Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.
Pickleball has made it to the gym.
The senior sensation that has soared in popularity over the last decade to the point where East Valley and other cities have scrambled to build courts for the sport’s enthusiastic fans, can now be played on select days at three Mountainside Fitness facilities, including those at 1253 N. Greenfield Road in Mesa and 5320 E. Shea Blvd. in Scottsdale as well as one in Surprise.
And Mountainside is gearing up to spread the cheer for pickleballers at some of its other facilities within a month or so, according to CEO Craig Cote.
Pickleball is a combination of several racket sports – badminton, tennis and ping-pong – that once was mainly a perk at RV parks.
It was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, at the home of former legislator and lieutenant governor Joel Pritchard, who started using a Whiffle ball when he couldn’t find a tennis ball to bat around.
Over time, the paddles have evolved from an unwieldy solid wood into a lightweight graphite, enhancing the sport’s popularity because it doesn’t require the physical stamina demanded by tennis.
There’s a multi-pronged business strategy to Mountainside’s adoption of pickleball.
First, Cote explained, the company can get some use out of its full-court basketball courts, which are usually vacant in the daytime, by repurposing part of them as pickleball courts from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 2-4 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m.-noon on Sundays.
“We believe that each full-size court could handle three pickleball courts,” Cote said. “So, we went from one and will graduate to two in the next week and then we’ll likely backfill some of our other clubs that have half- court basketball courts. They will only accommodate one pickleball court, so that’s our next move.”
Second, Mountainside has taken some of the hassle out of getting court time – often a hassle at public parks’ courts, where players endure long lines waiting to get on the court.
The Valley fitness giant gives members an app through which they reserve, up to 24 hours ahead of time, a pickleball court for 45 minutes. Players also get three balls specially made for hardwood floors.
Third, the fact the court is indoors has numerous advantages that Cote thinks will appeal to many ardent pickleballers.
“Our locker rooms and restrooms are part of a private fitness facility,” Cote said. “So, they are well maintained, they’re air-conditioned and they’re also well-appointed with soaps, lotions, mouthwashes – things that a city park would never have.”
And there’s no wind, which Cote said “makes for a nice stable game because we’ve all played pickleball when the winds pick up.
“That ball doesn’t weigh much and the wind can really move that ball to at least one side’s favor because you don’t switch sides like you do in some racquet sports.”
Cote said he, Mountainside founder Tom Hatten and most of the company’s executive management team picked up the game six or seven months ago. And they eventually got the idea for the partial repurposing of the basketball courts because they’re often not in use during the daytime.
And “the cherry on top” for the inspiration came one Sunday in January when it was raining and “it was nice for my wife and another couple to be able to play outside of the rain. Nobody else was playing pickleball throughout all Phoenix on rainy Sunday,” he said.
While pickleball is breaking age barriers, the game has been a near-obsession for many in the 50-and-over crowd. Cote noted that almost all Medicare plans now cover gym membership and Mountainside has extensive relationships with organizations, such as AARP, that serve an older demographic.
Although Cote said Mountainside has not given any thought to offering lessons, “we have put a rule book in a three-ring binder hanging on the wall.”
For information on the pickleball feature and other offerings: mountainsidefitness.com