CLOSE

Simone Jardim teaches the game at the U.S. Open Pickleball Academy at East Naples Community Park. Adam Fisher/Naples Daily News

12 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Those who know the sport, which is becoming more and more people by the day, call Naples the Pickleball Capital of the World.

The title might sound hyperbolic, even braggadocious, but the 1,300 players in town this week for the Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships would argue it’s accurate. Thousands of matches will be played on 48 courts at East Naples Community Park over seven days, the biggest pickleball tournament in the world.

The U.S. Open is the most visible sign that pickleball is big business in Collier County. However the roots of the quirky sport have dug deep into the community in just a short time.

People across Collier County are playing pickleball, from elementary school students to retirees. Courts are going up at YMCAs and parks. Visitors are coming to Naples just to take lessons. That’s all outside of this week’s national championships, which provide millions of dollars in economic impact.

“Although it’s a very old sport, not many people had heard of it,” Collier County commissioner Donna Fiala said. “It just hit the area and there was an almost immediate response. People wanted to get on board.

“It’s given us a place on the sports map as being the home of pickleball. To me, it’s a great asset.”

Catching on quickly

If Naples is the pickleball capital of the world, East Naples Community Park is the statehouse.

When the U.S. Open picked the park as home for its inaugural event last year, the county added 30 permanent pickleball courts. A dilapidated skate park was removed to make way for the courts.

For a $25 annual membership, players can use the pickleball courts any day between 7:30 a.m. and noon. More than 1,200 people are members, and games can be found just about any time.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors and retired people who are down here full time,” said Jim Ludwig, a USA Pickleball ambassador who spearheaded the project at East Naples. “They’re looking to get healthy and stay healthy. This is a way to do that. They love the facility we built.”

The sport – which resembles tennis played with ping-pong paddles and a wiffle ball on a badminton court – caught on so much that other parks followed suit. Fleischmann Park in central Naples added permanent courts. So did Veterans Park in North Naples.

There are plans for a new county park near the Collier County Fairgrounds. Ludwig is doing his best to make sure pickleball courts are part of the discussion.

CLOSE

The game is played on a badminton-size court with a hard paddle and a ball that resembles a whiffle ball. Oscar Santiago Torres/ Naples Daily News via Wochit

Never too young

Pickleball was invented in the 1960s and has been popular among seniors for decades. The sport doesn’t require much skill or physical power, plus there isn’t a lot of movement like in tennis, making it perfect for older people with limited mobility.

Those same qualities make it ideal for children, who still are learning coordination. Collier County Public Schools took notice, and through the help of Ludwig’s charity Pickleball For All, the district added pickleball to its physical education curriculum.

Tracy Bowen, the district’s coordinator for health and physical education, bought a temporary equipment set three years ago that she rotated among schools. Since then, two more full pickleball sets have been donated through Pickleball For All.

Pickleball is easy to learn, much easier than tennis. Young kids can control a pickleball paddle better than a tennis racket, and they can get a volley going easier.

Plus pickleball courts take up less space than tennis courts, allowing schools to have more children playing at once and reducing the time and distance it takes to retrieve errant balls.

“We want kids to be successful (at sports),” Bowen said. “Pickleball allows kids at younger ages more control over (ball) placement. They’re more successful and they want to do it more. They can play with their parents or grandparents, and they can play the rest of their lives.”

The district’s pickleball kits travel between schools, where physical education classes teach sports in two-week units. Bowen said the kits were in use all but three weeks during this academic year.

Manatee Middle School has its own pickleball equipment set, purchased by a private donor. When Manatee’s tennis court was resurfaced recently, pickleball lines were permanently painted on. Oakridge Middle School has an intramural pickleball club.

CLOSE

Fort Myers native and professional pickleball player Kyle Yates tells fans what to expect at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. Adam Fisher/Naples Daily News

Spreading the game

East Naples Community Park doesn’t just provide a place to play pickleball. It’s also home to a new academy that teaches the sport to locals and brings in people from around the country to learn.

After winning the professional women’s singles title at last year’s U.S Open, Simone Jardim fell in love with Naples. Already bitten by the pickleball bug, she quit her job as women’s tennis coach at Michigan State and worked with tournament organizers to start the U.S. Open Pickleball Academy, based at the East Naples park.

Jardim teaches lessons every day. She said she’s had 400 students the past five months, and there’s a two- to three-week waiting list.

The academy also hosts destination camps, which combine pickleball and tourism. Athletes come down and practice for a few hours a day, then see the sights of Naples, including boat rides and fine dining.

“A lot of people like me, from out of town and cold weather, they want to get away,” Jardim said. “There are so many courts here. There are so many people from different backgrounds that get together and play. Their common theme is pickleball.”

The Naples and Bonita Springs YMCAs also offer pickleball lessons and games.

Economic impact

People who travel to Naples to attend the Pickleball Academy contribute to the millions of dollars the sport brings to Collier County each year.

Last year the U.S. Open contributed $2.5 million worth of direct economic impact – money spent at local hotels, restaurants and stores. That was with about 800 pickleballers playing over five days. This year’s tournament will feature 1,300 players from 42 states and is seven days long.

The U.S. Open is part of the county’s newest push into sports tourism. The pickleball tournament is the second-largest sporting event in Naples. The National Field Hockey Coaches Association’s recruiting showcase, which brought 2,000 athletes to town in January, is the biggest.

“(The U.S. Open) allows us to be somewhat unique in the sports marketing arena,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Pickleball came at the right time. It’s a growing sport, and we’ve made a long-term commitment.”

The pickleball national championships have a contract to be in Naples through 2021. The Convention and Visitors Bureau has invested in the event to help make it successful.

This year the CVB will spent about $1 million on the tournament. About $700,00 of that is a massive shade structure covering the entire championship court at East Naples Community Park.

The CVB operates solely on money raised on Collier County’s 4-percent bed tax on short-term room rentals. Last year the tax raised $21.8 million, making the county’s investment in the U.S. Open almost 5 percent of its annual budget.

That’s on top of the money spent to upgrade East Naples Community Park and install 30 permanent pickleball courts.

“Pickleball has become a pleasant surprise, how much it’s been embraced by the community,” Wert said. “We’ve got multiple events each year, and we’ve established the Pickleball Academy. It’s a year-round function, which is why it’s good to make a long-term investment.”

IF YOU GO

What: Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships

When: Sunday-April 29

Where: East Naples Community Park, 3500 Thomasson Drive

Admission: Free

Parking: $5 donation to Kiwanis Club

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions
12 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE