A.J. Fraties had often told friends he never thought he would see another sport explode in popularity the way racquetball did in the 1970s and ’80s.
But that was before he and five friends began the Bend Pickleball Club in 2010. Just five years later, the club includes nearly 600 registered members.
“I had often told people since then it was so much fun and I’ll never see anything like that again, but racquetball simply never had the traction pickleball will because the barrier to entry in pickleball is almost nothing,” said Fraties, who opened his own chain of racquetball clubs in 1979 and now serves as president of the Bend Pickleball Club. “It’s easy to learn, fun to play, and you’re close to your opponents so there’s hooting and hollering. What’s not to like?”
Even enthusiasts admit they are taken aback at the pace of pickleball’s growth and the fervency new players bring to the game.
Recent adopters often call the sport an “addiction” or “obsession,” and dozens of pickleball players can be found at the courts at Pine Nursery Community Park in Northeast Bend at any time during the week.
Josh Cordell, an avid Bend pickleball player who also coaches the boys tennis team at Summit High School, has begun filming a documentary that aims to answer the question of why people love this sport so much.
“If you talk to someone who likes basketball, then they like basketball,” Cordell said. “But if you talk to someone who likes pickleball, they not only like pickleball, they want to convince you why you need to like it and you need to play it. And they’ll play with you; they want you out there.”
Cordell, who calls his project “The Rise of Pickleball,” said he had wanted to direct a documentary for some time, and the momentum behind pickleball and the sport’s origin in the Northwest made it the perfect subject.
“Part of what makes it a really compelling story is that it’s so fast-growing. yet many people have never heard of it,” Cordell said. “That makes it weird. Lacrosse is a really fast-growing sport, but everyone knows what lacrosse is.”
The sport’s relative obscurity is hardly the only “weird” thing about it. Besides the funny name, pickleball is played with wiffle-like balls and square paddles on a surface a fraction of the size of a tennis court. Cordell compares it to playing table tennis on top of the table and admits it will probably never translate as well to television like tennis and other spectator sports. The game is most popular in large retirement communities — hardly the typical origin of hot new trends.
But as far as Cordell is concerned, all these disparate elements just make for a better story. He and Mark Leckband, his partner in the project, will travel across the Northwest to capture a picture of the game’s status in 2015. Their stops will include the Selkirk Sport’s paddle manufacturing facility in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which remains one of the game’s most popular suppliers despite competition from better-known brands like Wilson. They also plan to film in Seattle, where the sport was created in 1965, and Portland, where an enthusiast holds tournaments in his backyard. Cordell said he has even received an invitation to film a pickleball club in Costa Rica.
“The pickleball community is so small that word spreads really fast,” Cordell said. “So when we sent out an announcement that we were making this documentary I started hearing from people all over the place who said great, it’s about time, we love it.”
Cordell said he wants the documentary to appeal to a wide audience that might not be familiar with pickleball and hopes the film will eventually be distributed on a wide platform such as Netflix or Showtime. But such a project would also be a first for the pickleball community, which has rarely appeared in media aside from occasional newspaper trend pieces and YouTube clips.
“When Josh brought up the idea of the documentary we were thrilled,” Fraties said. “One of the tools we’ve needed for a long time is something that speaks to what is pickleball really today. Sometimes, when we go to a city council or parks and rec department they’ll say, ‘Pickleball? How many people really play pickleball?’ And it’s difficult to explain to them just how meteoric the rise is.”
Cordell is still raising funds for his project using indiegogo.com and word of mouth, but he says he is absolutely certain he and his backers will find a way to finish the project.
“Yeah, we’re in the very early stages and we’ve had really good responses, but we have a long way to go,” Cordell said. “I’m fully committed, so if we don’t meet the fundraising goal we’d just rent out a room at our house or something.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, email@example.com