BELLA VISTA -- The city will likely always be known for its golfing and lakes, but another recreational activity is starting to make quite the name for itself.
The popularity of pickleball, which many publications cite as the fastest-growing recreational activity in America, has exploded in the area in recent years -- so much, in fact, that Bella Vista's Property Owners Association is transforming old tennis and shuffleboard courts into five new regulation pickleball courts at the Branchwood Recreation Center on the west side of town. Three courts currently exist at the Metfield complex on the east side of the city.
"We are really excited that Bella Vista has decided to add more courts and really take the next step to make it more accessible for a lot of people," said Bella Vista resident Dan Dunn who, along with his wife Kathy, has played the sport regularly for the past five years.
"Because there are currently only three courts [at Metfield] and probably 150 or so people in Bella Vista who want to play, it can get really crowded, especially on a nice spring day in the morning. With only three courts, only 12 people can play at a time, and sometimes we have 30 people show up at one time, so many have to wait for a half-hour or so to get their game in."
So, what exactly is pickleball and why has the popularity grown so much?
Pickleball is a combination of badminton, ping pong and tennis. It can be played indoors or outdoors on a badminton-sized court, 20-feet wide and 44-feet long, with a net 36-inches high. It is played with a paddle and a plastic ball with holes, similar to a whiffle ball. It can be played as singles or doubles by all ages and skill levels.
"The eye-hand coordination is important but it's not as intense as other sports," said Joan Glubczynski, the Property Owners Association's director of recreation and wellness. "It can be a fast sport, but it is more gentle on the body."
Pickleball was created by three dads in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Wash., and was named after one of the inventor's dogs, Pickles, who would often chase the ball and run off with it during a game. They used an old badminton court, but could not find a full set of rackets, so they used ping-pong paddles. The first known pickleball tournament was held in 1976 in Washington state.
The popularity has rapidly spread across the country since. Bella Vista residents' interest in the sport began during the past decade and continues to increase, Glubczynski said.
"Our demand for pickleball has outweighed the demand for tennis," she said. "Since we have the Kingsdale Tennis Center, we started working several years ago on getting new pickleball courts, but our budget wouldn't allow us to do it until this year."
Work on transforming the tennis and shuffleboards courts at Branchwood began in the late fall of 2020. Much progress has been made and a new surface will be the final step before the new courts are ready in the upcoming weeks.
That's exciting news for Dunn, who admits he lives on the west side of town and has to drive approximately 25 minutes each way to use the courts at Metfield -- courts he and his wife use at least three times a week.
"By putting these new courts at Branchwood, we are more than doubling the number of courts in Bella Vista and we are just thrilled. And the fact that, at Branchwood, the courts will have trees on several sides that will block enough sun where you can play longer in the summer is really going to be nice. Shade is a big deal."
Glubczynski said she's excited, too, that the sport she began playing many years ago is so popular in the area.
"I first learned about pickleball about 20 years ago when I lived in Wisconsin and we played in driveways with a painted court," she said. "A lot of people who used to play tennis but have had to take a step back because of impact have gone on to play pickleball. All sports have hills and valleys, but pickleball is definitely in its peak.
"It's a nice family game, and I'm someone who needs to pick it back up because I haven't played in a while."
For the Dunns, pickleball is a sport they don't anticipate stopping anytime soon. As a former tennis player, Dan Dunn quickly picked up the game and fell in love with it. Kathy, his wife of 48 years, hadn't had any exposure to similar sports so it took her a while to catch on -- but not long.
"I had a background of 40 years of tennis, so it was a natural for me to pick up," Dan Dunn said. "My wife never played a sport with a ball before, so we had to work on her hand-eye coordination early on. But within a couple of months, she was really playing well. We tried to golf together, and it was way too difficult for her. But pickleball is something we can do together and laugh together. It's a really nice social sport.
"Tennis is a real skills game and is really hard to play but, if you've played ping pong or badminton, pickleball really blends itself really well."
Dunn said he thinks the sport has tripled in popularity in the 14 years he has lived in Bella Vista. And he doesn't see it dying down anytime soon.
"When I first started playing around here, it was just retirees coming out and we thought the sport was mainly for older people," he said. "But now we see more and more younger people in their 30s and 40s showing up.
"It's a really exciting game for anyone. We see a lot of families who come up and play. It's great."