Pickleball Dominates Florida Community

When Chad Edwards and Simone Jardim uprooted their life in Michigan and moved to Naples two years ago, the husband and wife were betting on pickleball.

Edwards ran a baseball academy in East Lansing, while Jardim was the women’s tennis coach at Michigan State. But after playing in the 2016 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, the couple – already addicted to the sport – saw the game’s potential in Southwest Florida.

The bet paid off. Edwards and Jardim now run the academy at the largest pickleball facility in the country at East Naples Community Park. They’re at the forefront of helping the sport infuse with the DNA of Naples.

“With the community of players 

down here … it was just a given (pickleball) is going to continue to grow,” Edwards, 36, said. “There’s no sign of it stopping.”

The U.S. Open runs for seven days at East Naples Community Park, ending Saturday. With 2,012 registered participants from 42 states and 21 countries, it is the largest tournament in the history of pickleball.

The tournament is a boon for Collier County, bringing in thousands of visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact. However, pickleball will roll on once the U.S. Open ends.

At the U.S. Open Pickleball Academy, about 300 people show up to play matches every day. Edwards, director of operations, said the academy has nearly tripled in size since it began.

The academy started in September 2016 with a client list of 670 people. Less than two years later, there are more than 1,800 clients, Edwards said.

From ABPickleball Finds a Home on New, Existing Outdoor Courts

Jardim, 38, is the head instructor and director of the academy. She’s also won every women’s singles pro title since the U.S. Open began, three in a row since 2016. Last year Jardim was a triple crown winner at the Open, taking titles in pro singles, pro doubles and pro mixed doubles.

Local players call Naples the Pickleball Capital of the World. Part of the reason the sport, popular for decades among seniors, has taken off is because of the area’s high concentration of retirees.

However, Naples also has the benefit of being a big tennis town with its country clubs and warm weather (plus the retirees with time to play). Tennis players can easily transition to pickleball, played with paddles and a wiffeball on a badminton-sized court, and Edwards said they are.

“We get a lot of tennis converts (in the summer) when there are not as many people in town,” Edwards said. “In tennis you have to find someone to play with. (At the academy) you can come down by yourself, and we have a system set up where you can rotate into a game without having to call three other people (for doubles).”

Collier County has fully embraced pickleball. County commissioners Penny Taylor and Donna Fiala have been behind the U.S. Open from the start. Taylor has been a big advocate of sports tourism, and the pickleball tournament is the largest of such events in terms of participation.

The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates this year’s U.S. Open will generate $3 million in visitors spending in the county. That includes a total of 10,000 nights of stays in local hotels, condos and campgrounds.

“This is the big one,” Taylor said Wednesday while attending the tournament. “(It’s) the one we all want to reach for, all want to emulate. We don’t take this for granted. We love it.”

The county has continued to invest in pickleball by building courts. East Naples Community Park now has 54 courts, Veterans Park has 16, and Fleischmann Park has eight.

The Villages near Orlando is also among the country’s biggest pickleball hotspots. The community has 188 courts, but only 16 at any one location. Factoring in the town’s roughly 80 county courts and the courts going up in private communities, Naples could have more overall courts than The Villages now.

The biggest expansion of the sport in Southwest Florida is coming outside of the parks and in neighborhoods, developments, country clubs and resorts. Any place where a tennis court could be, pickleball courts are going in.

Jonathan Morton owns Mor-Sports, a local company that installs all manner of sports courts. Mor-Sports constructed all the courts at East Naples Community Park. The company also constructs courts at communities all over the area.

Morton estimated that 75 percent to 80 percent of the new jobs his company gets are for pickleball courts.

“Al the plans for new communities coming across my desk include pickleball,” Morton said. “It’s growing at a phenomenal speed.”

Mor-Sports is even converting many tennis courts to pickleball – either putting down lines on the existing court or ripping it up completely to make permanent pickleball courts. Morton said he’s even getting orders to put pickleball lines on basketball courts.

Pickleball in communities had led to young players taking up the game. Edwards said he’s seeing more and more people in their 30s and 40s come to the academy. The game also is being taught in some Collier County schools’ gym classes.

“Pickleball will start growing with the younger crowd,” Edwards said. “It’s a lot easier and a lot faster for a 4-, 5-, 6-year-old to pick up a paddle and hit a pickleball compared with picking up a tennis racket and trying to hit a ball. The (pickleball) also just happens to bounce perfectly at waist height for the young kids.”

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