12438230693?profile=RESIZE_710x A crowd of pickleball players waits for courts to open up at Patch Reef Park in Boca Raton. Reserving your place in line is as easy as placing your paddle in a staging rack (below right). Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

Related: Briny Breezes: Pickleball doesn’t have the juice in Briny, where shuffleboard is king 12438231896?profile=RESIZE_400x

Health & Harmony: Joy of pickleball comes with cautionary stories about injuries

 

By Anne Geggis

The smashing success of pickleball has South Palm Beach County municipalities turning public property into rally zones with unprecedented speed.

Even though pickleball paddles weren’t in sight 10 years ago, now nearly 60 dedicated pickleball courts are expected to be online in South County municipal parks before the year is over — not counting another Boca Raton facility due in September 2025 with 14 more pickleball courts. And that’s in addition to other public recreation sites where pickleball lines have been painted on other sports’ courts so they can be used to perfect that chop stroke capable of delivering a devilish backspin.

One row of courts at the Tennis Center at Patch Reef Park in Boca Raton buzzed with paddling activity on a recent Sunday morning — surrounded by tennis courts only occasionally occupied. As he waited his turn for a pickup game, along with nearly two dozen others just before 9 a.m., Mike Gordon, 74, held forth on the difference between a tennis court and a pickleball court.

“A pickleball court has people on it,” joked the semi-retired Delray Beach consultant.

There’s no doubt: The surging demand for pickleball coupled with limited space means some other recreational activities have to give up ground.

Because courts and nets are easily adaptable, tennis is the ripest to lose ground to pickleball — even in Delray Beach, which produced international tennis star and U.S. Open champion Coco Gauff.

12438234087?profile=RESIZE_710xLantana Recreation Center shows the confluence of tennis and pickleball, with the yellow stripe marking the edge of a pickleball court. Mike Lauro of Boynton Beach plays pickleball as John Doren of Lantana goes for tennis.

Among Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, eight public tennis courts have been sacrificed to a sport that combines elements of tennis, table tennis, badminton and squash. Also, weekday sessions of pickup basketball have been curtailed and the constant beat of dribbled basketballs has been replaced by the thwacking sounds of pickleballs in those three cities’ public gyms, with extra lines in place according to pickleball rules.

More than pickleball’s popularity, however, changing plans for public lands have put less popular pursuits in danger of completely disappearing from cities that once hosted them.

On the way out ...
Shuffleboard was played for the last time at a Boynton Beach public recreation area in 2018 when the Madsen Center at 145 SE Second Ave. was turned over to a developer.

Today, that land still stands vacant, behind a chain link fence and screening.

A March staff report shows the latest plans are for 465 multifamily units and nearly 7,000 square feet of retail space — a proposal that won City Commission approval April 2.

Meanwhile, the shuffleboard courts and lawn bowling space at Delray Beach’s Veterans Park are on the way to being sacrificed as second-phase construction of the massive development Atlantic Crossing moves forward.

Samuel Metott, director of Delray Beach’s Parks and Recreation Department, said that the expanse now occupied by shuffleboard courts and lawn bowling at the park, which sits along the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway, is to be paved over in the not-too-distant future to serve as the park’s new parking lot.

Already, Atlantic Crossing construction cranes are at work on giant piles of dirt just west of the park and motorists can no longer turn north into the park from Atlantic Avenue due to construction activity.

“There’s not much of a demand for lawn bowling … it’s a very niche sport,” Metott said. “So there’s two thoughts there. One is, we’re one of the last remaining lawn bowling sites in the state. But part of that is because no one is playing lawn bowling, right?”

Still, the Delray Beach Preservation Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving places significant to the city’s heritage, passed a resolution in December asking the City Commission to halt the deal allowing Edwards Group, Atlantic Crossing’s developer, to proceed with its plan to change Veterans Park.

“It is a small piece of paradise for seniors that should not be paved over to put in a parking lot,” the Preservation Trust’s resolution reads.

The original plan for the parking lot received consensus support from the previous City Commission. But March’s election installed three new members who campaigned on restraining development in the city, invoking the effects of Atlantic Crossing in particular.

So, Delray Beach’s 57-year-old shuffleboard and lawn bowling site stands one commission vote away from oblivion — unless the new majority decides to make a last stand there.

12438233264?profile=RESIZE_584xVeterans Park in Delray Beach is home to one of the few remaining lawn bowling venues in Florida, but it appears likely to become a parking lot. Atlantis resident John Everett bowls as Richard Flater focuses on his own game.

Mayor Tom Carney said he hasn’t seen the proposal and will withhold judgment until he does, but he does say that he voted against Atlantic Crossing when it came up during his first stint on the City Commission back in 2012.

“I thought the project was too big for the site — that’s what I said in 2012,” Carney said, calling Veterans Park “an important city park.”
“I was concerned about traffic and how it would affect the neighborhood.”

Lawn bowling player John Everett, 76, an Atlantis retiree, said he’s hoping and praying he doesn’t have to consider another sport instead of the one that brings him to Veterans Park three times a week, where he tries to hit a small white ball using a weighted, slightly oblong, softball-sized bowling ball, usually alongside 10 other people.

“This is the greatest sport,” he said of the challenge he took up around the time of the pandemic because of the mental and physical workout it offers.

“It’s a sport that I can play if I live to 100,” he said, noting he recently read a report on the outbreak of pickleball injuries among older adults.

Golf holds steady
Private golf clubs might be closing to sprout new homes in South Florida, but public courses remain popular. Tee time reservations for 10 days ahead at the Palm Beach County-run golf courses are often fully booked one minute after they open. And reports from the golf courses in Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Delray Beach show that usage remains steady, if not growing.

With 30 years as an elected member of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District Board of Commissioners, Bob Rollins said he has heard pitches about ballfields and pleas for a skate park in addition to numerous other kinds of sporting advocacy. Only one group, he says, has matched the passion of pickleball petitioners during his tenure — lacrosse players. And now turf on three fields at Patch Reef Park is not getting the lacrosse players that were anticipated, Rollins said.

Rollis said that he had concerns that adding 18 new covered pickleball courts at Patch Reef Park was excessive, but ultimately the vote for it was unanimous.
 

“I think we’re going to wake up four, five years from now and say, ‘My God, what did we do? Why did we build all these pickleball courts?’” Rollins said.

He experienced some backlash for the sentiment.

“The pickleball people ... I think some of them need to get rabies shots,” he joked.

A passion for pickleball
That fervor is reflected in usage reports. Delray Beach’s show that pickleball games rose from a count of 9,729 adult plays in 2018 to 15,459 adult plays in 2019, an increase of nearly 60% in that year alone. In the last full year reported, the number of adult pickleball plays was at 32,650, representing a 235% increase in adult pickleball plays from five years ago.

The idea that pickleball is a fad that will go the way of racquetball produces snorts of derision from players assembled on court. Racquetball’s status has been in flux.

The county plans to repair some racquetball courts that were falling into disrepair at Caloosa Park in Boynton Beach this summer if the County Commission signs on. But when it comes to the two racquetball courts at Delray Beach’s Pompey Park, parks and recreation head Metott says, “I don’t know the last time they were utilized as such.”

12438233070?profile=RESIZE_400xLisa Lagrega, 64, who splits time between Highland Beach and Long Island, said she played in U.S. Tennis Association events, but now a herniated neck disk and other injuries make pickleball a better fit. While players may experience a variety of injuries from pickleball, Lagrega finds the strokes not as hard on her body. She also loves how it brings together all ages and skills, she said.

“It gets me off the couch, away from the news,” she said. “The second I get off (the court), I’m in line for another game.”

Lagrega, who plays at Patch Reef Park, said she is at the courts for five hours at a time.
Lantana marked its tennis courts with pickleball lines years ago to accommodate the emerging demand for the game. But John Doren, 63, and his wife, Laura, 57, both self-employed, aren’t joining in.

“I’m seeing a pingpong table,” Laura Doren said of the pickleball lines on the dual-purpose tennis court.

Shortly after they walked off the tennis court, their place was taken by two younger men who had been practicing with pickleball paddles on the blacktop adjacent to the courts.

Meanwhile, there are rumblings of a new trend that’s taking Miami by storm, and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District is ready to try it out. Two padel courts — something like pickleball with a Latin American influence — are going to be included in the new facility at North Park, a private-public venture built on the former site of the Ocean Breeze Golf Club.

“Padel has great growth potential,” enthused Craig Ehrnst, who has been serving on the recreational district board since 2014.

Correction: An earlier online version of this article, which also appeared in the May 2024 print edition, incorrectly described the position of Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District Commissioner Bob Rollins regarding 18 covered pickleball courts at Patch Reef Park. Rollins voted in favor of the courts.

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