St. Pete adds pickleball courts; is it enough?
Despite previous disagreements, local pickleball enthusiasts and St. Peterburg city officials are now working together to refine plans as the sport’s popularity continues to soar.
Kevin Cavanaugh, president of the St. Petersburg Pickleball Association, hopes to collaborate with the mayor, city council and the parks and recreation department’s leadership to continue developing infrastructure that keeps pace with the growing number of pickleball players. Association members have expressed the benefits and facilities needed, for what Sports Illustrated called “the fastest-growing sport in America,” at the last three council meetings.
Cavanaugh recently met with Bryan Eichler, assistant director of parks and recreation, to discuss the city’s plans for the sport. He relayed the “awesome news” that four St. Petersburg parks will feature 16 new pickleball courts by the end of March 2023, a 64% increase.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword because there are so many people playing,” he said. “With this addition of courts, it should make things a lot better, and they’ll probably do the same thing next year. It’s a welcome thing because they haven’t done any new courts in quite some time.”
Pickleball consists of two or four players hitting a light plastic ball, similar to a Wiffle ball, over a net. It can take place on half a tennis court or an area the same size as a double badminton court. The sport’s popularity is soaring in St. Petersburg, leading to long waits at the city’s existing 25 courts.
Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator and director of parks and recreation, said his department continuously evaluates amenities through utilization audits. The ultimate goal, he said, is to ascertain the most efficient and effective use of tax dollars while ensuring equitable access to all sports and green spaces.
“We are always happy to work with stakeholder groups,” said Jefferis. “It helps us get it right. I will tell you that everything we’ve done up to this point – including adding the 16 courts that we’re adding – were done prior to their involvement.”
Jefferis noted that city officials were “early adopters” of the sport, and St. Petersburg features more courts than any other area municipality. He added that Covid disrupted previous plans to repurpose some underused tennis courts.
While Cavanaugh believes the additions will help accommodate the influx of players, he relayed that 24 people filled Crescent Lake Park’s six courts by 10 a.m on a recent Saturday – and another 32 to 40 players waited for openings. Meanwhile, he said the tennis courts were primarily empty, a common occurrence.
“These 25 courts that are around have very high demand, where most people are waiting longer than they are playing for,” he said.
Jefferis agreed that there would never be enough pickleball courts to accommodate every player in St. Petersburg. He said there will likely always be a wait to play, “and that’s OK.”
Cavanaugh expects the six new courts at Bartlett Park to open by the end of December, with six more at Lake Vista Recreational Center and two at Rio Vista and Childs Parks opening next spring. The new facilities will each have restrooms, parking and lights for evening play.
However, Cavanaugh also expressed the need for a large venue with at least 16 courts to host tournaments. He said it would benefit players, residents and the city due to the amount of money it could bring to the area.
The G.T. Bray Recreational Center in Manatee County, Cavanaugh relayed, recently opened 20 pickleball courts. He said 14 feature roofs with large fans mitigating summer heat and allowing for regional and national tournaments. “Which are huge money-makers,” he added. “There are tens of thousands to millions of people that play in tournaments every year … and would love to travel to St. Petersburg and play in a tournament here.”
Jefferis welcomes the idea of a “PicklePlex,” but reiterated the need for balance. He said developing every acre of greenspace is not an option, and the city is running out of space.
Cavanaugh realizes space is at a premium but believes many tennis courts remain underused. He also said the St. Pete Tennis Center, a nonprofit organization that leases its property from the city, could be an ideal location as it has more tennis courts than members.
Jefferis noted the Tennis Center’s history and local following and said its unique clay courts are difficult to repurpose. He believes the Pickleball Association should work with the private sector to build an expansive facility and stressed that tennis is not a “dead sport” in St. Petersburg.
Many pickleballers, said Cavanaugh, are former or current tennis players. While he wants to utilize underused courts, he also expressed a desire to maintain a balance with that sport.
Cavanaugh said local enthusiasts will continue explaining the sport’s benefits to city officials and residents, and will promote the sport at the Saturday, Nov. 26 Santa Parade and tree lighting ceremony in North Straub Park. He is also hosting an informational event for local media and politicians Saturday, Dec. 10. from 9 a.m. until noon at the J.W. Cate pickleball courts.
“It’s a very social game,” said Cavanagh. “We’re just lacking an all-in-one facility where we could hold tournaments and have larger gatherings of pickleball people to play with and against each other.”
November 14, 2022at5:32 pm
Some cities are putting stripes for both sports on existing tennis courts. Makes sense…
Natalie G Stockard
November 14, 2022at8:17 pm
I LOVE this!
November 15, 2022at10:10 am
As a lot of us pickleball players are seniors, we prefer indoor courts as it’s better on our joints. Would love to see additional softer court surfaces whether that’s indoors or covered.
November 17, 2022at6:46 am
There are 2 tennis courts at Coquina Key that are rarely used. Take one of the those courts and convert into PB courts. Also at Coquina Key are 2 huge green spaces (2 soccer fields) one of those spaces could easily be converted to 8-10 PB courts. The courts at CRESCENT Lake have extremely bad surfaces and the front 3 courts are actually on a slope. All 6 of these courts need re-surfaced, they have horrible surfaces.
Diane Elizabeth Haymes
November 18, 2022at3:54 pm
The tennis courts at Cresent Lake aren’t playable, that is why they aren’t in use. There are major cracks and weeds growing up through the cracks. So it is unfair to say point out that courts that are unfit aren’t being used.