Despite recent clamoring for more pickleball facilities, a new study validated what St. Petersburg parks officials have repeatedly stated – the city is on the “bleeding edge” of America’s fastest-growing sport.
City Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders scheduled Thursday morning’s pickleball update months ago, due to repeated requests for more courts. A Trust for Public Land (TPL) study released May 23 showed St. Petersburg features 19.6 courts per 100,000 residents, second most in the nation.
Mike Jefferis, community enrichment administrator, opened his presentation with the news.
“It’s one thing for me to stand here and tell you what we’ve done,” Jefferis said. “It’s another for me to let the Trust for Public Land and the National Parks and Rec Association tell you the same.”
He also noted that the nonprofit TPL recently ranked St. Pete’s park system as Florida’s best, and 15th in the country. Jefferis said ensuring equitable access and resource distribution for the city’s courts and athletic fields is critical to those achievements.
Seattle narrowly leads the nation for the number of pickleball courts per capita, at 20.5 per 100,000 people. However, the USA Pickleball Association notes that the game was invented nearby on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
In addition, Jefferis believes St. Petersburg could take the top spot once officials complete two in-development projects. Following the meeting, he quickly credited a group effort for the latest recognition.
“This is the mayor’s accomplishment, it’s (city) council’s accomplishment and it’s the parks and rec team,” he said. “None of this happens without all three units working very closely together and prioritizing this for the community.”
St. Petersburg’s first dedicated pickleball courts opened in 2015. City officials recently added 16, and local players now have 47 outdoor and 18 indoor public playing areas.
People can play pickleball on half a tennis court, leading to disagreements between the two groups. Bryan Eichler, assistant director of parks and recreation, stressed that the department embraces both racket sports.
“Tennis is part of our culture,” he said. “We have had a ton of staff that have gone out and done court counts that we have available to show that tennis is still there.”
Councilmember Copley Gerdes noted that some residents question why park officials don’t paint additional lines on outdoor tennis courts. Jefferis said they only create multi-use playing surfaces at staffed indoor facilities to eliminate disputes between pickleball and tennis players.
Park officials also believe there is enough space. Eichler pointed to a slide comparing the city’s efforts to its regional neighbors to illustrate that point.
Tampa, with about 130,000 more people than St. Petersburg, has 56 dedicated courts. Clearwater offers seven, and Bradenton and Sarasota each provide two for residents.
“Like Mike (Jefferis) said, we have been bleeding edge on a number of these things,” Eichler added. “But we’re at a point where we feel very confident with the service areas that we’re offering. And I think that those numbers, compared to our neighbors, speak to that.”
Jefferis said pickleball matches are typically louder than tennis, and the surrounding industry has realized that condominium and homeowner’s associations are shutting down courts due to complaints. However, he noted that a new trend would help alleviate the issue.
Jefferis explained that quieter “Green Zone” pickleball paddles are becoming the norm. He relayed that city officials will promote the innovative equipment through park signage and educational campaigns.
Jefferis said it is already harder to find traditional rackets. “So, they’re kind of phasing themselves out,” he added.
He also announced a plan, spearheaded by Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz, to implement eight pickleball courts at Woodlawn Park. The underused space is adjacent to Woodlawn Elementary School.
Hanewicz said the project would help activate the area, attract children to an accessible sport and provide mentorship opportunities for older players. Pinellas County Schools currently leases the land from the city.
Jefferis said district officials are “fantastic partners, and we are sure that we could find something that would be mutually agreeable to both parties.” The various stakeholders will continue developing the plan, and Jefferis will eventually present it to the full council for consideration.
Councilmember Ed Montanari called Thursday’s update “long overdue” and something city leaders and residents needed to hear.
“These things just don’t happen – this takes hard work,” Montanari added. “We’ve had a legacy of wonderful parks since our city was founded, and I’m glad that we are continuing that legacy.”