Pickleball is Beginning to Make a Racket in Nebraska

Jan. 24, 2022, 7:18 p.m. ·

Pickleball Equipment. Three paddles on a wooden floor with an orange ball.
Three types of pickleball rackets and one pickleball. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Eddie Brown is hooked on pickleball…which, depending on his schedule, he likes to play one to three times a day and stream for spectators on his Facebook page, Pickleball Nebraska. Today, he’s playing at the Speedway Village Sports Complex in south Lincoln.

“Monday through Friday, we have a 5:30 a.m. group that plays until 7:15 a.m. with this group here from 8: 30 to 11:30," Brown said. "And then in the evening, we generally play at Genesis.” 

Pickleball was invented in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington. It’s commonly described as a combination of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, played on a court about a third the size of a tennis court.

Pickleball Enthusiast Eddie Brown standing next to a court holding a racket.
Pickleball enthusiast Eddie Brown says, when time allows, he likes to play up to three times a day. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

The sport is exploding in popularity.

According to the United States Pickleball Association, participation increased more than 20% between 2019 and 2021. The organization estimates there about 4.2 million pickleball players across the country.

“It doesn't matter, your size or athletic prowess, if you understand the fundamentals of where your feet should be, where the ball should be, you can be competitive," Brown said.

Bill Roehrs sits on the board of Pickleball Lincoln Inc. and is the United States Pickleball Association's ambassador for Nebraska, a role he’s held since 2019. He started playing in 2009, and ever since, it’s been his mission to help expand the sport, especially in Lincoln.

Bill Roerhs in a bright blue t-shirt and dark shorts on a court holding a racket with another man in the background.
Bill Roerhs, dressed athletically, is alert and ready for his opponents serve. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

When we started the club, it was basically three of us," Roehrs said. "But five years ago, when we first got Peterson Park open, we had about 20 members in our club. And as of today, we have 755 members, so it's growing exponentially.”

One of the biggest challenges to the sport today? Finding enough space. Roerhs says even with 30 pickleball courts already in Lincoln, more are needed to feed the growing number of players.

“We haven't even tapped the after five o'clock population yet," Roehrs said.

Nowhere is this appetite for expansion, and the tension it can cause, more pronounced than in the central Nebraska town of North Platte; population, just under 24,000.

The tennis courts at the city’s Cody Park have seen better days. In many places,  chunks of the blue squared concrete look as though they’ve been ripped out of the ground, making play challenging at best.

Barb Baldridge is president of North Platte PickleBall and the city’s USPA ambassador. “It has caused many, many injuries to high school athletes," Baldridge said. "It literally needs to be closed down.”

Tennis courts with deep concrete ruts through the middle of them.
Damaged tennis courts in North Platte's Cody Park. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Pickleball)

Her organization plans to raise $125,000 toward transforming several of the tennis courts there into dedicated pickleball courts space.

“With the growth and the demand, you know, your best bet is to to find a location that already has a foundation," Baldridge said. "A lot of these courts aren't being used.”

Baldridge says she needs the space as her organization continues to flourish, going from 10 members in 2019 to around 120 today.

“We have the junior tournaments and now we're also adding the multi-generational divisions that are being offered with the Cornhusker State Games. So with that, the growth for us in Midwest Nebraska is just amazing,“ Baldridge said.

Woman in t-shirt and shorts hitting a pickleball with a paddle on a court. Several other courts and players are in the background.
North Platte Pickleball president and United States Pickleball Association ambassador Barb Baldrige competes in a pickleball tournament. (Photo Courtesy of Barb Baldridge)

Not everyone is happy with the situation at Cody Park. In a letter to the editor in a local newspaper, Mary Johnson writes that the courts have seen plenty of use in the past and would see more if they were repaired. The letter reads, in part, “ I’m glad pickleball has so many players and is an up-and-coming sport, but why take away tennis courts when the pickleball courts could be built elsewhere.”

Pete Volz is a North Platte city councilman and says, while nothing has been approved, the council is looking at taking the opposite approach. He says there are talks to build tennis courts at the local high school, while making way for pickleball courts at Cody Park.

“We don't want to diminish tennis, but we do want to add recreational opportunities for our citizens with pickleball as well,” Volz said.

Conceptual drawing of North Platte Pickleball for pickleball and tennis courts for Cody Park in North Platte.
A conceptual design for renovated space at North Platte's Cody Park. As it stands, the project would result in the elimination of six of the park's eight tennis courts to make way for nine pickleball courts. (Photo courtesy of North Platte Pickleball)

Andrea Jensen is a director at Nebraska Pickleball which runs out of the Union Bank and Trust Sports Complex in Elkhorn. She says even though the complex's arenas are designed for basketball and volleyball, she’s had no trouble renting out courts for pickleball.

“I think people are realizing that, you know, this is kind of a growing sport, and that they can take advantage of kind of this boom, right now, in order to get some more revenue for a facility that they already have," Jensen said. "Now I get a lot of calls from families, and moms and dads that want to play with their little kids and get them into the sport, which I think never happened before.”

However, she had hard pushback from the tennis community centered around pickleball players desire to build pickleball courts over tennis courts.

"One example of that is Prairie Lane, over off of 100 and 20th," Jensen said. "They redid all the tennis courts there and turned them into pickleball courts, and they only left one tennis court.”

Pickleball informal poll with towns listed and players in two columns comparing 2017 and 2021.
The results of an informal poll conducted by Bill Roehrs estimating the growth of pickleball across Nebraska.

Mike Saniuk is a tennis instructor at Miracle Hill Golf Course in Omaha and resists the idea that there could be a brewing turf war between the sports. He says while pickleball is undeniably popular, he says it's all about flexibility, noting many play both sports, especially as tennis players begin to age and are looking for something less strenuous. He adds Miracle Hills has also given thought to expanding into pickleball.

“ I think in our industry, just like in any industry, you have to adapt with time. There are a lot of clubs here in Omaha that I know of, specifically the country club scene that definitely dabbles in pickleball lessons.”

Barb Baldridge in North Platte sees things differently. She can see a future where pickleball overtakes tennis in popularity.

“It's not that we want to take over, it's just supply and demand,”

Only time will tell, but if growth remains consistent, soon the ball may be in pickleball's court.

Editor's note: A previous audio version of this story stated an informal survey counted more than 27,000 pickleball players across the state. The survey actually counted more than 2,700. We apologize for the error in the previous reporting.