The first time Tom Keane picked up a pickleball racket he was hooked. His neighbor finally convinced him to play on a court in East York and now, two years later, Keane says the sport has changed his life.
“My neighbor put a paddle in my hand, and from there, I fell in love with the game,” says Keane, who is now president and founder of the East Toronto Pickleball Association, established in 2021.
“I’m 57 years old. I’m getting old, I’m a big guy. But it’s very accessible and I realized this was something I could do, something I could participate in.”
A combination of tennis, badminton, and table tennis, pickleball is played with a paddle that has a honeycomb core and a plastic ball with holes in it. Accessible to all ages, the sport’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years and it has been touted as the fastest growing sport in North America.
“There’s no question it’s grown significantly, and I think that’s because the broader community can get involved,” says Robert Singleton, managing director of the Toronto Pan Am Sports Center. “Young, old, it’s a version of tennis that everyone can play.”
Pickleball Canada estimates that there are more than 350,000 players in Canada, with participation in Ontario growing by approximately 70% between 2017 and 2020. In Toronto, membership has increased from 325 before 2021 to 1,627 to date.
But as the sport’s popularity rises, enthusiasts find themselves hard-pressed when looking for places to play, especially in densely populated cities like Toronto, where public outdoor spaces are limited.
“We just can’t produce events and places to play fast enough. We are improvising places to play for people because the demand far outstrips the places and opportunities to play,” says Mary Beth Denomy, chair of the East Toronto Pickleball Association board of directors.
At the June council meeting, Count. Paula Fletcher asked the city to create more opportunities for people to play pickleball this summer. The city is now evaluating 23 “dry pads” (outdoor hockey rinks that are not used in the warmer months) to identify spaces that might be suitable for play, as well as line pickleball courts in open spaces. Free at Riverdale Park and Greenwood Park in Toronto
Fletcher said the move also means players can now reserve a space to play pickleball at city facilities, just as is done with hockey. It’s about “making the most of the ice rink facilities even when there’s no ice,” he added.
Across Ontario, pickleball courts are springing up as demand increases. The new 10-court facility opened in June in Tecumseh, near Windsor. Construction has begun on new courts at Milton’s Community Park, while Toronto has recently painted lines for four pickleball courts at Jimmie Simpson Park.
But the expansion of the sport has not been without growing pains. for something, the game can be noisy. It has been banned from an outdoor court in Niagara-on-the-Lake after the city and its pickleball club were convicted in June of violating a noise ordinancewith one resident describing the noise as “torture”.
Asked if noise would be a factor in the location of pickleball courts in Toronto, Fletcher said the sport would be no more boisterous than hockey in the winter.
The courts where the pickleball lines will be drawn were originally used as “full play rinks for hockey throughout the season. So I’m pretty sure any pickleball noise will be much less than that,” Fletcher said.
Pickleballers hoping to share court space with tennis players have also felt some pushback.
John Cameron, president of the Etobicoke Pickleball Association, said there have been some disputes surrounding the use of tennis courts, which players are trying to resolve through the use of a scheduling system.
“There’s been a bit of a battle discussion between pickleball and tennis people,” Cameron said. “But we try to share it. We try to figure that out, we try to go to courts that are not that popular for tennis.”
Cameron said the association has grown from 75 players as of May 2021 to about 500 in just over a year and that he hopes to secure a dedicated pickleball court.
Sara McInnes, 37, started playing pickleball in 2015 and, like Keane, said she was instantly hooked. She has been competing since 2017 and is now a three-time Canadian national medalist and pickleball coach.
“It’s a misconception that sports is just for a larger demographic,” McInnes said.
The sport has gained popularity in older age groups because it is considered lower impact than other racket sports and has smaller courts, but “it gets more and more challenging as the skill level goes up,” McInnes said.
Beyond the benefits of daily exercise, Keane said the sense of community and friendship he’s found through pickleball has been monumental, especially for his mental health during the pandemic.
“It’s about the people you meet, especially at my age,” Keane said. “I’ve created a whole social network for myself and it’s all through pickleball.”
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