As the popularity of pickleball explodes across the nation, Acadiana players have found themselves in a bit of a pickle.
There aren’t enough courts to meet the community’s demand.
“We are at capacity. It’s really difficult, especially if you’re looking for an indoor court,” said pickleball player Jenny Thibodeaux. “If we had more courts, you’d have the ability to have tournaments and give those younger than 18 a place to play. Making Lafayette a little pickleball hub would be great.”
Thibodeaux, 33, is leading a younger generation of pickleball players in Acadiana.
Pickleball, which is a kind of hybrid of tennis and ping pong, was once primarily popular among retirees. It’s become increasingly popular among all ages, however, for its affordable and accessible nature. Enthusiasts of the sport often describe it as addicting.
“A 9-year-old can play against a 70-year-old and it still be an even match,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s easy to play but hard to master.”
Courts have been popping up at public parks and recreation centers across Acadiana. Even private clubs such as Red’s and Le Triomphe have converted outdoor tennis courts into pickleball courts in recent years to meet the demand.
There are several local pickleball tournaments each year, and a statewide Senior Olympics pickleball event is happening in Youngsville next year. Leaders there have been preparing for the possibility of more pickleball tourism events in the years ahead.
The Youngsville Sports Complex is adding eight outdoor pickleball courts as part of a $10 million expansion to its facilities to keep up with the growing trend. The pickleball courts are expected to be ready in early 2024.
“The outdoor sport is starting to grow now that the younger crowd is getting into it,” said Tim Robichaux, director of the Youngsville Sports Complex. “The big interest is in the outdoor courts. That’s what the research we’ve done says.”
But those who play at the sports complex want to see more time dedicated to indoor play. They’re currently limited to a few hours on weekday mornings, when the gym is transformed into six pickleball courts. Between 50 to 100 people show up on any given morning, but only 24 people can play on the courts at a time.
“We want more courts inside,” said 79-year-old pickleball player Joe Costantino. “You have a lot of people who are seniors who have paid a lot of taxes. Reward us by building something inexpensive and functional that’s dedicated to pickleball.”
About 4.8 million people in the United States played pickleball last year, according to a 2022 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That’s nearly double the number five years ago.
Although it was once primarily popular among retirees, the sport’s average participant age has been dropping in recent years. The average age of players in 2021 was about 38 years old.
The average age of core players, defined as those who play eight or more times a year, is about 48 years old compared to the average age of 34 for casual players.
Randy Duplechien, 63, began playing pickleball after coming across a game at a park 11 years ago.
“It’s just addictive,” Duplechien said. “Once you get started, you just want to play again and again. And the group of people playing pickleball is just a welcoming group.”
Duplechien estimates that the number of people playing in Acadiana has tripled or quadrupled in the past decade. The recent growth has primarily been among the 40 and younger crowd, he said. His 29-year-old son is among those who have recently picked up the sport.
Grant Duplechien started playing pickleball last summer. He typically plays at the Comeaux Recreation Center on Wednesday evenings, when the indoor gym is dedicated to pickleball, and at the outdoor courts at the nearby Beaullieu Park.
“I’ve gotten beat by old people, young people,” Grant Duplechien said. “You meet all kinds of people on the courts. It definitely helps to build community.”
Pickleball is played on a badminton-sized court with a whiffle ball and large paddles. The sport was invented in 1965 by three dads whose children were bored by usual summertime activities, according to USA Pickleball, the national governing body for the sport.
There’s no consensus on how the sport got the peculiar name pickleball, although the organization offers two origin stories that have circulated for more than 50 years.
Joan Pritchard, the wife of one of the men who created the sport, reportedly said the combination of different sports reminded her of a pickle boat — typically the last to finish a race — where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.
Barney McCallum, one of the game’s founders, said the game was officially named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who would run off with the ball while they played.
“When I first got into the game, a lot of us felt like ‘Why in the world is it called pickleball?'” Randy Duplechien said. “Because every time you tell somebody you play pickleball, they’re like ‘What?’ But now, you don’t have to explain what it is anymore. It’s become that popular.”
Even Drew Brees is a fan of pickleball. The former Saints quarterback recently invested in Mad Drops Pickleball Club, an Austin-based Major League Pickleball team.
“I’m an avid pickleball player, fan and student of the game,” Brees said in a July 12 news release. “The opportunity to be a part of the ownership group of the Mad Drops PC is something I’m extremely excited about, and I look forward to helping raise awareness around the incredible players and competitions in MLP, helping grow the sport of pickleball and fostering overall fan engagement.”
Pickleball has become so trendy that there are chain sports bars popping up around the country that specialize in pickleball.
Chicken N Pickle is one such venue that Thibodeaux and Grant Duplechien said they hope might one day open in Lafayette.
“I think Lafayette is craving something like that,” Thibodeaux said. “You can go to dinner and also do something active. Pickleball is allowing an aging generation to stay active, and this would also allow people who are interested to show up at the restaurant and watch it as opposed to showing up at a gym and not knowing what to do.”
There’s another national trend that most folks in Acadiana don’t seem interested in embracing — nude pickleball.
Robichaux’s mention of the concept during the Youngsville City Council’s July meeting sent the room into chaos.
“I know the mayor likes to be on the forefront of everything,” Robichaux said with a chuckle. “But in Colorado, there’s naked pickleball right now that’s going on. I don’t think we want to go there.”
The meeting dissolved into laughter and sour expressions.
“There are some things I think we can—” Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter said before trailing off.
“Exactly,” Robichaux said. “It’s a little too innovative.”