Part One of a two-part series
Enthusiasm for pickleball is in full swing throughout St. Petersburg, and one man has made it his mission to increase the number of courts and bring tournaments to the area.
Pickleball’s rise in popularity has been well-documented, with Sports Illustrated calling it the “fastest-growing sport in America” in May. The number of residents seeking tennis courts to play the game has reached a tipping point, with St. Petersburg officials debating where to draw the lines – literally and figuratively.
Dr. Ed Carlson, a retired Air Force veteran, dentist and former city council candidate, has led the charge to organize area pickleballers. Carlson, USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) ambassador to Pinellas County, realizes there is political strength in numbers and formed the St. Pete Pickleball Association in November 2021.
“So that we had a unified voice,” said Carlson, also president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association. “Just like you need to have a neighborhood organization that speaks for the neighborhood.”
Pickleball consists of two or four players with solid paddles hitting something 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 doubles badminton court.
According to Sports Illustrated, the burgeoning sport now boasts 4.8 million enthusiasts, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and recently retired football star Drew Brees, who now owns a professional team. The International Federation of Pickleball now oversees 58 member countries, and cities like St. Petersburg are finding it difficult to keep up with an influx of new players.
Carlson, 82, relayed that in July, Councilmember Copley Gerdes spoke to 72 people at a Jungle Terrace civic meeting – most of them pickleball enthusiasts. Gerdes, said Carlson, told attendees that a city study showed residents used courts for tennis and pickleball equally, and “everybody just went insane.”
Carlson then led a 12-day study encompassing four popular locations with courts – Coquina Key Park, J.W. Cate Recreation Center, Crescent Lake Park and the Walter Fuller Recreation Center. His team counted 794 pickleball players and just 46 tennis players, including six children.
“So, it’s like 17 times as many pickleball players,” said Carlson. “And our big push now is for dual use courts as an emergency.”
The city, said Carlson, needs pickleball lines painted on each side of tennis courts. He noted that would create two courts for the increasingly popular sport, and players could use the net as a backstop.
He added that the city is addressing the need for more courts “piecemeal,” building a few courts here and there around town. A center dedicated to pickleball, said Carlson, would attract large tournaments that would be a boon to the local economy.
The USAPA’s ambassador for the southeast Atlantic region, Carlson explained, became enamored with the Walter Fuller center. The ambassador relayed that if the city converted its two tennis courts and built four new ones around the old concession stand, he would bring pickleball tournaments that draw 1,100-1,500 people to the area for a week in 2024-25.
“We took that to the city in December last year and said you have time to do it,” added Carlson. “St. Pete’s missing out on the economic driver part of pickleball.”
According to Carlson, the number of teams now playing in a city league is evidence of the exponential rise in the sport’s popularity. He said that number went from 18 last fall to 110 this summer.
He explained those teams can feature up to four players, but just using a three-person average, that equates to 330 people playing in the summer heat. He said that when northerners make their annual trek to the area for the winter months, “it’s going to be crazy.”
St. Petersburg has a preponderance of tennis courts, said Carlson, with 60 lighted venues spread throughout the city. He said he rarely sees residents using them, with J.W. Cate the lone exception – and pickleballers are happy to share.
“We’re not putting tennis people out of it,” said Carlson. “We’re even willing to buy the paint.”
The immediate goal, said Carlson, is getting lines for pickleball on the city’s tennis courts, starting with the Walter Fuller and Coquina Key facilities. He admitted J.W. Cate “doesn’t need it because their tennis courts are busy.” Tennis players, added Carlson, would have priority over the courts.
Moving forward, he would like to see a center with more than six courts to accommodate a growing city league and host major tournaments. He relayed the regional ambassador is currently hosting a tournament in Opelika, Alabama, featuring 24 covered pickleball courts.
Carlson said the town, population 30,995, charges the ambassador $1,500 per day to use the courts – but also offers credits for the number of visitors that stay at local hotels.
“He said, ‘I never have to pay one cent to them because we put that many people in beds,’” relayed Carlson. “The economic driver aspect of tournaments like that – and these are amateur tournaments – are just amazing.”
Saturday: Part Two – how city officials are balancing the sport’s growing popularity.