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Friday, March 25, 2016

Pickleball and Hilton Head

The Hilton Head newspaper - The Island Packet - had an article about the growth of pickleball in clubs and rec centers. It piqued my interest for several reasons. 

First, I regularly vacation on Hilton Head and have done so for about 20 years. Until recently, pickleball play has been nonexistent except for private clubs like Sun City. But that is changing.
Second, the article discusses the Low Country Pickleball Classic, a tournament in which I played last year and am scheduled to play this year. It is closed to new entries due to its popularity, but should not be overlooked in the future by anyone who likes pickleball in resort areas.

Third, the article discusses the value that pickleball and tournaments bring to a community. This was a topic I recently discussed with Hendersonville area parks management at a Meet and Greet hosted by Henderson County Tourism and Development. 

I purposely did not go into much detail above because I would like the article to tell the story. Please find the Island Packet article below.

Resorts, rec centers invest in pickleball

Game offers an additional revenue stream in addition to tennis

USA Pickleball Association says there are almost 2.5 million people playing the sport

Low Country Pickleball Classic received more than $4,000 in ATAX funding from city of Hardeeville

John Kerr doesn’t know what the future will hold but thinks it will be profitable.

Kerr, the Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center’s director, leaned against a fence last Monday, watching four people whack a wiffle ball back and forth. Eight pickleball courts reflected in the lenses of his sunglasses.

A little over a month ago, there were just four pickleball courts. And in early summer 2015, there were none.

“It’s been a totally new source of revenue for us,” Kerr said.

How much more he won’t say — the pickleball program is relatively new.

In February, the Dunes’ tennis pro shop sold 49 pickleball paddles, ranging from $60 to $110 apiece, Kerr said. During that same span, the pro shop sold about five tennis rackets.

Pickleball hasn’t detracted from tennis, Kerr said. Most of the players he sees are non-tennis players, former tennis players and golfers.

Pickleball, which is somewhere between tennis and ping pong, is one of the fastest-growing sports in America, according to the USA Pickleball Assocation. Almost 2.5 million people play. USAPA lists two area pickleball clubs — Hilton Head Pickleball and Sun City Hilton Head Pickleball Club —and the sport’s converts will tell you that people will travel to play.

“This is a sport that’s not going away,” said Bob Rozek, Hilton Head Island Recreation Center’s recreation director. “When I talk to my buddies that travel, they’re looking for a place to go.”

Rozek noticed visitors to the area were looking for places to play pickleball, especially from January to April. In March 2015, the center began offering a dues-driven pickleball program.

“For (2015), we ended up having about 50 (dues-paying members),” Rozek said.

That number has since increased to 84, Rozek said last Monday, despite the center doubling its annual membership fee, which is now $50. It takes between $3,000 and $4,000 a year to operate the program, Rozek said, adding that the program pays for itself.

The Sun City Hilton Head Pickleball Club will host the third edition of the Low Country Pickleball Classic beginning April 15 in Bluffton. More than 200 players came to last year’s tournament — and more than 60 percent of those traveled from farther than 50 miles to play.

“Last year we raised $6,000 for two charities,” Reuben Oder, the club’s vice president and 2016 tournament director, said last Monday. “People will actually travel — they’ll look for pickleball where they’re traveling.”

Oder and his organization applied for and received more than $4,000 in ATAX funding from the city of Hardeeville for this year’s Low Country Classic. The funds, designated for programs that promote tourism and attract visitors, have been used to promote the tournament and advertise area hotels, Oder said. Six of the eight hotels recommended by the tournament are in Hardeeville.

Oder expects this year’s tournament to generate between $4,000 and $6,000 for charity. As of last Monday morning there were more than 200 players registered for the 2016 Low Country Classic.

“Pickleball is almost like a cult,” said Mark Anders, Palmetto Dunes’ head pickleball pro. “People who play it love it. I think there’s probably more branding opportunities than you’ve seen heretofore.”

Last Monday, Anders stood near Kerr at the Palmetto Dunes tennis center and watched the pickleball doubles match. If there’s any downside to pickleball, he said, it’s the noise. The $2 plastic wiffle ball makes a loud POP! when whacked with a paddle. That might get on some golfers’ and tennis players’ nerves.

But Anders highlights a different noise: laughter.

The game is easy to pick up, cheap and fun, he said. It’s infectious. He estimates he’s already instructed 400 people — at $20 per person — in the Dunes’ pickleball beginner clinics since Jan. 1, when he was hired as the center’s pickleball pro.

Palmetto Dunes began offering pickleball vacation packages in February, said Karen Kozemchak, the resort’s marketing director. Like Kerr, she said it’s too early to gauge the popularity of those packages, which are minimum three-night stays that range from $85 to $160 per person, depending on the season.

But the resort seems to be banking on pickleball.

“Here, what you see is one tennis court,” Anders said, gesturing to the green hardcourt where the pickleball doubles match continued. If you rented out one tennis court, you’d have maybe four people on it. Turn it into four pickleball courts, and you can now rent four pickleball courts.”

The tennis center operates 23 clay tennis courts and charges from $20 to $35 per hour of court time. It has eight pickleball courts, which cost $15 to $20 per hour.

Palmetto Dunes’ eight pickleball courts are currently laid out atop the tennis center’s hard courts, which Anders said were “largely unused” before. The tennis courts’ lines and nets are still there. But the lines will be removed around July, Kerr said.

The nets, he said, might stay. They offer good barriers between the pickleball courts.

So you don’t have to chase after errant shots as much.

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