November 5, 2023 at 9:00am
Article by Elena Ferrarin
Northbrook Park District
In the five years since the Northbrook Park District began offering pickleball, the program has grown tremendously in the wake of the sport’s boom in popularity, both locally and across the country.
The demand is such that, most of the time, pickleball programs fill within hours of registration opening, Athletics Manager Meri Shea said. “It’s been great to see such interest in this sport, and we have been committed to offering more and more opportunities for play,” she said.
To meet this steadily growing demand, the park district is expanding its indoor and outdoor pickleball offerings.
Currently, there are six dedicated outdoor pickleball courts at Stonegate Park. Two more such courts are under construction at Oaklane Park, and two additional ones are scheduled for construction in 2024 at Williamsburg Square Park.
The park district also is expanding its lineup of pickleball programs. The latest addition is open pickleball on Thursday evenings at Greenbriar Gym. Indoor court rental at Leisure Center and Greenbriar Gym will be available soon, and four courts are available at Techny Prairie Activity Center. The array of options for pickleball players also includes:
- Youth and adult classes (outdoor and indoor, based on the season) for all levels
- Private and semi-private lessons
- Clinics that run about eight weeks, once a week, to learn and practice skills
- One-day boot camps, typically focused on drilling
- One day pop-up events, such as “learn to play,” free to the community
- Court rental at Stonegate Park and Techny Prairie Activity Center
- Open pickleball with 1 ½ hour slots at TPAC
- Seasonal leagues, running 11 or 12 weeks at TPAC
- One-day mixed doubles tournaments, typically one or two per season, at TPAC year-round and at Stonegate Park during the warmer months
This year, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association named pickleball the fastest-growing sport in America for the third year in a row, with 8.9 million players over age 6, an increase from 4.8 million in 2022.
That trend is mirrored within the Northbrook community, where residents’ interest in the sport continues to grow steadily. This year through mid-October, 615 people attended clinics/bootcamps, 332 participated in leagues/tournaments, and 58 took private lessons. That’s an across-the-board increase from 2022, when 511 people attended clinics/bootcamps, 236 participated in league/tournaments, and 31 took private lessons.
“There is a tremendous desire to play in leagues,” Shea said, “and we have done our best to accommodate that while also balancing the demand for other types of gym programs.”
Northbrook resident Stuart Wagner has been a pickleball regular since he took a clinic in January 2020. He began playing outdoors with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, and about a year-and-a-half later, he joined a league. He continues to play in leagues to this day.
Pickleball is a great way to get a good workout while socializing and making new friends, Wagner said.
“The quality of the instructors has been very good and very reliable,” he said. “I absolutely encourage people to start with clinics. It’s a great introduction to the sport because it helps to build skills and explain the rules.”
Wagner said he’s been glad to witness the growth of pickleball programs in Northbrook, and hopes the park district will continue focusing on that, he said. This fall, the demand for leagues exceeded court availability, so the park district used a lottery system to assign spots.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three men who, while on vacation with their families near Seattle, Washington, improvised a new game by using ping pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball on an old badminton court.
The Northbrook Park District offered its first pickleball classes in 2018 at Greenbriar Gym. The following year, the Stonegate Park courts were built.
There are also seven indoor pickleball courts — four at Techny Prairie Activity Center, two at Greenbriar Gym and one at the Leisure Center’s gym— and four temporary outdoor courts at Meadowhill Park Skate Rink. The latter are equipped with night lighting and are also available for rental for private lessons. Four of the eight tennis courts at Wood Oaks Green Park have pickleball lines, so people can practice their game, albeit with tennis nets.
The park district has two pickleball instructors on staff; the rest are contracted through E-Town Tennis, owned by Ken Herrmann, who praised the park district for catering to players of all abilities. “The fact that we are offering a year-round league program is very cool,” he said.
Northbrook Park District Pickleball Professional Mike Woldolf added he’s seen consistent growth within all pickleball programs.
The sport is appealing because it’s accessible and easy to learn, Recreation Supervisor Matt Papale said.
“For other sports, you need time to become good at them, whereas with pickleball, it takes you a few times and you get the hang of it,” he said. “The learning curve is very quick.”
The pace of the game is determined by the players, which often have conversations during games, Papale said. “It’s as intense as you make it — you can move just a little bit, or you can jump and slam the ball and go hard.”
The growth of the park district’s pickleball program has not affected the availability of tennis courts, whose popularity also increased after the COVID-19 pandemic, Shea said. The park district offers additional tennis classes at Northbrook Racquetball Club and Glenbrook Racquet Club.
Shea credited Recreation Supervisor Cameron Edelman with boosting the park district’s tennis and pickleball programs in the last few years.