Pickleball Rising on Maui, But Are There Enough Places to Play?

Seventy-seven-year-old Ron Lau’s days of surfing and diving for volleyballs at Kanaha Beach are over. The Haiku resident’s knees and other joints just can’t handle the strain. Still, he craves the thrill of competition and the camaraderie of sports.Now, he’s a pickleballer. “It crosses generations,”…...
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Seventy-seven-year-old Ron Lau’s days of surfing and diving for volleyballs at Kanaha Beach are over. The Haiku resident’s knees and other joints just can’t handle the strain. Still, he craves the thrill of competition and the camaraderie of sports.Now, he’s a pickleballer.

“It crosses generations,” Lau said. “It’s for everyone. I play. My wife, surprisingly, loves it. My daughter and her boyfriend and our grandchildren play.”

They aren’t alone. Pickleball’s popularity is rising across Maui and nationwide. According to the USA Pickleball Association, instead of declining as anticipated during the pandemic, participation surged by 21.3 percent in  between 2019 and 2020, making it the fastest-growing sport in the United States. Among the roughly 4.1 million active players as of 2020, nearly one million play eight or more times a year. Three out of every four are older than 55.

Vanity Fair reports that the game “has been embraced by Larry David, Melinda Gates, Jamie Foxx [and] the Kardashians.”

“I felt the first time I walked on the [court], there isn’t a steep learning curve,” actor Owen Wilson, a part-time Paia resident, told NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” last August.

In case you’re unfamiliar, pickleball (or “pukaball” as it’s sometimes called locally) is essentially a hybrid of tennis, badminton, and ping-pong, played with lightweight wood, graphite or composite paddles and a perforated plastic ball. The playing surface is half the size of a tennis court and divided by a net, 36 inches on the sidelines and 34 inches in the middle. The rules are simple and familiar: serve, return serve, keep the ball in bounds. Players of varying skill levels can hold their own in doubles matches. It’s possible to learn the game—and become proficient—in a few minutes.

It provides a relatively low-impact aerobic workout and it’s accessible to keiki, weekend warriors, and especially kupuna. A 2018 study by Western Colorado University found that seniors who play pickleball at least three times a week saw improvement in blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.

The cost of entry is low. Paddles start at around $20, though, as with any sport, you can spend a lot more—upwards of $150 for the fancy ones.

The balls are similar to the ones your kid might whack around with a plastic bat in the backyard. Gym shorts, decent tennis shoes, and a t-shirt are the uniform of choice. And the court, as mentioned, is relatively small.

The players are as fanatical as surfers, paddlers or other sports diehards. In our interviews with them, they made their perspective as plain as a Wiffle ball to the nose.

“This game is what keeps me going, sometimes,” said Lau.

“It’s great exercise, an opportunity to socialize,” said Ann Pitcaithley of Wailuku. “It crosses boundaries and cultures.”

But there’s a problem, Maui pickleball enthusiasts claim: there aren’t enough places to play.

There are  dedicated and shared pickleball courts in Kihei, Wailuku, Lahaina, Napili, and Makawao, some set aside for pickleball, some requiring portable nets, and some shared with tennis players who take precedence.

Yet, multiple players told Maui Times, the facilities don’t nearly match the demand. The game’s social aspect makes taking your turn part of the fun, players said, but not when dozens of people are waiting.

Todd Richter, 65, of Pukalani worked for the county parks department for nearly 15 years and started playing pickleball about three decades ago. Now, he’s a sanctioned “ambassador” for the sport.

“This game is hugely popular,” said Richter. “I kept telling the department, there’s a wave that’s coming. Let’s be proactive instead of reactive. And here we sit, all of our facilities are overwhelmed with players, and there’s just nowhere for them to play.”

Richter calls the cracked, aging courts in Waipuilani, “downright unsafe.”

Upcountry, Lau says he’s been beating his head against the wall trying to get pickleball lines painted on the courts at the Haiku Field House. He said he and his wife volunteered to do it themselves, to no avail.

“My main concern is the parks department playing these silly games with us,” said Lau. “It’s the only place on the island that has a cover to play pickleball. What they’re telling us is that the Field House is built for basketball and volleyball. Well, when the Field House was built there wasn’t even pickleball on Maui. Times have changed.”

Players complain about a lack of courts and long wait times. (Photo by Laurie Loney)

Undeniably, there is tension between the pickleball and tennis crowds.

“The tennis community may be feeling a little threatened,” said Ralph Gorgoglione, owner of Kihei’s Maui G Sports and founding member of the Maui Tennis & Pickleball Association. “There’s a little bit of animosity and confusion going on.”

On a regulation tennis court, a maximum of four players could play a doubles game. Pickleball players, on the other hand, can play two doubles games in the same space.

“There have been many requests made [to the county], but there are no designated pickleball courts in Central Maui,” said Pitcaithley. There are two shared tennis courts at War Memorial Stadium. That’s not enough to match the growing demand, she said.

Tennis players contacted by Maui Times did not want to go on the record. Some, especially those 60 years old and older, said they enjoy pickleball. But, they added, the game infringes on their court time and is a noisier, intrusive sport. Tennis, despite a national downtick, is a more popular activity (see sidebar), even with pickleball’s ascendance.

The county’s inaction may have less to do with anti-pickleball malice and more with unfamiliarity. At an Oct. 21 meeting of the County Council’s Human Concerns and Parks Committee, members expressed confusion over what, exactly, pickleball is. At one point, when discussing a no-volley portion of the court referred to as “the kitchen,” Councilmember Tamara Paltin asked, seemingly seriously, “Does it have anything to do with cooking?”

A no-volley zone in the middle of the court is commonly referred to as “the kitchen.” (Image courtesy of PickleballGuide.net)

“We want to be fair and equitable across the board. We have all kinds of groups that want other things,” said deputy parks director Mary Kielty. “We have soccer players that want more soccer fields. We have swimmers. We have baseball players that want more fields. We’ve got basketball that wants more gyms. There are quite a few facets of recreation that need and want things. I think right now, [pickleball] is just a hot topic. But we certainly aren’t ignoring it.”

Many sports lack adequate, well-maintained facilities, Gorgoglione agreed. But, he added, there’s a common cause.

“We’re advocates for [all] sports. Many pickleball players are former tennis players, or current tennis players,” he said. “There are a very fair percentage of players who play both sports. It is very possible for them to coexist.”

Why ‘Pickleball’?

Pickleball traces its origins to Bainbridge Island, about nine miles west of Seattle.

The sport was created by former Republican Congressman and Washington State Lt. Governor Joel Pritchard and his friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, using a badminton court, ping-pong paddles, and a Wiffle ball.

In 1976, Tennis magazine published an article about pickleball. Fourteen years later the USA Pickleball Association was founded.

So what about the name? There are differing accounts.

One holds that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, named the game after the “pickle boat,” a crew-team term that refers to a vessel of mismatched rowers. Another claims it was named after the Pritchard family dog, Pickles, who would frequently make off with the ball. The second version has been confirmed by McCallum and his children.

Both stories may be apocryphal. Either way, the name stuck.

Where and When to Play

The following county-designated locations are available for pickleball:

Waipuilani Park in Kihei, 7 a.m.-7p.m. daily, eight dedicated courts.

Upper tennis courts at War Memorial complex in Wailuku, Tuesday-Thursday 5 p.m.-8 p.m., two shared tennis courts with pickleball lines painted. There is also a group that plays Friday and Saturday, 7:30-11 a.m., but that is not a county-designated time, therefore they are required to abide by tennis court rules (i.e. must give up court to tennis players after set time limit and wait for next available court).

Lahaina Civic Center, 7 a.m.-8p.m. daily, four dedicated courts.

Napili Park, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, four dedicated courts.

Kula Community Center, Tuesday-Thursday mornings 8 a.m.-noon, four tape-lined courts and portable nets.

Eddie Tam Gym in Makawao, Wednesday 9-11 a.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-noon, three courts, portable nets.

Beginners are welcome, and experienced players say they are generally happy to teach newcomers the basics.

Pickleball vs. Tennis: Nationwide Growth and Popularity

Tennis: 

2014: 17.9 million active U.S. players

2017: 17.8 million

2020: 17.6 million

Pickleball:

2014: 2.1 million active U.S. players

2017: 2.8 million

2020: 4.1 million

Sources: USA Pickleball Association, United States Tennis Association

Jacob Shafer

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