Is dedicated to the continent’s fastest-growing team sport.
It was Pickleball’s unusual name that first attracted Roger Hutlet’s attention to the sport three years ago. After picking up a racquet for a few games, he loved playing it so much he eventually became the Communications Director of the St. Albert Pickleball Club.
“Some friends were playing and said it was fun. I’m not really one to go to the gym, but you get pretty decent exercise. The sessions are like two hours, sometime a little bit longer. But it’s just a good fun sport.”Roger Hutlet
He’s definitely not alone, as the club’s membership has multiplied since its origins in 2014, when a small group of enthusiastic snowbirds who learned how to play pickleball stateside during the winter and formed a registered, not-for-profit organization to facilitate games in St. Albert. From its original core of 26, membership grew to just less than 500 by the end of 2021. A year later, during the waning weeks of the pandemic, Hutlet said that membership has since sprouted to nearly 800. “It went down a bit with COVID, and in 2022 it grew by about 40 percent,” added Hutlet.
That influx of interested players — with 65 percent of them based in the city — is partly responsible for the St. Albert Pickleball Club ranking among the largest organizations of the sport in Alberta, second only to a similar establishment in Calgary. But beyond the province, Pickleball has become all the rage in recent years.
In the U.S., a Sport & Fitness Industries Association report boasted a 21.3 percent increase in pickleball players between 2019 and 2021. While Canadian statistics reveal that roughly a million folks have hit the courts, it pales in comparison to the nearly 37 million Americans who play the sport, which has received vocal support from athletic luminaries from Tom Brady to LeBron James. One recent high-profile pickleball event saw reality TV host Phil Koeghan and country star Dierks Bentley win a tournament trophy. Such anecdotes endorsements certainly don’t hurt, as pickleball has since become the continent’s fastest-growing team sport (the game usually involves teams of two, or doubles).
Roughly 10,000 facilities in the U.S. facilitate the game and while the St. Albert Pickleball Club services an obviously smaller geographic area, it’s still quite active. The club hosts a multitude of games year-round in eight indoor gyms at sports facilities, schools that include Bertha Kennedy and J.J. Nearing, and Red Willow Community Church. Outdoor games during the warmer season take place in designated courts in Alpine Park.
Club volunteers take on daunting roles to coordinating all that activity, although Wild Apricot, software designed for not-for-profit organizations, take a lot of confusion out of the task. “We try to be organized,” said Hutlet. “It’s a lot of management.”
Granted, running a club dedicated to the sport isn’t easy, although the game itself is rather simple to understand and play. Hutlet said that all it takes is a beginner lesson and at couple of games before the rules eventually sink in. Nervous neophyte would likely be grateful over how competitors are classified; rather than demographics, they group players according to ability. “It’s a lot more fun if you’re playing against people with similar skill levels,” said Hutlet. “This was used by most clubs across North America over the last two or three years to make the playing better for players by grading them.”
That user-friendly element has made the sport less intimidating to newcomers, who wrap their heads around a game that combines the attributes of badminton, ping-pong and tennis. Hutlet says some rules are a bit unusual to folks, such as serves and initial return shots that need to bounce on both sides of the court before that play can continue. Players are not allowed to volley in areas bookending the net, called the “kitchen,” until a ball bounces in that zone first.
Despite a few arcane rules, one of pickleball’s biggest draws is that it doesn’t require a great deal of speed and strength to master the game. Instead, players concentrate on ball control and placement. It also helps that pickleball courts are smaller than their tennis equivalents.
“It doesn’t take a lot of skill or athleticism. I think it’s so much easier for a lot of aging tennis players. That’s a particularly grueling sport, and there’s a lot of area to cover.”Roger Hutlet
With people finally looking for some fun exercise to do with others, given the relaxation of quarantine rules surrounding the pandemic, pickleball is quickly becoming an option. But Hutlet still believes curiosity about a sport with a strange name is a particularly notorious motive. “I think there’s just a lot of buzz about pickleball,” he said. “I’m sure that triggered a lot of interest in membership.”t8n
St Albert Pickleball Club
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