If you’ve recently seen two or four people batting around what looks like a whiffle ball on what looks like a miniature tennis court using what look like beach paddles, what you’ve actually witnessed is the fastest-growing sport in America: pickleball. Participation shot up 21.3 percent from 2019 to 2020, and Denver is no exception to that trend.
Pickleball was on the rise before COVID-19, says Rachel Heise, the general manager of 32-year-old Game-Set-Match—a local racquet and paddle sports outfitter with four stores in the metro area—but as an outdoor, inherently distanced, low-barrier-to-entry sport, its popularity exploded during the pandemic. When tennis-centric Game-Set-Match surveyed its customers in January, more than a quarter of the nearly 600 respondents said they played the badminton/tennis/ping-pong hybrid, which was invented near Seattle in 1965 by a few dads trying to entertain their kids. “For a while, it seemed very recreational; I categorized it as a beer sport,” Heise says. “That’s not true anymore. There’s a U.S. Open for pickleball, and it’s actually getting quite serious.”
Another stereotype that’s gone by the wayside: that it’s a toned-down version of tennis for seniors who can no longer hack it with a racquet. “I can’t say it’s old people anymore,” says Roxie Augustine, recreation coordinator for Arvada’s Apex Park and Recreation District, who has seen her leagues double in size over the past few years and more than 170 people sign up for Apex’s morning mixers. “It’s all ages.”
If you want to join the dinking, smashing, drop-shotting hordes, here’s the good news: “It’s pretty affordable—you really only need a paddle, some balls, and somewhere to play—and it’s easy to learn,” Heise says (USA Pickleball’s website is a good place to review the rules). “Pretty much anyone of any age can pick it up, and maybe they’re not going to go on the pro pickleball tour, but they can have fun and have a reasonably competitive game.”
Here, we answer what you need to know to enjoy pickleball, Denver’s new favorite sport.
What Do I Need to Play Pickleball?
These range from inexpensive, loud, hard wooden paddles to light, powerful, pricey graphite models, with composites in between. For $39, you can snag the Franklin Activator Starter Kit—two basic paddles and two balls—at any of Game-Set-Match’s locations. If you think you might get hooked, however, consider taking advantage of Game-Set-Match’s demo program: For $5 you can try a paddle out for three days (or $7 for 10 days), and that money goes toward your purchase if you decide to buy. Heise recommends testing out a few back-to-back so you can really feel the differences. For beginners with $79 to spend, she likes the new Babolat XPLR, which has a somewhat rounded grip (as opposed to rectangular), making for an easier transition for those used to swinging tennis racquets. Advanced players should check out the Babolat MNSTR ($139); Heise says testers are raving about its spin-generating capabilities, and it features a dampening pad made of a material the aerospace industry uses to stifle airplane vibrations. (Both Babolat paddles will be available starting May 18.)
The main thing to know here is the difference between indoor and outdoor pickleballs. Indoor pickleballs are larger to help slow them down, while outdoor pickleballs—often in brighter, easier-to-see colors—are smaller in order to move faster against the wind. Game-Set-Match sells a variety (and they’ll match any competitor’s price on a like-for-like item, so you might as well support a local business instead of ordering them from you-know-where).
Special shoes aren’t required, but, as Heise says, playing in runners can be “a good way to roll an ankle.” For lateral stability and a tough rubber sole that won’t mark up the playing surface, any court shoe will do, but there are pickleball-specific kicks out there (such as K-Swiss’ $99 Express light pickleball shoes).
Where Can I Play Pickleball?
Outdoor Pickleball Courts
Within the Mile High City’s boundaries, Denver Parks and Recreation has four outdoor courts each at the following locations:
- Northfield Athletic Complex
- Martin Luther King Jr. Park
- Skyland Park
- Congress Park
- Huston Lake Park
- Bear Valley Park
- Eisenhower Park
These are free and largely first come, first served. (Four more each are in the works for Sloan’s Lake Park and Rosamond Park.) Congress Park in particular is known for its robust, social pickleball scene; grab a friend (although pickleball can be played as a singles game, doubles are much more common), a cooler, and a couple of chairs and head to the green space after work to challenge whomever is currently on a court by hanging your paddles on the fence, which is the pickleball equivalent of calling “next.”
Cherry Creek’s Gates Tennis Center has eight pickleball courts, rentable for $5 per hour daily; for $6 per time (or $40 for a 10-pack), you can reserve a drop-in spot and test your skills against other locals from 1 to 3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
Northwest of the city, Arvada’s Simms Street Recreation Center is a pickleball mecca: 24 outdoor courts are open for free drop-in play from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. daily (nonresidents can pay $10 per hour to rent a court in the mornings; leagues utilize most of the courts in the evenings).
In Littleton, Cornerstone Park’s six courts are ideal for evening play, since they’re lighted while Daylight Savings Time is in effect. You can reserve courts online; pricing varies from $10 per hour to $30 per hour based on residency and off-hours versus prime time.
Pickleball Classes & Leagues
Prior to the pandemic, Denver Parks and Recreation was amping up its pickleball offerings (and hosting two to three tournaments a year) due to the sport’s popularity; it hopes to resume classes and competitions later in 2021. The Gates Tennis Center, Apex’s Simms Street Recreation Center, and South Suburban Parks and Recreation’s Cornerstone Park all host a variety of clinics and leagues throughout the summer. Don’t miss Simms Street’s annual Apex Foundation Memorial Day Pickleball Tournament (May 29 and 30 this year; register by May 21) with a wide range of categories for players 18 and up.
For more, well, flexible league play, register your team by June 1 for Pickleball Flex League’s summer session. You’ll choose a home court facility and skill level when you sign up and be matched with opponents based on those selections; matches (half home, half away) can be played anytime during the season, based on what works for everybody’s schedules.