Pickleball is described as the fastest-growing sport in the United States — and apparently, in the Santa Clarita Valley, too.
Pickleball reached a spike in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has actually been around for some time.
According to USA Pickleball, the first unofficial game of pickleball was played in 1965 by Joel Pritchard, former lieutenant governor of Washington, and businessman Bill Bell. When the two were struck with boredom, they sought out badminton equipment to use on Pritchard’s badminton court. They couldn’t find enough rackets to play with. Instead of giving up, the two used what they had – ping-pong paddles, a perforated plastic ball and a badminton court. Thus, pickleball was born.
By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states, according to USA Pickleball.
Pickleball has nothing to do with pickles. It involves a pickleball paddle, wiffleball and a pickleball court. It combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, and can be played with two to four players.
Specific rules and a guide on how to play can be found at usapickleball.org.
Besides the oddity of its name, why has pickleball become as popular as it is? The difficulty level is low and it is a game that anyone, at any age, can play.
“It’s easy to learn the basics,” said Santa Clarita pickleball player Melody Halio.
Just like many others, Halio found herself stuck inside with nothing to do, craving exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic. When restrictions started lifting, one of Halio’s friends invited her to attend a pickleball class that they were teaching at The Paseo Club. Halio jumped at the chance to indulge in any exercise that didn’t involve going to a mundane gym.
“It’s fun, it’s social and it’s good exercise,” said Halio.
With just a few swings of the paddle, she became hooked.
“It’s hard to explain, something about that game is just so much fun,” said Halio.
Mark Moralez had moved to Santa Clarita from Burbank in the midst of the pandemic. Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, he began to go “stir crazy” in his home. He decided to take matters into his own hands and took a trip around the corner to the Santa Clarita Sports Complex.
Moralez had played tennis, racquetball and ping-pong, but when he arrived, he saw many people playing pickleball. Thinking that it would be easy, he decided to give it a go.
Just like Halio, once Moralez started, he couldn’t stop.
“I got hooked right away. It was just so fun,” said Moralez. “The feeling of hitting the ball against the paddle is really addicting.”
Moralez continued to play pickleball and quickly learned that the game is not just a, “slow-paced game for seniors.”
“What was surprising to me is that I was playing a lot of people a lot older than me and they were just killing me on the courts,” said Moralez. “It was an eye-opening experience because I realized, ‘Wow, this sport is not just about youth and quickness and power, but it’s a lot of a mental game, so I got hooked right away. It was just so fun.”
Game after game, Moralez found himself getting closer to his newfound community and making friends.
“Without this, I wouldn’t really have a new way to meet all these new people, but pickleball has brought people from all different types of backgrounds together,” said Moralez.
Clint Abdalla shared that the hospitality from the players translates on the court and off, even to the online domain.
The Santa Clarita Valley Pickleball Facebook group has 777 members, as of the time of this publication. The Facebook group is filled with posts from the members asking if anyone is free for a game, recommending equipment, and of course just common chatting.
It is this sense of community and companionship that keeps the players coming back for more.
“If you develop relationships on the court, then that encourages you to come back more and play more,” said Abdalla.
Abdalla said that often, after games, players will go to local restaurants and pubs to keep spending time with one another.
Richard and Joni Wirthlin have lived at their current home in the SCV since 2000. When purchasing their home, the included tennis court was a plus for them.
Now in 2022, they realized that their tennis court had hardly been used. Instead of letting the space go unused, they decided to turn their one tennis court into three pickleball courts. They named the court area, “The Rose Garden,” after Joni’s love for roses and the rose bushes being planted to surround the courts.
The Wirthlins host many events at their home. This conversion not only allows for more people to be playing in the area, but also pickleball is more beginner-friendly for those who are just trying to engage in a temporary activity.
“Other sports require a bit more training and skill,” said Richard. “Pickleball is very engaging.”
Along with the pickleball wave, so have come many conversions of tennis courts into pickleball courts across the valley.
Leah Phillips was an avid participant in marathons and Spartan races. That was until she was doing a 9-mile run and tore her hip labrum at mile five.
Unable to participate in these races further, Phillips turned to pickleball, a game that her son’s girlfriend’s family had shown her on a trip to Maui.
“I really do attribute pickleball to my recovery,” said Phillips.
As Phillips played more and more pickleball, she quickly noticed how no courts were present in her neighborhood.
Taking matters into her own hands, through a poll on Nextdoor, Phillips began asking her neighborhood if they would be interested in converting one of the neighborhood tennis courts into two pickleball courts.
With 19 votes, 47% voted yes, 16% voted no, 11% voted maybe and 26% wanted to learn more.
Phillips presented her results and quotes to the Valencia Hills Association and they approved. Valencia Hills now has two pickleball courts for neighbors to enjoy.
“It’s a nice way for neighbors to get together and meet each other,” said Phillips.
However, not everyone has access to the Wirthlins’ or Phillips’ courts.
According to Lance O’Keefe, the recreation and community services manager for the city of Santa Clarita, Santa Clarita currently has 18 public pickleball courts, eight indoor and 10 outdoors.
These pickleball courts are located at Bouquet Canyon Park, Vista Canyon Park, Newhall Community Center, Santa Clarita Sports Complex and the Canyon Country Community Center.
“It is exciting to see the passion and interest in this game that allows people of all ages, skill and ability to play,” wrote O’Keefe in an email to The Signal.
Many pickleball players are still urging for more pickleball courts to be built in the valley — their motivation primarily being the wait time to play.
“City staff regularly connects with and speaks with the players to receive feedback on the need for adding additional pickleball courts,” wrote O’Keefe. “Our goal is to educate the community on what is available to the community and then work to identify future opportunities. The city has taken the pickleball community’s feedback, which was evident when the four permanent pickleball courts were created at Bouquet Canyon Park and three courts were added to the Vista Canyon Park design and build.”
For more information on city pickleball courts and the schedule for the indoor courts, contact the Adult Sports Office at 661-290-2240.