By Bardia Khajenoori
Photos by Kieran Murphy
USAG Stuttgart Public Affairs
U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart held its second tournament of America’s fastest growing sport Jan. 20 as a pickleball competition took place at the Kelley Fitness Center, crowning champions in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles categories.
The roster of registered players, totaling 44, was nearly twice that of the first tournament last June, according to Jason Bird, the DoD civilian employee and pickleball enthusiast who played a lead role in organizing the event with the support of fitness center manager Roland Meader.
“I was really pleased with the turnout,” Bird said. “We had people show up to play in a tournament who had never played the game before.”
The tournament featured a “phenomenal day of pickleball,” said John Hamilton, Community Recreation Division Chief with the garrison’s Directorate of Family & MWR, whose division oversees Sports and Fitness programs. “After the success of the first pickleball tournament, a second was only a natural progression.”
First played in 1965 and named after the Cocker Spaniel dog of its inventor, pickleball can be played indoors or outdoors and is roughly a hybrid of tennis, badminton, and ping pong in terms of rules, playing surface, and equipment. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association described recent growth as “meteoric” and “unprecedented” as it deemed pickleball America’s fastest growing sport for the third consecutive year in August 2023, citing a 159% increase in player numbers from 2019 to 2022.
One key factor observers often attribute to the sport’s recent growth is the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many people sought out simple and accessible outdoor activities to stay active. Bird himself played racquetball for 16 years before becoming active in pickleball, after pandemic restrictions shut down his usual courts. But while the circumstances may have led to more exposure, it’s fundamental qualities of the game that seem to get players engaged.
“I think people enjoy the ease of learning it and the ability to play with all ages and skill levels.
It’s a sport that’s easy to pick up but hard to master…that’s what I love about it,” Bird said. “It also provides a great sense of community. I’ve got probably 30 friends from pickleball around here, getting together almost on a weekly basis with a variety of people, and that’s definitely a huge aspect of the game.”
The increased popularity of the game at USAG Stuttgart has led the Sports and Fitness team to have pickleball lines painted onto existing indoor courts, with plans for outdoor options to come, and to make equipment available at on-post fitness centers.
“With so many activities, fitness programs, sports, and groups competing for the same space, we really try to spread ourselves as wide as possible to support everybody how we can,” Hamilton said, recommending that customers with ideas for new offerings still engage with staff to see what’s possible. “It may not happen right away, but at the very least, it builds a foundation. We’re always happy to grow physical activity opportunities for our community members.”
In the meantime, Bird has been working with the Child & Youth Services (CYS) Sports team to offer beginner’s clinics for children and parents in mid-February, something he hopes will provide a non-intimidating environment for new players of all ages to get firsthand experience. Aside from that, he recommends watching “Pickleball 101” videos online, joining the local “Pickleball Nation – Stuttgart” Facebook page, and simply asking to join someone if you see them playing.
“More often than not, people will say, ‘sure, come on, we’ll teach you how to play and get you going,’” he said.
Kieran Murphy, Stuttgart High School Career Practicum student, contributed to this story and provided on-location coverage of the tournament.
This story is found in the First Quarter 2024 Edition of the Stuttgart Citizen magazine.