WILLMAR - It may have an unusual name, but since its founding in the mid-1960s, pickleball has become a very serious sport, with more than 2.5 million players and 15,000 courts nationwide, according to the USA Pickleball Association.
"When you learn to play pickleball, it is almost an addiction," said Randy Hall of Willmar, the Minnesota District Ambassador for the association.
He is also a talented player in his own right, having medaled many times at the Minnesota Senior Games and just this year taking home a bronze medal at the U.S. Open Pickleball Championship with his partner Mike Welter in their age and skill bracket.
"It is getting tremendously popular," Hall said.
Pickleball is a racquet sport, a kind of cross between tennis, badminton and pingpong. It was created by a trio of gentlemen - Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum - in Washington state in 1965 as a new game for their families to play. By 1975 the new game was already spreading across the nation and the first tournament was held in 1976.
The racquets used are smaller than in tennis and the ball looks like a mini-wiffle ball. Hall said with a badminton-size court and a unique set of rules, pickleball is a sport anyone can pick up and enjoy, no matter their age or physical ability. Played as singles or doubles, it is also a great social game, with the smaller court making it easier to talk with fellow players.
"It makes the game very popular," Hall said. "Tremendous recreation game for families, couples, kids. A recreation game for all ages."
Since he started playing about 15 years ago, Hall has seen the popularity of the game grow. While it is true pickleball is very popular with seniors, it is also now being taught and played in schools and communities across the country and even internationally.
"Every little town is looking for a way to add pickleball," Hall said.
This includes Willmar, which is in the preliminary planning stages to add pickleball courts to the city's park system, it is hoped next spring or summer, said Willmar Public Works Director Sean Christensen. In the 2019 draft budget, the mayor has set aside some funds to repair the tennis courts at Hilltop Park near the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, including laying lines down for pickleball along with tennis.
"There is such a demand for courts, you can't build them fast enough," Hall said. Currently, the city has no public outdoor pickleball courts, which has put it behind nearby cities like New London and Spicer, Hall said.
While there may not be any outdoor courts in town, Willmar players do have the option of playing indoors at the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA. The complex has several courts available and holds both open pickleball and a fall league.
When the YMCA redid its gymnasium floors, it added more pickleball court lines, as well as made them easier to see. It also purchased higher-quality equipment.
"We have invested money in pickleball here," said Ryan Scheffler, program director at the YMCA.
In addition to individual players coming to the facility, Scheffler said groups of people have come in wanting to learn the game.
"It is something new to do," Scheffler said. "I feel there are more people playing pickleball here than tennis."
As the local ambassador for the sport, Hall said he regularly receives calls from people who are planning trips to the area, asking if there are pickleball courts available. With the addition of new courts in Willmar, it could be bring in some additional economic benefit, as well as grow the sport locally.
"It would be so nice to have some outdoor courts," Hall said, who believes there are easily 200 to 250 in the Willmar area who play the sport.
Hall is excited about the prospect of the city adding courts, saying that if they build them, people will come.
"It is such an easy game to pick up. Anyone can learn to play," Hall said.