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Pickleball develops pros, prize money, biz ecosystem as it's designated Washington's state sport

Pickleball enthusiasts practice and take classes at RECS, a new indoor pickleball complex in Clackamas, Oregon, that is drawing players from a wide bi-state area.
Tom Banse
NW News Network
Pickleball enthusiasts practice and take classes at RECS, a new indoor pickleball complex in Clackamas, Oregon, that is drawing players from a wide bistate area.

Next week, Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign a law designating pickleball as the official state sport of Washington. The mash-up of badminton, tennis and pingpong has come a long way since its invention on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965. Skilled local pickleball players have turned pro and brand new businesses are opening to cater to the pandemic boom in recreational play.

Washington will become the 16th state with an official sport when Inslee signs the pickleball bill. Some of the other states that have gone before have obvious pairings such as Hawaii and surfing, Minnesota and ice hockey, Alaska and dog mushing. There are also some less obvious designations such as Colorado where the state sport is pack burro racing, or Maryland where it's jousting. Oregon and Idaho don't have an official state sport.

At the Washington Legislature, prime sponsor Sen. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek) explained why he served up pickleball to be the state sport.

"Washington will someday be known as the birthplace of Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and pickleball,” Lovick said, quoting a constituent. “Tourists will travel to Bainbridge Island to see the first pickleball court and visit the Bainbridge Island historical museum's pickleball exhibit. Let's boast about this history and make pickleball the official sport."

The measure to designate pickleball attracted a little bit of grumbling inside and outside the capital as trivial, "worthless" or a waste of time during a short legislative session packed with high stakes, big ticket issues.

“Sometimes we need to do things that are just fun when we deal with what we deal with,” Lovick told fellow lawmakers back in January, anticipating the grumbling that would come.

Eastern Washington University in Cheney is preparing to host hundreds of amateur players for this July's Pacific Northwest regional championships in pickleball. A few weeks later, a big tournament in Bend will offer 25-thousand dollars in prize money.

Pickleball has been the fastest growing sport in the U.S. for the past several years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. Insiders estimate there are around two dozen professional players who call Oregon, Washington and Idaho home. The game now has two competing national tournament circuits. Eight players from the Pacific Northwest collected payouts on the Professional Pickleball Association tour over the past year, according to the PPA’s director.

Interest in the sport is so strong that former world number one player Tyson McGuffin, 32, of Coeur d’Alene can parlay his success into a personal brand, which appears on a logo clothing line, a series of training camps, a podcast, a $75 insulated water bottle and of course, a signature paddle made by North Idaho-based gear sponsor Selkirk.

McGuffin’s main sport while growing up at Lake Chelan was wrestling. He played competitive tennis in college and said on his website that he did not discover pickleball until his mid-20’s when he was working as the head tennis pro at the Yakima Tennis Club.

Lake Oswego mother Tracie Dejager, 39, said she has made the transition from working in real estate to a career as a pickleball pro.

"I've always had the idea, do what you love and the money will come," Dejager said.

Now, that's possible. Money comes from tournament winnings, plus she has a gear sponsorship. There's high demand for lessons, training camps and instructional videos.

"Just over the last couple years, it has really drastically grown," Dejager said courtside after teaching a clinic for advanced intermediate players from the Portland area.

"If we want to get involved and make a living out of it, now is the time because it's mind boggling how many people are now playing pickleball,” Dejager continued. “Ten years ago, five years ago even, I could say, 'I play pickleball,' (and the comeback was,) 'You do what?'"

Dejager teaches at a brand new indoor pickleball center in suburban Clackamas, outside Portland. It's named RECS — short for Recreate, Exercise, Compete, Socialize.

The nine rubber-cushioned pickleball courts replaced an indoor soccer business, which should tell you something too.

"Soccer players, those are kids or adults who are working during the day. With pickleball you have a lot of active retirees and they are looking to play during the day," said Kevin Richards, the co-owner and manager at RECS. "It changes the business model when you're not just busy at night and on weekends. Now you're busy 16 hours per day, potentially."

Richards observed people of all ages took up pickleball during the pandemic.

"Because you are physically distanced from others you're playing with and you can play it outdoors,” Richards explained. “A lot of people who started coming here and discovered this place have said, 'I started playing during COVID times and I can't get enough.'"

Businesses like Richards' are popping up all around the Northwest. Pickleball Zone in Bend was a pioneer in 2018 when it installed eight cushioned indoor courts. Spokane has since joined the party with a dedicated private indoor court facility named The Pickleball Playground.

A startup named Volli aims to cash in on the "eatertainment" concept with a combination of indoor pickleball courts and sports bar. It's beginning with outlets in Bellingham and Marysville, Washington, slated to open later this year.

Meanwhile, public parks and rec departments all around the region are under pressure to build more outdoor pickleball courts or restripe their tennis courts to meet demand.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.