On any given night, Montana Athletic Club (MAC) in Eagle Bend near Bigfork can have anywhere from 30 to 60 pickleball players taking over the five outdoor courts. With players overrunning the area, MAC’s owner has even had to restrict parking to accommodate everyone.
But pickleball enthusiast Jim Lafferty says the sport wasn’t always this popular at MAC, or around the valley.
“It didn’t start that way, but it’s becoming more well known,” he said.
Lafferty says pickleball, which combines elements of tennis and badminton with two or four players using wooden paddles to hit a wiffleball, has grown nationwide and in the Flathead Valley over the past decade. The demand has led him to create a pickleball-specific club for the niche sport.
“If we could just have a facility that would be a real club with all the amenities of a club and not just a ‘place to play’,” Lafferty said.
Now, he’s in the process of forming the Two Rivers Pickleball Club in Bigfork at a facility he’s going to build called the Jewel Basin Event Center or “The Jewel,” located on U.S. Highway 82 next to Pick’s Bowling Center.
Surrounded by farmland and overlooking the Swan Mountain Range, the center will have four indoor and four outdoor courts. The 12,000 square-foot, LED lit facility will also host integrated activities, including scheduled court times, clinics and leagues with visiting professional players, Lafferty said.
In addition to pickleball, Lafferty is also designing the facility as an event center for weddings, corporate parties, concerts, community meetings and other large gatherings, hosting up to 500 people indoors and even more outdoors.
“The vision is a flexible space that will host hundreds and hundreds of pickleball players but also a part-time basis will be an indoor and outdoor event center,” Lafferty said. “The idea is the community will benefit from the center.”
While the facility is still in its earliest stages of development, Lafferty hopes to break ground in the coming weeks with plans to officially open in February.
As a semi-private club, pickleball enthusiasts can purchase a yearly membership and non-members can pay a daily fee to use the space. As of early September, Lafferty already had 108 members signed up and says there will likely be around 200 members by the time it opens, with the potential to host 500 members.
Lafferty says he also hopes to host “destination” pickleball events at the facility, drawing people from all over the country.
“It’s a phenomenally fast-growing sport,” Lafferty said. “It was estimated that nine years ago, there were 280,000 pickleball players in the U.S., and that number has grown to well over 3.5 million.”
While other fitness centers and facilities across the valley have pickleball courts, including the Summit Medical Fitness Center and Hawthorne Park in Kalispell, Lafferty is looking forward to the niche venue that will serve the entire community.
“We’re excited obviously because this is a really special place,” Lafferty said. “Pickleball folks will get their venue that they want so bad and we think the event opportunity is really cool because we see it benefiting the valley and Bigfork in particular.”