Pickleball: the latest tenant to burst into old shopping centers

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It was once a hockey arena, then a badminton club. But most weekday mornings, a dingy space in an industrial strip mall in Scarborough is home to the Progress Pickleball Club.

“Badminton takes up three-quarters of the time,” according to club manager Mike Livie, who said he was constantly looking for more courts to meet growing demand. Their current space in east Toronto only allows pickleball from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Monday to Friday.

“It’s definitely not enough time and (the space) has cut into my hours,” he said.

Livie, 74, has seen pickleball grow in popularity in recent years, quickly moving from a sport played – or even heard of – to a mainstream activity.

“I think the main boost was COVID, and people felt lonely. It’s such a social game and you get to meet people. And it’s a very easy game to play. It’s “It’s an extremely difficult game to play well, but it’s an easy game to play,” Livie said.

“People get into it and there’s repartee. There’s no please shut up because someone is serving or please shut up because the guy swings a golf club.”

An older man in a blue t-shirt stands on a Pickleball court.
Mike Livie, director of the Progress Pickleball Club, says the hours of 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday assigned to his club by a local Scarborough mall aren’t enough to meet demand for the sport. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

According to the most recent data from Pickleball Canada, 11 percent of Canadian households now report that at least one household member plays pickleball and more than 1.3 million people play a racket at least once a month. The biggest area of ​​growth has been among women, with participation increasing by almost 50 percent in the 12 months ending January 2023.

“I’m here for the cardio, I’m here for the exercise. And it’s a mind game. It’s a strategy game,” said Sandra Basu, a recent Pickleball convert and club regular. Scarborough.

“The people are great. I love my teacher. I took lessons at the beginning. And he really sold me on the game and I really enjoyed it because the people are very welcoming and I don’t feel like a beginner,” she said.

A woman in a black t-shirt stands on a pickleball court.
Sandra Basu regularly participates in the Progress Pickleball club. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Pickleball is best described as a miniature version of tennis that incorporates elements of other racquet sports like table tennis and badminton.

Oldest member in 90 years

It is played with rackets and a harder, less bouncy ball and is particularly attractive to older athletes.

“You get a lot of exercise, I can get out of the house and the people are nice, really nice people,” said Vivian Wong, 93, one of Progress Pickleball’s oldest and longest-serving members.

“Every time I make a nice shot, you know, I feel good.”

“I’ve never had particularly fast feet. But I’ve always had fast hands. So for me, it’s great,” adds Livie. “The size of the field is designed for me and there’s not as much running.”

Players converge around the net on a pickleball court in Scarborough, Ontario.
Participants at this Greater Toronto pickleball club say there aren’t enough courts available to play as much as they would like. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Livie said while it is great that the sport is growing, it has created a major problem for her club and others across the country: a lack of places to play.

“There are not enough courts in Canada,” he said, noting that in the winter, permanent courts are rare, with many creating spaces in church basements or setting up ad hoc courts in local community centers.

In summer, many cities have established tennis courts to meet demand, but the number of permanent courts, public or private, is limited.

There is an effort to create more space, while also trying to make the game more appealing to a younger demographic.

And that leads to creative solutions.

“I’ve never seen a sport enter the cultural conversation that Pickleball has over the last couple of years,” said Drummond Munro, co-founder of the Fairgrounds Racket Club.

A large empty gym with blue mats is shown.
This space located in an Etobicoke shopping center once housed a Target store in west Toronto. It is in the process of being converted into a pickleball court. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Munro is at Cloverdale Mall, which opened in the 1950s in Toronto’s western suburbs in a sprawling retail space that once housed a Target store.

All around him, workers are feverishly installing nine new Pickleball courts.

Fairgrounds is partnering with a number of malls in the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver in hopes of bringing dormant spaces back to life while enticing people to visit the mall.

The Cloverdale space is expected to open in mid-February.

“I think there is a supply and demand opportunity right now with pickleball,” Munro said.

“It’s just going to fit what people are looking for right now.”

Two men talk to each other on an empty sports field.
Drummond Munro is the co-founder of Fairgrounds, a company trying to expand access to pickleball facilities in the Toronto area. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Fairgrounds aims to turn the idea of ​​the stuffy racquet club on its head. There will be no dress code or membership fees. Players will pay by the hour. And the emphasis is on comfort and design, including a restaurant and a bar.

“You’ll come in, you’ll be able to rent the paddle by paddle, you’ll be taken to your court,” says Munro. “There’s music, it’s alive, it won’t be sterile, a typical environment walks on eggshells.”

Munro said the mall spaces make sense.

“The people are here, there’s already an inherent population and density, and offering something to the community is just going the extra mile.”

Munro said the club hopes to attract younger members, but will also welcome older members like those who frequent the mall’s food court. They will also welcome people like Progress members who are looking for a welcoming, permanent place to enjoy the game they love.

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