The explosion of interest in pickleball in Springfield could see the number of available courts nearly double in the foreseeable future, with the opening of the Premier Pickleball Center late this fall and the possibility of adding a dozen or more outdoor courts at Centennial Park next year.
"Springfield's biggest need has been indoor play space, particularly during cold weather months," says Jack Handy, who founded the Springfield Pickleball Club in 2012, the same year that eight outdoor courts replaced former tennis courts at Iles Park. Both the club and local interest in the game have enjoyed continued growth since then.
Enter the Premier Pickleball Center, scheduled to open in Springfield in late November this year. Its indoor facility will be heated in the winter and have large garage doors that open, providing good airflow in the summer. Its developers are Mike Fox, a local business owner and avid pickleball player, and his wife, Angela. They found the game to be addictive and decided to build Springfield's first dedicated indoor pickleball facility on Constitution Drive behind Target in a business-industrial area.
"There are more people playing every day," Fox says. "The most frustrating thing as a player, once you start, you go to play, and you can't get on a court."
Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and ping-pong. The court is about half the length of a tennis court (44 feet vs. 78 feet for a tennis court), a few feet narrower, and the net a few inches lower. The paddle makes a distinctive popping sound when it strikes the hard plastic ball.
Fox and his wife have been playing pickleball for five years and are enthusiastic about the local pickleball community. They started playing as couples in Duncan Park. "It really is an addiction," he says. "It's a great workout. You're moving a lot; you work up a sweat. I can't think of anything else for our age where it's competitive, you get a great workout and it's fun. There is also the social aspect to it that is almost missed with a lot of sports. You're out with people you like, you're hanging out and you get that social interaction that we all need."
Their 10 indoor courts will be in two different buildings (five courts each), with three outdoor courts between them and two more at the back of the parking lot. The facility, which is to be available for members only and their guests, will have a semi-cushioned premium surface, special lighting, the best nets available and a 29-foot ceiling, Fox says. It will also have restrooms and vending machines.
Everything will be automated. Members will reserve court times using an app, and they will receive a code to enter the building and use their assigned court. With the automated center open 18 hours a day for a pickleball community that cares about quality facilities, Fox does not believe it will be necessary to have staff on site all the time. He does anticipate the center offering instruction classes and hosting leagues (for members) and possibly some tournaments in addition to open play every day.
Construction was just beginning as this article went to press, with Fox hoping it will be open by the end of November. Fox says bigger cities such as St. Louis have dedicated indoor pickleball facilities, but he is unaware of any others in central Illinois.
Indoor pickleball is offered locally at the two YMCA facilities, the Salvation Army (formerly Gold's Gym) on East Clear Lake, and with a few removable nets at the Springfield Racquet and Fitness Center. Availability varies at these locations by time of day and day of the week. The Springfield YMCA has two courts at its west side branch and three at the downtown branch. Sports director Alex Brown says the demand for those courts is always high, especially in the mornings.
Derek Harms, executive director of the Springfield Park District, applauds the relationship the park district has with the local pickleball community. "We have worked closely with the Springfield Pickleball Club for many years," he says. "This is a critical partnership that has facilitated the development of 14 pickleball courts [at Iles and Duncan parks], instruction classes, league play and tournaments throughout our community."
Both Harms and Handy mentioned discussions about expanding into Centennial Park, with Handy saying there could be 12 courts initially and plans for 20 courts. No announcement has been made about when this might happen, but Handy said it could be in 2024. If the anticipated public and private court growth continues – Piper Glen opened some courts for its members this summer – the number of courts in Springfield could increase to more than 50 in the near future.
Fox and Handy agree that pickleball is a social event for many as well as exercise or athletic competition. Fox and his wife play with friends and hang out, and a recent Facebook post of the Springfield Pickleball Club shows a group of women and the words: "These ladies know how to beat the heat. 1. Play early. 2. Drink a few margaritas. 3. Go to Barbie movie. Next!"
Handy, whose club has grown to more than 400 members, believes there is demand for the expansion that is occurring. He sees people waiting to play while courts are full and a growing number of younger people interested in playing, while enthusiasm among older people remains high.
The Premier Pickleball Center has launched a website (premierepickleballcenter.com) with more details and information about open play and memberships, which range from $30 to $135 a month.
Ed Wojcicki, formerly a full-time journalist, has been a freelance writer since 1979. He is retired from both University of Illinois Springfield and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.