Industrial and commercial spaces are adapting to the growing popularity of pickleball, a paddle sport whose advocates say doesn’t have enough places to play the game. That’s led to shopping malls converting closed department stores into multi-court spaces.
Growing popularity of the paddle sport leads to unique locations of play
Jamie Strashin · CBC News
· Posted: Jan 29, 2024 4:00 AM EST | Last Updated: January 29
Check out this pickleball action inside a Toronto strip mallPickleball may only be available on weekend mornings in this east-end Toronto venue, but Progress Pickleball Club’s manager says he is constantly scrambling for more courts to meet increasing demand.
It used to be a hockey arena, then a badminton club. But on most weekday mornings, a gritty space situated in an industrial strip mall in Scarborough is home to Progress Pickleball Club.
“Badminton takes three quarters of the time,” according to the club’s manager Mike Livie, who said he is constantly scrambling for more courts to meet increasing demand. Their current space in east-end Toronto only allows pickleball from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“It’s really not enough time and [the space] has been cutting my hours down,” he said.
The 74-year-old Livie has watched pickleball surge in popularity in recent years, quickly evolving from a sport few had played — or even heard of — to a mainstream activity.
“I think the major boost was COVID, and people got lonely. It’s such a social game and you get to meet people. And it’s a very easy game to play. It’s an extremely hard game to play well, but it’s an easy game to play,” said Livie.
“People get into it and there’s repartee. There’s no please be silent because somebody is serving or please be silent because the guy is swinging a golf club.”
Mike Livie, manager of the Progress Pickleball Club, says the 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday to Friday hours assigned to his club by a local strip mall in Scarborough is not enough to meet demand for the sport. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)According to the most recent data from Pickleball Canada, 11 per cent of Canadian households now report at least one household member plays pickleball and more than 1.3 million people are picking up a racket at least once a month. The biggest area of growth was among women, with participation growing by almost 50 per cent in the 12-month period ending January 2023.
“I’m here for cardio, I’m here for the exercise. And it’s a thinking game. It’s a game of strategy, said Sandra Basu, a recent Pickleball convert and a regular at the Scarborough club.
“People are great. I love my teacher. I took lessons initially. And he really sold me on the game and I’ve really enjoyed it because people are so welcoming and I don’t feel like a beginner,” she said.
Sandra Basu is a regular participant with the Progress Pickleball club. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)Pickleball is best described as a miniature version of tennis that incorporates elements of other racquet sports like table tennis and badminton.
Most senior member in her 90s”You got a lot of exercise, I can get out the house and the people are nice, some really nice people,” said 93-year-old Vivian Wong, one of Progress Pickleball’s longest-standing and most senior member.
“Every time I hit a nice shot, you know, I feel good about it.”
“I never had particularly fast feet. But I always had quick hands. So for me, it’s great,” adds Livie. “The court size is built for me and there’s not anywhere near as much running.”
Participants at this GTA pickleball club say there aren’t enough available courts for them to play as much as they’d like to. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)Livie said while it’s great the sport is growing, it has created a major issue for his club and others across the country: not enough places to play.
“There aren’t enough courts in Canada,” he said, pointing out that during the winter, permanent courts are scarce with many creating space in church basements or setting up ad hoc courts at local community centres.
There is an effort to create more space, while at the same time trying to make the game more appealing to a younger demographic.
And it’s leading to some creative solutions.
“I’ve never seen a sport sort of enter the cultural conversation that Pickleball has in the last couple of years” said Drummond Munro, the co-founder of Fairgrounds Racket Club.
This space in an Etobicoke shopping mall used to host a Target store in west-end Toronto. It’s being converted to a pickleball court. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)Munro is at Cloverdale Mall, which opened in the 1950s in suburban west-end Toronto, standing in a vast retail space that used to house a Target store.
All around him, workers are feverishly installing nine new Pickleball courts.
Fairgrounds is partnering with a number of malls in the Greater Toronto Area and in Vancouver in hopes of breathing life into dormant spaces while at the same time giving people another incentive to visit the mall.
The Cloverdale space is set to open in the middle of February.
“I think there’s definitely a supply and demand opportunity right now with pickleball,” Munro said.
“This is just going to fit what people are looking for right now.”
Drummond Munro is the co-founder of Fairgrounds, a company trying to expand pickleball facility access in the Toronto area. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)Fairgrounds is aiming to turn the idea of the stuffy racquet club on its head. There will be no dress code or membership fees. Players will pay by the hour. And there is a major focus on comfort and design, including a restaurant and bar.
“You’ll come in, you can rent the paddle by a paddle, you’ll be taken to your court,” Munro explains. “There’s music, it’s lively, it won’t be sterile, walking on eggshells type of environment.”
Munro said the mall spaces make sense.
“People are here, it’s already a built-in population and density, and offering something for the community is just taking it one step further.”
Munro said the club hopes to attract younger members but will also welcome older members like those who frequent the mall’s food court. They will also welcome people like the members of Progress looking for a welcoming, permanent place to enjoy the game they love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC