CHAMPAIGN – Donald Block Jr. of Champaign rates himself on a scale of 1 to 10 as a 9 in terms of interest in the sport of pickleball.
“My wife would probably say it’s 10,” he said, adding that when he traveled to Florida or Michigan, he played there.
Bloc, who estimates he plays “four or five times a week,” said the sport is appealing to older residents because “it’s not too hard on the body. It’s not as much running as tennis.:
“I picked it up – I’m 72 – when I was probably 65,” he said. “I was looking for something to stay active in addition to golf.”
He looks forward to this fall, when a new eight-court pickleball complex is set to open in west Champaign.
And he is far from the only one. A number of pickleball players share his excitement at finally having a place of their own to play.
Champaign Park District Council this week awarded a contract not exceeding $750,000 to Petry-Kuhne Co. of Champaign to build the pickleball facility north of Centennial High School on what has been for years a softball and baseball field.
Park District Executive Director Joe DeLuce said there was hope to include a restroom/concessions building in the project, but bids went over budget. The park district wants to add a second phase later that would include these amenities as well as possibly lights and parking.
“We expect construction to be complete this fall,” said Dan Olson, park district operations manager.
A hybrid of badminton, ping pong and tennis, pickleball is the nation’s fastest growing sport, and Champaign-Urbana reflects that trend, Olson and DeLuce said. The need for pickleball courts was so great that lines for the sport were painted on some local tennis courts.
“The sport is growing in the Champaign-Urbana area, and we have many players every day at Hessel Park and other parks in the community,” Olson said. “Our staff offered two pickleball tournaments at the Leonhard Recreation Center, where we have three indoor pickleball courts, and they are planning more tournaments later this year.”
Olson said it was common for attendees to bring lawn chairs to sit and wait on the available courts at Hessel Park where there are two dedicated courts and others that share space with tennis – reminiscent of the tennis heyday of the 1970s.
Block said it’s not just older people who love the sport – calling it ‘cross-generational’.
“We have young people in our group,” he said. “The youngest in our tournament was 16 and the oldest was 81. You can have fun. It’s social, but you can also be very competitive. There are many tournaments across the country.
Another attractive aspect: the cost.
“The equipment is pretty basic,” Block said. “You need to buy a paddle and balls.”
The cost of the paddle depends on the level of commitment. A standard can cost around $50. Plus – serious gamers buy paddles that cost $200-$300.
“Compare that to a golf driver, it’s cheap,” Block said.
On a scale of 1 to 10, he rates his interest in pickleball at 9.
“My wife would probably say it’s 10,” he said, adding that when he went to Michigan or Florida, he played there as well.
Olson said the courts will be built on the site of the former Bert Seaman Field, which was once known as Memorial Field. It will be built approximately 100 feet from John Street.
The area is a venue for recreational activities in the park district. It also includes the Sholem Aquatic Center, Lindsay Tennis Courts, Leonhard Recreation Center, and Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation Center.
The Park District is following the example of other communities in the region by building stand-alone courts.
Some pickleball players are converted tennis players, but not all of them, Olson said.
“Many say it’s a good alternative due to age slowing them down or knee and ankle issues,” he said. “But a lot of them are relatively new to racquet sports.”
He said like many outdoor activities, pickleball has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pickleball players are happy with the park board’s decision.
Block said players “have been appealing for years.”
“I started talking to (DeLuce) about three years ago. We have new people coming in all the time.
Olson said local tennis players shouldn’t feel left out, saying the community is “a tennis city too.”
“We are also getting requests for more tennis courts. Even with the nice courts at the U of I and the ones we have and Urbana has, probably a few times a year people ask if there are any new tennis courts on the horizon,” Olson said.
He also has good news for them. Spalding Park’s four tennis courts are due to be redone and two more will be created. Lindsay Court’s surfaces were also redone last year.