nets and their stands are removable so the rinks can still also be used for sports like box lacrosse or ball hockey when needed.
Local outdoor rinks now housing pickleball courts are Kew Gardens, Greenwood Park, Jimmie Simpson Park and Dieppe Park. Indoors, the ETPA also plays at the Birchmount Community Centre, just north of Kingston Road.
Denomy (who is also president of the Beach Metro Community News volunteer executive) said the ETPA is appreciative of the city’s efforts to add those extra courts on the rinks for this outdoor season, but said they are short-term solutions when it comes to meeting the growing needs of the sport across all of Toronto. She specifically thanked Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher and Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford for their advocacy and support in getting the courts set up on the outdoor rinks.
However, as the sport’s popularity continues to increase, purpose-built facilities for pickleball are going to be needed to meet the growing demand, she said.
“The long-term goal is build and develop specific pickleball courts in the years to come so we wont’ have to be playing on hockey rinks and tennis courts,” she said. Two pickleball courts can be put on one full-sized tennis court and also courts can be set up on indoor curling rinks in the off season. Those are other options for finding more space on a temporary basis at city-owned sites.
“We are looking for purpose-built facilities with four to eight courts, and that’s an important part of this. These would be run and built by the city, and the city would benefit from the high interest in the sport,” said Denomy.
Such facilities could also help attract high-level professional and amateur tournaments, along with players, fans and media, to Toronto. The top pro pickleball player is considered to be 16-year-old Anna Leigh Waters who competes in the highly competitive Professional Pickleball Assocation (PPA) with tournaments ongoing mostly in the United States that draw big crowds.
A purpose-built facility is being eyed by the City of Toronto at Centennial Park in Etobicoke, said a recent news release.
“City staff continue to assess demand by measuring indoor attendance, tracking requests for new courts and evaluating additional locations for the inclusion of pickleball courts,” said the June 14 news release.
“Pickleball court dimension lines will become standard for community centre gyms, and opportunities for pickleball will be considered whenever outdoor sports courts are being repaired or developed. The city will engage with community tennis clubs operating on city parkland to explore opportunities to support pickleball at those clubs.”
Councillor Fletcher prepared the motion at Toronto Council that has led to the commitment by the city to investigate ways to find more locations for pickleball.
“None of this would have been possible without the hard work and advocacy of the East Toronto Pickleball Association,” said Fletcher in a news release. “I also want to thank city staff for working so quickly to respond to the growing popularity of this great sport.”
Beach Metro Community News caught up with the ETPA and players of “this great sport” last week during a Wednesday morning session at the Kew Gardens rink. Every court on the rink was full of players engaged in doubles matches while others were on deck waiting for their turns to play.
For the vast majority of those taking part, pickleball’s greatest attraction is the social and community-building aspects of the sport. Yes, there is a level of competition and skill as a player progresses in the game, but the number one reason members of the ETPA were out that sunny morning was to have fun.
“The club is important and a great source of community…It’s a lot of opportunities for fun and social interaction,” ETPA president Tom Keane told Beach Metro Community News right after he had finished playing a doubles match last Wednesday.
“All are welcome. I just encourage everyone to grab a paddle and come out. We’ll help you learn to play and we’ll even supply the paddle,” he said.
The ETPA has almost 400 members and 2,000 Facebook followers.
Keane’s own journey to pickleball began during the COVID-19 pandemic
“I was doing renos on my house during COVID, and my neighbour told me to come out and play pickleball. I kept putting it off but one Saturday morning he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said, ‘Tom, let’s go.” And away I went, and the very next day I was out looking to buy a pickleball paddle.”
Keane, 58, said the sport is accessible to people of all ages, athletic abilities and body types. It is not a sport just for former high-level tennis or squash players who are getting older but want to continue with a raquet sport.
“I had absolutely no tennis or racquet sport background,” said Keane. “It’s accessible for everyone and it’s easy to learn how to play. It’s a sport that’s easy to learn, but hard to conquer and become a master in…It’s available to all ages and body types and demographics.”
While the sport has been tagged as one played by seniors in retirement communities, Keane said the ETPA has players of all ages.
“A lot more younger people are playing and enjoying it and adding to it. They quickly become impressed by the older players.”
One younger ETPA player who can attest to that is Derrick Sarwan, 35.
He said he was watching the pickleballers at the Kew rink last July and ended up playing. “I was walking by and looked in to see what was going on and they were very friendly and asked if I wanted to learn more about it.”
Sarwan pointed out the sport has different levels of competition but can be readily played by all ages.
“One of the things I like is that you can be playing with a 90 year old or a 20 year old, and that’s different from other sports where that’s not going to happen.”
Living in the Beach, it’s not surprising that another sport Sarwan enjoys is beach volleyball. However, he said at the moment he is finding he prefers pickleball.
“If I had to choose between pickleball and volleyball now, I’d take the pickleball.”
Sarwan said in one of the earlier games he played he earned the infamous honour of being “pickled” which meant he lost 11-0. He also lost to a player much older than him, which made him realize the sport has nuances beyond speed and power.
“I think in my second game we lost 11-0 to two older gentleman and that was very humbling.”
His advice to all younger residents is to not think pickleball is something only for their parents or grandparents.
“I would say give it a try, and just don’t judge the athletic ability and what you might see as seniors…you will be surprised and also humbled.”
Sarwan said another appealing aspect of pickleball is that it can be played within generations of the same family. “You can go to a tournament or a game and play with your parents, and not too many sports can you do that.”
He also stressed that the key to pickleball, and what makes it appealing to so many, is the philosophy of “community first and competition second. You can just show up and find yourself able to play.”
Keane agreed and said that pickleball is becoming an international community that shares that welcoming attitude and focus on fun at clubs around the world.
“You can carry your paddle anywhere in the world and say I’d like to show up for a game somewhere, I’d be welcomed and playing within a few minutes – even if I didn’t have a paddle. Everybody’s friendly and about enjoying the game,” said Keane.
For more information on the East Toronto Pickleball Association, please go to https://easttorontopickleball.ca/