There’s a sport taking the United States by storm: pickleball.
And it just so happens one of the largest tournaments in the Midwest is right here in West Michigan, the Beer City Open. The tournament takes place July 20-24 at Belknap Park and sold out in 12 minutes when registration opened in April.
There are players from 40 states and six countries coming to Grand Rapids to play the quirky sport, said George Aquino, vice president and managing director of AHC Hospitality, the presenting sponsor of the Beer City Open and avid pickleball player.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Aquino said of the geographic representation, adding the age range is 14 to older than 80. “There’s a broad range of skills, but everyone is playing on the same courts as the pros, so you feel like an athlete.”
The sport is succinctly summed up as a hybrid of tennis, badminton and ping pong, but it really plays largely like a giant game of ping pong. Players hold paddles, dinking whiffle balls back and forth. (Editor’s note: the writer became a fervent player while living in Las Vegas.)
To an outsider, pickleball can appear to be an easy, leisurely sport, and while it is extremely accessible for beginners, it quickly can become a serious and difficult activity to master.
“As a tennis player, that’s very competitive and takes a lot of time to develop the game; in pickleball, you can start playing and learn how to play from day one and improve really quickly,” Aquino said. “There are stereotypes, and yes there are a lot of seniors that play and popularized it, but in Grand Rapids, most people seem to be young. Even in the Beer City Open, 43% of players are under 50.”
The Beer City Open started in 2018 and has grown quickly. It now offers a $90,000 prize pot and carries sponsors like AHC, Perrin Brewing, Priority Health, Elders Helpers and McClure’s Pickles.
Pickleball might be a relatively new sport to the public consciousness, but some players can make serious cash. Ben Johns, the No. 1 player in the world, made approximately $250,000 playing the sport last year, according to Axios.
The rapid ascent up the pickleball skill ladder can be seen simply by looking at Andrea Remynse Koop, the tournament director of the Beer City Open. The former NCAA championship tennis player at UCLA has turned into a top pickleball player after starting to play in 2017.
“It’s a smaller court (than tennis), easier to make contact and easier to be good at in the beginning,” Remynse Koop said. “Maybe you don’t need to move around as much. It’s easy to make contact with a whiffle ball and it makes it much more forgiving for the average individual who wants to play a competitive game.
“But when you get to the higher levels, you need faster reflexes than tennis. When I switch back and forth, on the tennis court I feel like I have 20 minutes to hit. It’s more accessible at the lower levels, but as you advance, it’s not any easier.”
Pickleball is huge!
Pickleball was invented in Bainbridge Island, Washington, during the summer of 1965 by a group of fathers, including former U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard. But an official rulebook wasn’t written until 1984, and it was 2005 before USA Pickleball formed to provide a national overview of the sport.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that the sport really caught mainstream attention — it has been the fastest-growing sport two years in a row, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, growing 39%. There are now at least 4.8 million pickleballers, according to USA Pickleball, including a variety of celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney and even tennis great Serena Williams, who gushed about the sport on an afternoon talk show this spring.
In February, the New York Times ran a good-sized spread on the sport with the headline, “Pickleball is Ready for Prime Time.”
Remynse Koop said racquet sports saw a massive increase in participation during the pandemic, and not just pickleball, but tennis, too. That’s likely because they are outdoor sports with plenty of free courts across the country. Perhaps more than being accessible for early levels, however, pickleball also offers a community of friendly players.
That’s including Grand Rapids, Remynse Koop said.
“What happened to me is I met a community and friends and it’s fun,” she said. “It’s going to hang out with friends. Then after we play at Belknap, we stay after and go drink a beer at City Built and have tacos. It’s a really social group.”
GR pickleball community
In the past three or four years, the Grand Rapids pickleball community has exploded, according to Aquino.
The epicenter Belknap Park, where there are almost 20 courts, ready to see plenty of action.
It’s the home of the Grand Rapids Pickleball Club, which has more than 1,000 members. While it costs $100 per year, the community is very active and friendly, Aquino said. The proceeds largely go back into Belknap Park.
There are courts designated for various skill levels, but everyone is willing to play with whoever shows up on any given day.
Not just seniors
The game’s easy pace did catch on with senior citizens early in its history. Now it’s catching on as a luxury amenity. Barron’s ran an article earlier this year detailing the mass adoption of pickleball courts in upscale retirement homes, mixed-demographic housing developments and private clubs.
Meanwhile, Life Time Fitness is adding more than 700 courts across the country.
It’s not all fun and games for everyone, however, as this spring the CBC reported the city of Victoria, British Columbia, has banned the sport in several parks because of noise complaints. That might be because the sport does get heated at times.
While the sport is a leisurely fitness activity for some, it’s a cutthroat competition for others. There currently are three startup pickle ball leagues:
- Professional Pickleball Association
- Association of Pickleball Professionals
- Major League Pickleball
The leagues also have garnered significant attention from some big-time investors and sponsors.
Before long, there might be retail establishments popping up to cater to players while providing an overall fun night out. In Columbus, Ohio, the first Real Dill Pickleball Club is opening next fall.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, a 1.9-acre Rally pickleball complex soon will open, with eight courts — indoor and outdoor — and a full-service restaurant and bars.
Other options that could spread across the country include the Electric Pickle in Arizona, with its nine pickleball courts, bar, restaurant and entertainment stage, and Chicken N Pickle, a chain with indoor and outdoor courts, bars and restaurant with locations in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.
While there are not any current public plans for an establishment like those in Grand Rapids, there is some pickleball business emerging from West Michigan. Aquino has co-founded a pickleball-focused hospitality company called 20 x 44 Sports — named after the size of a pickleball court. The company helps host tournaments, camps and travel associated with the sport.
Sporting events in Grand Rapids bring plenty of visitors to the city, which is a major reason AHC Hospitality sponsored the Beer City Open. Visitors to the tournament might reserve two or three nights in hotels around town and spend across the local hospitality industry.
“The West Michigan Sports Commission is excited to see the growth of the Beer City Open as a prominent pickleball tour stop on the Association of Pickleball Professionals Tour,” West Michigan Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler said. “This event has sold out every year and now with increased local support and greater efforts to increase Belknap Park into a top pickleball facility in the Midwest, this event will continue to be one that pros and amateurs alike will look forward to.
“Not only will the competitors and spectators be treated to the finest craft beer in the country here in Beer City, USA, but the region will benefit from the nearly $1 million in visitor spending anticipated from this growing and impactful event.”
Perhaps the cherry on top of the whole pickleball craze in Grand Rapids is the new rooftop pickleball courts at the Amway Grand Plaza.
That venue, among others, is just one example of the impact pickleball is having on Grand Rapids.
This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.