Pickleball tournament a win for Collier County

The U.S. Open Pickleball Championships are a win for Collier County.

The county has won economically and socially from the event.

The championships, held at the East Naples Community Park, are bigger than ever this year, with more players and more spectators.

Events kicked off April 27 and run through Saturday, May 4. This year they've drawn a field of 2,161 players from 46 states and 15 countries. 

Irina Tereschenko returns the ball to Simone Jardim in the Women's Pro Singles pickleball championship game Sunday, April 28, 2019, on the Zing Zang Championship Court at East Naples Community Park.

More than 10,000 fans will attend to cheer on some of the best players in the world. 

"It has put us on the map internationally because this is the U.S. Open," said Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor. "It has given us the impetus to build a facility that is just a first-class facility in a part of our town that basically was asleep. We are so grateful to pickleball."

While the county has made big investments in pickleball, Taylor said they've paid off in spades.

"As much as we have given them, they have given back to us. The leadership is just extraordinary. We couldn't ask for better leadership," Taylor said.

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In its first contract with the county, Spirit Promotions, the organizing group, agreed to hold the championships annually at East Naples Community Park for three years through 2018. The county eagerly extended that hosting agreement another three years through 2021.

"We forged a relationship that we look forward to renewing year after year after year," Taylor said.

While competition is fierce, the mood is festive at the championships. In fact, the event has been labeled the "biggest pickleball party in the world," offering a fun atmosphere with food, drinks and entertainment every day.

"We want to be the pickleball capital of the world," Taylor said. "We'd love it." 

East Naples Community Park now has 58 pickleball courts, with 54 of them configured for use in the tournament, plus the Zing Zang Championship Court, where high-visibility matches are played. All courts were recently upgraded through the county's Parks and Recreation Department.

"It's growing, and we've made a commitment as a county to keep up with pickleball, and we're better for it," Taylor said.

The county has not only invested in more pickleball courts, it also has spent hundreds of thousands of tourist tax dollars since their inaugural year in 2016 to help promote the championships. In the last sponsorship contract, the county agreed to spend $345,000 on marketing for the event over three years.

"It's really not the birth of pickleball here," Taylor said. "It's really the birth of the U.S. Open that Collier County has witnessed and been part of — and that's the exciting part. We didn't do it, but we opened our arms to it, so it's something to be very proud of."

Pickleball hasn't just brought thousands of visitors to Collier County, she said, it has brought the community closer together, with more than 600 volunteers stepping up to help out with the U.S. Open championships this year. 

The sport and the championships have also improved the quality of life in the community, offering a new way to socialize and stay healthy, Taylor said.

"It's healthy," she said. "It's a wonderfully social game. It's an athletic game and it's something that is a lifelong game. That is what is so important. You have generations playing pickleball."

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A sport for all ages

The field of players at this year's U.S. Open is a mixture of professionals and amateurs. The oldest registered player is 86, while the youngest is 10, showing why it's considered a sport for all ages.

Some well-known sports personalities signed up to play in this year’s tournament including Hank Haney, who coached golf great Tiger Woods early in his career, and Rich Cho, vice president of basketball strategy for the Memphis Grizzlies.

CBS Sports Network will film the Pro Finals on Saturday for coverage that will air at 7 p.m. May 24. SiriusXM’s Radio Margaritaville will broadcast live from the event on Saturday.

Minto Communities has been the title sponsor for the championships from the start. The developer's Isles of Collier Preserve is around the corner from the tournament's headquarters, and the active lifestyle community has benefited from the event, with players and spectators booking appointments to view what it offers while they're in town, said Bill Bullock, president of Minto's Latitude Margaritaville retirement communities. 

Those tours have led to sales, but Bullock didn't say how many.

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This year, he said, Minto offered up a few of its pickleball courts in Isles of Collier Preserve for U.S. Open events, giving participants and their fans another way to experience the community.

"We're definitely engaged with the sport," Bullock said.

The championships also offers Minto the opportunity to market its Latitude Margaritaville retirement communities in Florida and elsewhere, inspired by the music and lifestyle of legendary musician Jimmy Buffett.

Tyson McGuffin hits the ball back to his opponent Ben Johns during the Men's Pro Singles championship game, Sunday, April 28, 2019, during the US Open Pickleball  Championships on the Zing Zang Championship Court at East Naples Community Park.

Minto hosted its annual Margaritaville Party in the Park event last weekend, with live music, food and free admission to watch professional players warming up throughout the day on the Zing Zang Championship Court at East Naples Community Park. The developer's involvement in the championships gives it global exposure.

"It's worldwide at this point," Bullock said. "You have people from all over the U.S. and the world coming to Naples and seeing what a great place it is to visit and live." 

There are many local sponsors for the pickleball championships, including North Naples-based medical device manufacturer Arthrex. 

“As a leader in sports medicine innovation, Arthrex is pleased to support the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples. The premier sporting event brings a positive economic impact to the area and aligns with Arthrex’s overall commitment to the health and well-being of our community," said Lisa Gardiner, the company's communications manager, in an email.

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Good timing as winter season winds down

Athletes and attendees alike have filled hotel rooms and RV parks. They'll eat, shop and visit attractions while they're here, giving the local economy a boost on what the hotel industry refers to as "need dates," when business is winding down from the busy winter season.

Last year, the tournament had a total economic impact of $4.5 million. It generated more than 9,400 room nights, making it one of the county's top sporting events.

With more spectators and participants this year, the event is expected to be an even bigger boon for the county, generating visitor spending throughout the community.

"We are the pickleball capital of the world this week and year round, and we plan to stay number one for many years to come," said Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director, in an email.

Dan Sullivan, director of sales and marketing for GreenLinks Golf Villas at Lely Resort, said his property is sold out for the week because of the tournament, with many players and spectators staying for seven days or longer.

The villas offer two- and three-bedroom condos with full kitchens 5½ miles from the tournament's headquarters.

"We hit all the right demographics," Sullivan said. "We are in the right time. We are in the right place. We have the right accommodations."

At GreenLinks, this year's tournament generated about 350 room nights.

"For a small property like ours, it's the No. 1 generator throughout the year," Sullivan said. "It's the biggest thing the whole year."

While the success of the tournament may have been a surprise the first year, it's not anymore, after seeing the magic that surrounds it, he said.

"Even the amateur players are fun to watch, never mind the pros," Sullivan said. "The pros, that's another game altogether. The excitement that happens there. It's just fun to watch people play."

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Corporate backing a sign of success

Another sign of tournament's success? Big corporate sponsors. 

"When you have all the big dogs, Head and Wilson and the other guys as corporate sponsors, you know things are happening," Sullivan said.

Scenes from Margaritaville Party in the Park for the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships qt East Naples Community Park in Naples, Fla., on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Some of the representatives for corporate sponsors are staying at GreenLinks too.

"They are sponsoring the pros. They are doing outreach into the community. They are doing all that stuff to promote themselves," Sullivan said.

Many of the players and spectators staying at GreenLinks plan to return in 2020 and will book their rooms before they leave to go back home, to ensure they secure a spot. The property usually fills up months ahead of the tournament, Sullivan said.

The organizers do a great job of promoting the event and Naples at the same time, he said.

"Certainly, you can't discount the effect Minto has had on this," he said. "They have just been spectacular as far as that's concerned." 

Mary Shea, a former president of the Sports Council of Collier County and the general manager for the WoodSpring Suites near Collier Boulevard and Interstate 75, said her extended-stay property opened too late to capture much business from the pickleball championships this year. By the time the hotel opened in March, most players and fans had already booked elsewhere, she said.

"We have a couple that is actually playing in the tournament, and they've been with us for two weeks," she said. "It's really good business for Collier County."

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The couple came from Montreal. As a volunteer for the tournament, Shea said she's met players and spectators from around the world.

"It has been really nice watching such a great success story," she said. "It has been a fun journey."

When she met the event's organizers the first time, Shea said she didn't even know what pickleball was and had to ask. The game is a cross between tennis, badminton and ping-pong.

Exceeding promoter’s expectations

Terri Graham and Chris Evon formed Spirit Promotions LLC in 2015 to create and run what they hoped would become the premier pickleball tournament in the world. By the looks of it, they've more than succeeded. 

"It's definitely exceeded our expectations," Graham said. 

Scenes from Margaritaville Party in the Park for the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships qt East Naples Community Park in Naples, Fla., on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

The first year, she said, the event drew 825 participants and about 2,000 spectators. Four years later, those numbers seem so small. 

"We never, ever expected to have over 2,000 players," Graham said.

What's made the event so popular? 

"One, it's a great event," Graham said. "People have a lot of fun here. The other thing is it's coming to paradise, when it's still really cold and snowy up north."

2018:Pickleball means more to Naples than U.S. Open

The hundreds of volunteers, who take pride in the event, she said, are "pretty much the backbone" of the tournament.

"Every single one of them wants the people who come here to have a great time," Graham said.

Simone Jardim hugs Irina Tereschenko after winning the US Open Pickleball Championship Women's Pro Singles game, Sunday, April 28, 2019, on the Zing Zang Championship Court at East Naples Community Park.

The event is somewhat unique, she said, in that it draws more spectators than players. About 70 percent of the attendees come from out of town. 

"People come to just watch and party and go to the beach, and shop on Fifth Avenue and have a vacation," Graham said.

She said she can't think of a better place to have the tournament. 

"This is the pickleball capital of the world, Naples is," Graham said. "Yes, we envision it staying here."

For more details about tournament events visit usopenpickleballchampionships.com.