The first time Tom Keane picked up a pickleball racket he was hooked. His neighbour had worn him down and finally convinced him to play at a court, in East York; two years later, Keane says the sport has changed his life.
“My neighbour put a paddle in my hand, and from there on I just fell in love with the game,” says Keane, who is now the president and a founder of the East Toronto Pickleball Association, established in 2021.
“I’m 57 years old. I’m aging, I’m a big guy. But it’s so 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 has been touted as North America’s fastest-growing sport.
“There’s no question it has grown significantly, and I believe it’s because the larger community can participate,” says Robert Singleton, managing director of the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. “Young, old — it’s a version of tennis everyone can play.”
The game dates back to 1965, but has had a relatively low profile until recently. Pickleball Canada estimates there are more than 350,000 players in Canada, with participation in Ontario growing roughly 70 per cent between 2017 and 2020. In Toronto, membership has grown from 325 before 2021 to 1,627 to date, according to Pickleball Ontario.
But as the sport surges in popularity, enthusiasts find themselves in a pickle when looking for spaces 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’re cobbling together places to play for people because demand way exceeds venues and opportunities to play,” says Mary Beth Denomy, chair of the board of directors of the East Toronto Pickleball Association.
At the June city council meeting, Coun. Paula Fletcher asked the city to create more opportunities for people to play pickleball this summer. The city is now assessing 23 “dry pads” — outdoor hockey rinks that are not used in warmer months — to identify spaces that could be suitable for the game, as well as drawing pickleball court lines on outdoor spaces in Riverdale Park and Greenwood Park in Toronto.
Fletcher said the move also means players can now book a space for pickleball on city facilities, just as is done for hockey. It’s about “making maximum use of the ice rink facilities even when there’s no ice,” she added.
Across Ontario, pickleball courts are popping up as demand increases. A new 10-court facility was opened in June in Tecumseh, near Windsor. Construction has begun on new courts at Milton 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 its growing pains. for on thing, the game can be noisy. It’s been banned from one outdoor court in Niagara-on-the-Lake after the town and its pickleball club were convicted in June for violating a noise bylaw, with a resident describing the noise as “torture.”
Jack Wroz , 17, is a member of Kamloops Tennis Centre in British Columbia can testify to pickleball’s din. He says there’s an ongoing problem where he is with tennis-court space being taken over by pickleballers, especially in the winter months when the club puts up a dome around the courts. (Non-members can use tennis courts if they pay, so there’s nothing to stop pickleball players from using the space, Wroz explained.)
“Pickleball players aren’t members at the club so a lot of the times people don’t know when they’re coming in. So people come in and see their courts are being used with lines taped on the floor, and that can cause problems with availability,” Wroz said.
And then there’s the noise issue. It’s been a major complaint of tennis players, describing the sounds of the pickleball’s impacts as similar to ping pong but “incredibly loud with a lot of echo.
“During the indoor season with all that echo it can get very, very noisy and players get agitated pretty quickly about it. But there’s not much we can do to combat the noise,” Wroz said.
When asked whether noise would be a factor in where pickleball courts would be set up in Toronto, Fletcher said that the sport wouldn’t be any more boisterous than hockey in the winter.
The courts where pickleball lines will be drawn are originally used as “full play rinks for hockey all season. So I’m pretty sure that any pickleball noise will be far less than that,” Fletcher said.
Tennis Canada spokesperson Stefen Hakim, whose own sport has been rising in prestige in Canada as homegrown players like Leylah Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime make a splash internationally, said that while the association supports the growth of racquet sports including pickleball, repurposing tennis courts is just a quick fix.
“The dramatic growth of pickleball certainly warrants more public pickleball courts. However, adding pickleball lines to tennis courts can be a conflict-laden, ‘Band-Aid’ solution that reduces the enjoyment of both sports,” Hakim said in an email.
“Creating dedicated pickleball courts by resurfacing existing tennis courts simply creates the need for more tennis courts. Before municipalities consider dual purposing or repurposing any tennis courts, we urge them to fully explore the possibility of creating new pickleball courts.”
Pickleballers hoping to share court space with tennis players in Toronto have certainly 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 try to resolve by using a scheduling system.
“There’s been a little bit of a battle discussion between the 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 aren’t so popular for tennis.”
Cameron said the association has grown from 75 players since May 2021 to about 500 in just over a year. That’s without a dedicated pickleball court, though he’s hoping to secure one.
Some of those new players get serious about it. Sara McInnes, 37, began 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 medallist and a pickleball coach.
“It’s a misconception that the sport is only for an older demographic,” McInnes said.
The sport has gained popularity in older age groups because it’s considered lower impact than other racket sports and has smaller courts, but “it becomes more and more challenging as you rise in skill level,” said McInnes.
Beyond the benefits of daily exercise, Keane said that the sense of community and friendship he’s found through pickleball has been monumental, especially for his mental health throughout the pandemic.
“It’s about the people that you meet, especially at my age,” said Keane. “I’ve created a whole social network for myself and it’s all through pickleball.”