Pickleball Offers Competitive, Social Outlet

The Flathead Valley has wholeheartedly embraced the recreational and competitive sport that has seen astronomical growth nationwide

By Micah Drew
Players compete in the Crown of Continent PickleBall Tournament at the Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork on Aug. 12, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Over the course of three days in early August, a flurry of whacks, thwoks and dinks could be heard around the Jewel Basin Center near Bigfork.

The source of the din was the Crown of the Continent Pickleball Tournament, the largest pickleball event in the Flathead Valley and a stop on the U.S. Senior Pickleball Circuit. Bigfork’s Two Rivers Pickleball Club hosted the tournament for the third year, drawing more than 250 players to its world-class pickleball center.

“We’ve really become a destination tournament for players around the country,” said Keith Ori, co-manager of the Two Rivers Pickleball Club, and co-owner of the Jewel Basin Center. “We hear over and over that the tournament, and our facility, are just fabulous and have a special vibe to them.”

Two Rivers Pickleball Club launched just over two years ago, in conjunction with the opening of the Jewel Basin Center, the event center that includes four indoor and six outdoor pickleball courts as well as lounges and changing rooms for club members.

Since it opened, Two Rivers has seen similar exponential growth to pickleball centers across the country.

“Our growth has just gone off the charts. Our membership our first year was somewhere around 300 members, but we’re north of 1,300 just in our club alone,” Ori said. “The thing with pickleball is it saw this huge growth, but it’s really been built around seniors. Now it’s really beginning to develop with the younger generation and that’s just driving more and more folks to the courts.”

USA Pickleball, the sport’s national governing body, had 40,000 registered members in 2019, and an estimated 3.3 million players nationwide. In February of this year, official membership cleared 70,000 and the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) recently published a report showing pickleball had nearly 9 million players across the U.S.

In the Flathead Valley, the sport got a huge boost from the opening of the Two Rivers Club, as well as the PickleBarn, another private four-court pickleball facility that was constructed in 2020 west of Kalispell and is home to the Flathead Valley Pickleball Club. 

Players compete in the Crown of Continent PickleBall Tournament at the Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork on Aug. 12, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

While the clubs offer expanded opportunities for players akin to golf course memberships, Two Rivers also offers free monthly clinics for new players to learn the rules of the sport form pros in a low-key environment. Ori said there hasn’t been a month where the clinic hasn’t been full.

Jennifer Cozad of Creston is one of the players who came up through the free clinic to become an avid competitor. She and her husband took part in the Crown of the Continent tournament for the second year.

“I was really just curious about the building when it was under construction, and then decided to try the free clinic,” she said. “My husband and I just got hooked and started playing whenever we could.”

While Cozad said she felt “out of her depth” when she played in her first tournament last year, she’s seen remarkable improvement in just a few months.

“The game is pretty simple to pick up, and then it’s just one of those sports where if you put in the practice time you can really progress,” she said. “I also found such a great community there. It’s a super social game, and it’s easy to meet new people to play with.”

At 43, Cozad was among the younger players at the Crown of the Continent tournament, but she’s seen increasing growth among the younger generations in her short time playing the game. She taught her teenaged daughter to play as well, but she didn’t get quite as hooked.

“It’s really cool to see the wide spread of ages on the court, from people who come to play with their families, to people in their 80s who can absolutely put me to shame,” she said. “I really love the multi-generational aspect to it.”

To accommodate the growing younger contingent of players, Ori added a 49-and-under division to the Crown of the Continent tournament, which maxed out. He’s already thinking about expanding the tournament and adding additional competitive opportunities as well as potentially expanding the facility itself.

“We’re already talking about future growth and we’re only two years old,” Ori said. “It’s growing and it’s not going away.”

Players compete in the Crown of Continent PickleBall Tournament at the Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork on Aug. 12, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

This summer, the Flathead Valley gained two additional locations for pickleball play, with a third on the way. Along Montana Highway 40, two pickleball courts opened at Camp Scout and Gather to complement theexisting mini golf course, mercantile and grill. The courts rent for $25 an hour.

Over in Columbia Falls, the city converted four tennis courts in Columbus Park to four pickleball courts, which opened to the public in July.

The addition of the new municipal courts brings the valley’s public court tally to eight — the City of Whitefish similarly converted the tennis courts at Memorial Park into pickleball courts several years ago — but that number will continue to grow. Project Whitefish Kids, the nonprofit that operates the 55-acre Smith Field Youth Sports Complex in Whitefish is in the midst of constructing six courts at the complex, which are expected to be finished this month.

Despite the surge in public venues on the north end of the valley, the city of Kalispell does not yet have any pickleball-specific outdoor courts — two marked courts at Hawthorne Park are inside the tennis courts and use tennis nets — something Ori hopes will soon change.

“There are lots of folks who would like to play but can’t afford to be part of a club like ours, and it’s the responsibility of a city to provide recreational opportunities for its citizens,” Ori said. “This is the fastest growing sport in the United States, and I think the city needs to recognize that and get on board.”

The recent SFIA report estimates that 25,000 courts will have to be built nationwide to accommodate the sport’s growth, at an estimated cost of $900 million — around $35,000 per outdoor court.

In addition to the cost considerations, there’s also been criticism of public pickleball courts centered around noise complaints. Compared to tennis, where a softer ball meets a wire racket, pickleball’s hollow plastic ball and wooden paddles result in a distinctive thwoks and pops that are more audible to neighbors and passersby and has even spurred lawsuits.

Ori adds that there’s a rivalry between pickleball players and tennis players as more courts are converted that he likens to snowboarders and skiers. Despite a faction of the recreational community, and nearby homeowners, who might like to see the sport go away, Ori says it’s just going to keep skyrocketing, especially as interest grows among the younger demographics.

The collegiate pickleball scene boasts 53 clubs and the sport is slowly making inroads at some high schools across the country, something Ori says could be on the horizon in Montana.

“That’s how new sports really take root, through club development with high school kids,” he said. “If we keep adding in younger groups of players, I just don’t see the growth of pickleball slowing down at all.”

Players compete in the Crown of Continent PickleBall Tournament at the Jewel Basin Center in Bigfork on Aug. 12, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon