BELFAST — It’s the fastest-growing sport in America, increasing in popularity by 40% during the pandemic. It is played, seemingly, everywhere participants can fashion a playing surface. It has a professional league with 12 teams, two of which have been recently purchased by sports superstars LeBron James and Tom Brady.

Tennis, anyone? Check that, it’s pickleball, everyone.

Pickleball is a racquet sport that loosely approximates the game of tennis. Playing on a smaller court than tennis, with participants closer together on the playing surface, has increased its appeal to young and old alike. Classified as a “lifetime” pursuit (e.g., golf, bowling, etc.), the sport is taught in middle and high school physical education classes as more and more young people seek to play. It is wildly popular with the senior set, and the cost to participate is inexpensive.

Belfast’s City Park has become the unofficial center of Midcoast Maine’s pickleball universe. During the warm weather months, the courts draw dozens of players, of all ages, from near and far.

“I’ve only been playing pickleball for four years,” said Belfast pickleballer Doug Oliver, 65. “When I came down here, even then, the courts were pretty full. I’ve watched these courts for four years and, every year, there are more and more people.”

Oliver is part of a large group of amateur pickleball players who gather each day, and many nights, at the four pickleball courts in City Park. While many are locals, others happily travel miles to play at the unique venue.

“We get people from all over,” Oliver said. “We had someone here from Hawaii yesterday; a few weeks ago we had people from Florida. These courts in Belfast have a unique reputation of being a welcoming crowd. It’s a really fabulous place to play.”

On a chilly Monday morning in mid-October, nearly 50 people have gathered to play and socialize at City Park. Racquets are used to secure a space on the courts. While waiting, players greet friends, talk in groups, or share lunch. The diversity in ages is startling.

“Everyone is friendly, everyone is nice,” said Bangor resident John Clark. Clark is pursing a professional pickleball career. He was introduced to the sport at City Park by his father, Belfast resident John Clark Sr. In order to turn professional, Clark must accumulate points by playing in tournaments. The pandemic all but eliminated his tourney opportunities, but not his passion for the sport.

“The tournaments are coming back,” Clark said. “I’ve been coming here the past seven years. This is where I improved. So, when I come back, I want to help others improve.”

Players at every skill level can be found at City Park, oftentimes playing together on the same court. Wander in off the street and one is apt to be handed a racquet and an invitation to play.

The four pickleball courts at City Park stay busy year-round. Photo by Jim Leonard

The pickleball is a small plastic ball with holes. Racquets can be purchased for around $50. The sport can be played in singles or doubles fashion, with doubles being the most popular version. The playing surface is much smaller than a tennis court, with strategy, footwork and shot placement primary considerations. Games are normally played to 11 points, win by 2 points.

At City Park the games go fast, and courts turn over quickly and in an organized manner that allows everyone a chance to play.

The pickleball crew at City Park uses racquets to secure games. Photo by Jim Leonard

“You can be 9 years old or 80 years old and be a prodigy in this sport,” Clark said. “I really don’t see a retirement age for this.”

Oliver agreed, noting the skill set for pickleball is a bit different from tennis.

“(Pickleball) is more of a strategic game,” Oliver said. “The good players place the ball where they want to place it and anticipate their opponent’s return. There’s not a lot of running around. As you always hear in pickleball, it’s more like chess than checkers.”

The sport is so popular that some plan trips with nearby pickleball venues in mind.

“My wife and I have been traveling the East Coast for several years,” Oliver said. “We try to pick good camping by good pickleball. I think we’ve played at 40 different places so far.”

The courts at City Park, particularly during warm weather months, are usually packed. Several die-hards have removed snow from the courts to play in the winter. Oliver doesn’t see the sport’s popularity waning.

“I’ve been in the adult sports industry my whole life,” Oliver said. “I’ve been through some trends that have come on strong and faded. I don’t think that’s going to happen with pickleball. It appeals to almost everyone, and that appeal is growing.”

Waldo County YMCA Director Russell Werkman agrees. Pickleball at the YMCA is for the Active Older Adults group and is an attractive option.

I see this as a great opportunity to play a racquet sport for older adults who are tired of the aches and pains associated with running around a tennis court,” Werkman said. “(Older adults can) continue to use their hand-eye coordination in a strategic, fun sport. I think it will continue to evolve.”

The camaraderie of the pickleball group at City Park is obvious. Old and young mix, laugh and compete. It’s a combination that Oliver could not resist.

“I wouldn’t have built my house in Belfast if there wasn’t good pickleball here,” he said. “There’s no better place to be.”