A sport that is rising in popularity in Alaska and across the country is pickleball. When I mention that I play pickleball, I typically get two different reactions. “Oh, I love to play pickleball” or “what is pickleball?” If you haven’t played yet, or already play and wonder where the sport is going in our state, there is a lot of new information about this fun sport in Southcentral Alaska.
What is Pickleball?
Pickleball is a simple court game that is played on a court (either a pickleball court or a modified tennis court or badminton court), with a net in the middle. It is played with a perforated plastic ball (similar to a whiffle ball) and a composite or wooden paddle that is about twice the size of a ping pong paddle. You can either play singles or doubles. Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island by three dads who wanted to find something for their bored kids to do, so they kept the rules simple. Today, there are thousands of indoor and outdoor courts in every state. USA Pickleball reports that more than 3.3 million Americans now play the sport, with over a million of those playing more than eight times a year. The number of people playing pickleball grows every year. The game is definitely gaining more followers in Alaska.
How Do You Play?
Anyone who has ever played badminton, tennis, racquetball or ping pong will get the hang of pickleball quickly. You serve underhand from behind the baseline diagonally cross-court. You only win a point when your team is serving. If you lose the point during your serve, it’s side out and the next person (your teammate, or the other team) gets to serve. Most games are played to 11 points, and you have to win by 2, although tournament games can go to 15 or 21. The area within 7 feet on both sides of the net is called the kitchen. You cannot enter the kitchen to hit a ball unless it bounces in the kitchen. That keeps a player from volleying (hitting the ball on a fly) right at the net.
Where Can I Play Pickleball in Southcentral Alaska?
There are several hundred people who are already playing pickleball in the Anchorage and Kenai Peninsula areas. An Anchorage email list has more than 200 people who have subscribed to it. Players in Sterling report up to 30 people during peak season in the summer. That includes players who come from nearby towns such as Anchor Point, Kasilof, Kenai, Nikiski and Soldotna. Homer has about 30-40 regular players year-round, but about 100 people on their mailing list.
The Anchorage Pickleball Club was formed at the end of the summer of 2020 with a goal of promoting and developing pickleball in the Municipality of Anchorage. They had 122 members in the first year and will begin recruiting for more members this spring. They just had their first newsletter go out, they have a Facebook page and a website is under construction. The group recently met with the Municipality to advocate for more places to play.
“We don’t want to compete with tennis players, so we’ve asked the city to designate some of the under-utilized tennis courts in the city that pickleballers can use,” says Linda Klinkhart, who is on the board for the new Club. “We have portable nets and can either chalk or tape the pickleball court lines on existing tennis courts, but would love to have courts with painted lines for easier drop-in play.
Up to now, Taku Park has been the primary outdoor venue for pickleball players within the Municipality. The Club hopes to hold Pop-Up events this coming summer. A Memorial Day weekend BBQ is already being organized and the group hopes to offer designated playing times this summer. Some will be mixers, where you just show up and play with different partners and others will allow you to bring a partner and compete. The outdoor ice arenas at Sullivan Arena also could be a place that pickleball courts could be set up. The group is starting small, trying to advocate for use of existing courts or empty asphalt, but the ultimate goal would be to have a dedicated pickleball facility to build some courts. The Anchorage Pickleball Club is offering some beginner and junior (ages 8-16) clinics this summer and hopes to host some tournaments. Signup for the clinics at www.anchoragepickleball.com or send an email to email@example.com. Follow their Facebook page for the latest information.
“I will be instructing at the beginner and junior clinics in June and July,” says Ben Cuaresma, Ambassador for the USA Pickleball Association and Pickleball Director at The Alaska Club. “It’s really important that we start getting younger people into the game, it’s really a sport for people of all ages.”
In the winter, there are several places to play pickleball on indoor courts including at Spenard Rec Center, Fairview Rec Center ($5 drop-in fee), at O’Malley Sports Center (join a league or come for open play for $5) and at The Alaska Club South and East (members only).
The Sterling Community Center, located at 38377 Swanson River Road in Sterling is the center of pickleball for many residents of the central Kenai Peninsula. They play on three courts in the gym in the winter, and in summers they can set up four courts on the hockey rink outside. It costs $3 to play, or you can get a $150 membership.
We have a core group of about a dozen people who always play, then it really expands in the summer, “ says Char Oakes, a regular Sterling player. “Most of our players are in their 60’s or 70’s and are retired, but we welcome anyone who would like to play.”
Oakes says what she really likes about pickleball is that if you play doubles, you don’t have to move as much as you do while playing tennis. She watched a tourney five years ago and was hooked. Oakes notes that local players also play for a couple of months in the summer at Central Peninsula Sports Center. That window for play is limited, because they can only play when the ice rink is out for the summer. Then, they are playing on a cement floor so the ball bounces really fast.
Scheduled pickleball windows at Sterling Community Center are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10am to 12 noon. Call (907) 262-7224 for more information.
Homer has two venues to play pickleball. The HERC is an old school gym with wooden floors and three courts. Run by the City of Homer, some of the more hard- core players can be found at this venue. You can make a reservation to play there seven-days-a-week. They also have specific pickleball times on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays for a two-hour window. Cost is $3. Call Recreation Manager Mike Ilig at (907) 235-6090 for more information.
The South Peninsula Athletic & Recreation Center (SPARC) is another venue that is offers pickleball, as well as other classes and activities. It is Homer’s first multi-sport indoor sports facility, and it’s run by a nonprofit group. Players use a dense foam ball because a regular pickleball won’t bounce on the floor. There are four courts, but they’re in rough shape so players in Homer are hoping the floor will be torn up in lieu of a concrete slab in the future. More recreational players can be found at the SPARC. There is a fee to play. Learn more at https://sparchomer.org.
As for outdoors, Year-Round Homer Player Janie Leask says there are courts at Homer High School that are lined out for pickleball use, although they are traditionally used for tennis. There also are some old courts in Kachemak City that have been patched, and even though they’re rough, they’re used a lot in the summer. Homer Pickleball has a Facebook page that is updated regularly. Leask says Homer hosted the “End of the Road” Pickleball tournament for two years, but it was not held in 2020 and won’t be held in 2021.
“I love pickleball because it’s great exercise, an outlet for my competitive spirit and it’s very social,” says Leask.
If you’re interested in getting involved with Pickleball in Anchorage, there are openings on the Anchorage Pickleball Club board of directors and they will need help as they meet with Community Councils and other groups to raise awareness and acceptance of the sport. There also are Alaskans playing pickleball on Alaska’s North Slope, and in the Mat-Su Valley and Fairbanks. The Alaska Senior Games has pickleball, as does the National Senior Games, and Alaska is well-represented. Another good resource to follow the sport is www.pickleballchannel.org.
Klinkhart sums it up well when she explains why she loves pickleball so much.
“It’s a sport that even as I head into my 60s, I feel like I can improve and get better,” says Klinkhart.
“There are so many sports that I still want to play, like volleyball and softball, but my body just can’t do what it used to do. With pickleball, anyone of any age can learn how to play, and can improve over time. It keeps you in shape, it’s really fun and you meet a lot of great people along the way.” What’s not to like about that?