Bright and early on a Saturday morning, north Scottsdale resident Howard Hintz and a handful of other people gathered at Thompson Peak Park.
None have ever met in person before, but they all have one thing in common: They’re all there to play pickleball and Hintz would teach them how.
“Oh my God, I love this game,” said Hintz, who has been playing pickleball for two years.
“I’ve been doing these sessions up here because I love the game. I want people to learn,” he said.
Hintz and the players that morning all met online on Meetup.com in a group called “Scottsdale Pickleball Players.” Hintz organizes and hosts the events.
“I’ve had nearly 100 people start with me in the last year and a half,” Hintz said. Now the group has more than 250 members.
Pickleball, which was invented in 1965, is similar to tennis in that it’s played on a court, either indoors or outdoors, and players hit a ball back and forth over a net.
However, the court is a badminton-sized court and players use a perforated plastic ball, similar to a whiffle ball, as well as composite or wooden paddles that are about twice the size of ping-pong paddles.
What also sets pickleball apart is it’s a low-impact sport compared to tennis.
This is what makes the sport appealing to older adults and the 55+ community, including Hintz, who had a long history of playing tennis.
When Hintz developed tennis elbow, he had to find an alternative sport.
“I’m 62 years old, and it’s just one of those things where it just came natural to me because I like tennis so much,” Hintz said. “I never once had any issue with my elbow or my shoulders.”
Pickleball attracts players of all ages, but, for the most part, has been considered a retiree sport.
“If you look at the retirement communities in Arizona, this game dominates,” Hintz said. “It has taken over tennis in every retirement community.”
Hintz is not wrong.
PebbleCreek in Goodyear has 20 courts, Sun City West has 26 courts, and Sun City Grand has 22 courts with 1,185 members.
When Phoenix dedicated 16 courts in Ahwatukee earlier this year, USA Pickleball Association President Jack Thomas declared the East Valley “a destination place for pickleball players everywhere.
However, pickleball isn’t just a sport for older people. Thomas and other USAPA leaders said schools across the Valley are working on creating pickleball courts and pressing Arizona Interscholastic Association and NCAA to sanction it as a competitive sport at both the high school and college levels. They even talk of making it a part of the Olympics down the road.
“Pickleball got stuck with the perception that it’s played amongst RV-ers and retired people and older people, and although there’s some truth to that, the sport was actually started for as a family sports back in 1965,” said Steve Manolis, United States America Pickleball Association’s (USAPA) first regional ambassador for education.
Manolis and his wife, Susan, have been playing pickleball for six years. They are both contracted with the City of Phoenix through the parks and recreation department to teach pickleball to people of all ages, including children, teachers and the handicapped.
“It’s not only that all ages can enjoy, but there is no real disparity between gender because it’s a more finesse game, and so you have a great gender equality and it’s very much in line with adaptive sport because we have wheelchair rules,” Manolis said.
Earlier this year, Manolis taught an adaptive class for wheelchair players at Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center in Phoenix.
So far, Manolis and his team of volunteers have taught pickleball to over 500 P.E. teachers and 2,000 students at schools in the Southwest region.
The sport is garnering interest not only here in the Valley, but also across the nation.
According to the USAPA, the number of pickleball venues increased nearly 24 percent in the U.S. The number of pickleball players has increased, as well, by over 12 percent. In total, USAPA reports 2.8 million players in the U.S.
“Growth of pickleball, especially in the Southeast Valley, has been phenomenal as far as public courts are concerned,” Manolis said.
The City of Scottsdale began adding public pickleball courts three years ago.
“Pickleball really started gaining popularity around the mid-2000s and started to grow much bigger,” said Andy Passmonick, operations supervisor of the parks and recreation department of the City of Scottsdale.
“But we in Scottsdale, who didn’t have any pickleball courts or facilities, realized in 2013 that we’re probably going to have to look into what we can do to accommodate the growing population.”
After meeting with pickleball organizations, private clubs and even the City of Fountain Hills to get an idea of what they were doing and what it would entail, the City of Scottsdale ultimately came to the conclusion that converting existing tennis courts was the most cost-efficient way of going about it.
The city started with Cholla Park.
In December 2015, Cholla Park’s tennis courts were converted to eight permanent pickleball courts.
It was a hit, to say the least.
“Every day of the week, in the mornings, there’s always people playing pickleball,” Hintz said.
According to Passmonick, an average of 35 people per day play pickleball at Cholla Park.
“That comes up to be about 12,000 people playing per year just at Cholla Park courts,” he added.
One year later, in November 2016, Thompson Peak Park’s basketball court – through a donation from the Grayhawk Community Association – was converted into three permanent pickleball courts.
Thompson Peak Park also has three temporary courts with pop-up nets.
The City of Scottsdale’s current project is Horizon Park, which is currently closed. The two tennis courts on-site are being converted to a total of eight permanent pickleball courts.
“I’ve had many emails, many calls about people happy about it,” Passmonick said.
“We had people express that they were happy about more courts coming and let us know that there are groups in far north Scottsdale and even Carefree who are looking for more opportunities to play,” he added.
Once Horizon Park’s conversion is complete, Scottsdale will have a total of 19 permanent pickleball courts.
But, according to Hintz, it shouldn’t end there.
Hintz thinks southern Scottsdale, specifically, needs more pickleball courts.
“One gal lives in south Scottsdale, and she drove all the way up here [Thompson Peak Park] to learn the sport and play it,” he said.
“We know that there’s still more need, but funding is always the biggest issue,” Passmonick said, adding that they do not have any plans for any other conversations once Horizon Park is complete.
However, Passmonick said the goal is to have a permanent, staffed pickleball facility.
“It’s something we’re hoping to do at some point and we’re planning and thinking about it, but that could be many years down the road,” he said.
For Hintz, as long as he has a court to play in and the sport as a way to continue to be active and meet new people, that’s all that matters.
“It’s really diverse and it’s getting more and more diverse, but it’s really all about having fun and having a community,” Hintz said. “I may never see you again, but now we have a relationship.”
And don’t worry if you’re new and don’t have the equipment to play pickleball for the first time, especially if you meet up with Hintz.
“I always have extra paddles because I don’t want somebody to invest in the game until they’ve actually had fun and enjoyed it,” Hintz said.
For any questions about Horizon Park’s new pickleball courts, please call 480-312-7774.