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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Pickleball rapidly gaining players locally and nationally

Leo High School tennis coach Josh Grubbs returns a volley during recent game of Pickleball at the school. The Grubbs' family company "Pickleball Rocks" has become the country's largest Pickleball apparel company. Photos by Blake Sebring of The News-Sentinel
Leo High School tennis coach Josh Grubbs returns a volley during recent game of Pickleball at the school. The Grubbs' family company "Pickleball Rocks" has become the country's largest Pickleball apparel company. Photos by Blake Sebring of The News-Sentinel
Zack Grubbs, 32, is one of Indiana's top Pickleball players and tours nationally to complete in tournaments.
Zack Grubbs, 32, is one of Indiana's top Pickleball players and tours nationally to complete in tournaments.
Mark Oswald of Fort Wayne is training with former South Side tennis coach Ryan Keirns to play in Pickleball doubles tournaments.
Mark Oswald of Fort Wayne is training with former South Side tennis coach Ryan Keirns to play in Pickleball doubles tournaments.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

It's the fastest-growing sport in the country

Monday, July 17, 2017 02:04 pm

Growing up in Brookville, Josh and Zack Grubbs played tennis for Franklin County High School and their father and coach Rodney. When they started beating their father, he needed to find some other kind of game which is when some friends introduced him to Pickleball which they had discovered in Florida.

That suggestion changed the entire family's future.

To find more potential opponents, Rodney ironed "Pickleball Rocks" onto a few shirts and wore them whenever he walked to the grocery or post office. When people asked what Pickleball was, he'd suggest they show up at the park Friday night and he'd show them.

Pickleball is sort of a combination of tennis, racquetball and some ping pong, with players using over-sized, flat-surfaced ping pong paddles to smack a wiffle ball about the size of a baseball. Games are played to 11, win by two, and most tournaments play best-of-three. Maybe because four Pickleball courts can fit inside a tennis court, competitive games last about 20 minutes. Doubles play is usually close to the net, while singles play is more like tennis and requires a lot more movement.

"When people ask us, we describe it as ping pong on steroids," Josh Grubbs said. "It's like you are standing on the table hitting it back and forth."

The sport was named by the family who created the game because their dog "Pickles" would chase the ball and run off with it.

Within a short time, Rodney was hooked on the game and started selling "Pickleball Rocks" T-shirts to pay for his tournament travel. Five years ago he approached Zack, a banker working in Huntington, and then Josh, a personal trainer and the tennis coach at Leo, about joining the business. Now the Pickleball Rocks has evolved into the country's largest Pickleball apparel company.

The Grubbs easily admit that's because the sport is exploding across the country. According to the USA Pickleball Association website, there are 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts and 2.5 million players nationally. Both numbers are increasing at about 30 percent every year.

In Fort Wayne, there are more than 300 players scrambling to find enough court time. There are five courts at Lions Park, some more at Stewart McMillen Tennis Center at Tillman Park, a couple of courts at Leo High School, and seven indoor courts at McMillen Park Community Center, the SportONE Parkview Fieldhouse and at Franke Park Pavilion.

"We don't need more players, we need more courts," said Ken Flora, founder of the Fort Wayne Pickleball Club. "Pretty soon the pressure is going to be so much they are going to have to do something about it."

Partly, that's because the playing pool is getting younger. A few years ago 90 percent of players were age 60 and older, but that percentage is now 66 percent and continues dropping as more colleges, high school and middle schools are offering Pickleball as part of their physical education classes. The overall numbers are also increasing dramatically, maybe doubling within a couple of years.

"By the time I invited these two into the clothing company, I had a pretty good idea how good the business was becoming," Rodney Grubbs said. "I was out there on the tournament trail, and I could see it. You could see the tournaments growing year-to-year and the states picking it up. It was a huge leap of faith for the boys, and partially for me, too, because I was putting my neck on the line. I'd have felt terrible it if hadn't worked. Now the sport is blowing up wherever we go and everybody supports our brand."

Zack and Josh Grubbs are likely the best players in Indiana and play in about 20 prize money tournaments across the country annually. That's when they are not representing the company at about 35 tournaments a year. Josh's wife Abby, a former Carroll basketball star, is also a tournament player.

Pickleball Rocks has a 65-page marketing plan that looks ahead for several years. There seem to be plenty of new players and courts coming.

"I'm really looking to create a place where we can have tournaments outside," said Mike Fritsch, current president of Fort Wayne Pickleball. "That doesn't exist in Fort Wayne right now. A lot of cities has 12-court complexes and use Pickleball as an attraction for tourism. One of my next goals is to get the city council and the mayor to a Pickleball event."

For more on local sports, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.

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