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With its new facility, a Georgia city hopes to become the place to go for pickleball

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Macon, Ga., made sports history this month when the doors opened to the world's largest indoor pickleball facility. It's part of a plan to establish the city as a destination for the growing sport. Josephine Bennett with Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

JOSEPHINE BENNETT, BYLINE: The parking lot of the Macon Mall has not been this full for years. People have come from all over for Southern Pickleball's Candy Cane Classic.

JOHN ROBERTS: We've got people from as far north as Wisconsin. You know, 650 players are here.

BENNETT: John Roberts is the manager of Rhythm and Rally, a new pickleball facility.

ROBERTS: And it stretches the gamut of certainly the southeast, but also, we probably have 30 to 40 of that number that are your quintessential snowbirds on their way south.

BENNETT: Inside the mall, competitors battle it out on 32 courts covering two floors of an old Belk department store. This was once the biggest mall in Georgia, says Alex Morrison, who works with the city on urban development.

ALEX MORRISON: For an entire generation of Americans, the mall was their town center.

BENNETT: But like malls across the country, this one has seen its share of store closings over the past two decades.

MORRISON: But this infrastructure is still here.

BENNETT: So a mega pickleball center made sense as a way to revive life at the mall. It also plays into Macon's passion for pickleball that's been growing thanks to the conversion of a large outdoor tennis facility in 2017.

It's a Monday night, and all 26 pickleball courts at Tattnall Park are teeming with players, including Jill Vanderhoek, who's only been playing two years but already taking home gold medals. She says the city's investment in pickleball infrastructure made that possible.

JILL VANDERHOEK: Between the access of being able just to pick up the sport, being able to come out and learn and get better and then the courts - like, we have real courts, and you don't necessarily see that sort of investment.

BENNETT: There are now 71 public courts in the city, and low fees make pickleball accessible here. The sport also has cheerleaders, like Paul Midkiff, the president of the Macon Pickleball Association. The former Catholic high school teacher spreads the gospel of pickleball at Tattnall, where he teaches pickleball 101.

PAUL MIDKIFF: I was the tennis player that didn't want to play pickleball - I thought it was kind of beneath me - but got on the court, played for about 2 1/2 hours, went home, took a shower, went to Dick's Sporting Goods, bought two paddles and some balls because I wanted to play it the next day.

BENNETT: According to USA Pickleball, it's the fastest-growing sport in the nation. There are thousands of courts and even pickleball franchises dotting every state, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing. For John Roberts, who runs the mall pickleball courts, Macon's all-in approach to the sport could put the city on the map, just like the masters tournament did to another Georgia town.

ROBERTS: It's been our ambition to make pickleball to Macon what golf is to Augusta, and have this be the premier pickleball location, at least in the southeast of the United States, if not the country.

BENNETT: This go-big-or-go-home approach is reflected in the number of courts here. And at the rate people are playing pickleball in this city, it could just get there. For NPR News, I'm Josephine Bennett in Macon, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONAS BROTHERS SONG, "SUMMER BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Josephine Bennett
Josephine Bennett is the Station Manager at GPB Macon. She spends a lot of time volunteering in animal rescue and at any given time might be fostering dogs and puppies from the shelter in Macon.