By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor

Pickleball fever has hit Gilbert.

Spurred by a resident’s request and a nationwide steady growth of the court sport, the Parks and Recreation Board is looking to add more courts in town.

“I’m passionate about this,” Vice Chairman Robert Ferron said. “The feedback I get is there’s not enough tennis courts and not enough pickleball courts.”

Pickleball uses paddles, Wiffle-like balls and a net, sort of like a scaled-down version of tennis.

Analyst Jennika Horta told the board last week there were no dedicated pickleball courts in Gilbert and players now share an indoor basketball court at Freestone Recreation Center.

Gilbert is the exception when it comes to dedicated pickleball courts in the region, as Mesa and Chandler have opened new courts in the past year and Tempe last week opened an eight-court complex that includes two courts for wheelchair and adaptive play — the first in the state on public parks.

Horta pitched a proposal to add pickleball lines to the two tennis courts at Freestone to create four pickleball courts.

The cost to do so was $11,300 — including $3,000 to put in the lines and $8,300 for the nets.

“We have no budget for this request at this moment,” Horta said.

She said the board also can consider putting pickleball courts at McQueen Park’s two tennis courts instead.

Both locations are in north Gilbert because 16 dedicated pickleball courts are planned for Gilbert Regional Park, under construction in the south near Queen Creek and Higley roads.

Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona proposed an online survey to get input from pickleball and tennis players on the proposal.

“If it is one of those sports that is up and coming, what about adding separate pickleball facilities?” Chairman Les Presmyk said. “We should be looking at new pickleball courts at some of the north parks.’

He said building new courts on available land would cost more money and suggested staff in the survey gauge the public’s interest for that.

Resident Sherry Hartman said she was the one who requested the courts, having submitted a list of signatures from 50 people who play the sport at Freestone.

“My experience at Freestone is the tennis courts there are usually empty,” Hartman said. “I bought this (forward) as a stop-gap measure because we need it now.”

Noting players are now leaving Gilbert for pickleball courts in Tempe and Chandler, she liked Presmyk’s suggestion.

“Building new courts — we would love that,” she said. “We live here and we want to play here.”

Carmona said staff will get data on pickleball use at Freestone, develop questions for the survey and report back on both results to the board in a couple of months.

Pickleball has 2.8 million players, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s 2017 report.

Overall, Pickleball has increased an estimated 385 percent in numbers of places to play since 2010 — approximately 5,000 pickleball venues and an estimated 15,000 courts covering every U.S. state and all Canadian provinces, the report said.

It was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, Washington, at the home of former legislator and lieutenant governor Joel Pritchard, who started using a Wiffle ball when he couldn’t find a tennis ball to bat around.

Over time, the paddles have evolved from an unwieldy solid wood into a lightweight graphite, enhancing the sport’s popularity because it doesn’t require the physical stamina demanded by tennis.

  A year ago Phoenix opened a 16 pickleball court complex at Pecos Park in Ahwatukee and is adding another 10 at two other parks in the northern part of the city. That’s on top of new pickleball courts that Parks and Recreation Department officials have installed at two other city parks and shared-use areas installed at tennis courts in four more parks.

“If you look at a year ago, there were virtually no public pickleball courts in the East Valley,” said Steve Manolis, the Central Arizona ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association and a pickleball instructor for both Phoenix and Chandler.

Not so, now.

Mesa opened four pickleball courts at Kleinman Park. Chandler opened six at Arrowhead Park.

The trend also is catching on in Gilbert Public Schools District, which not only is creating dual-purpose courts for tennis and pickleball, but also is starting to teach it in some high schools, Manolis said.

When Phoenix opened the Pecos Park courts, which are open to anyone from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, Jack Thomas, president of the U.S.A. Pickleball Association told a crowd at the ribbon cutting that the East Valley had become “a destination place for pickleball players everywhere.”

Association Executive Director Justin Maloof told the crowd that he was on his way to China at the invitation of the Chinese government to introduce people there to the game.

He said membership in his organization has grown 480 percent in the last five years.

“There are 94 pickleball locations — not courts — opening up a month,” he said.