Pickleball is having its moment, and Brian and Valerie McCarthy intend to seize it.
The McCarthys are principal investors in a $1 million-plus project to convert the shuttered Stardust Skate Center across from Ed Smith Stadium into the region’s first pickleball academy. When work is completed this fall, the academy will have 12 indoor courts, a pro shop, a coffee/juice bar and showers, as well as a “generous area for socializing,” Brian McCarthy says, “because a big part of the game is getting to know other players.”
McCarthy adds, “From what we have learned, there are only one or two facilities like this in the country, and no place anywhere that has 12 indoor courts dedicated solely to pickleball.”
Pickleball was conceived in 1965 in Bainbridge, Washington, by a former Congressman named Joel Pritchard, after neither he nor his friends could locate a shuttlecock for a backyard badminton match. The participants decided to use a plastic perforated ball instead, lower the net and use wooden paddles. The game’s popularity grew slowly, and then, with millions of baby boomers heading into retirement, its popularity has exploded. Not as strenuous as tennis and less nuanced (read: difficult) than golf, pickleball is competitive, yet social; challenging, yet less taxing on aging joints. Seventy-five percent of the players are 60 and older.
“Easy to play, hard to master,” says Terry Ryan, 65, a transplant from upstate New York, who goes by “Pickleball Terry” and might be Sarasota’s biggest pickleball fan. “I call it my fountain of youth.”
Ryan became so enamored with the game that she started a website, sarasotapickleball.com, and she sends a weekly email blast to 1,200 subscribers with information about games and venues around the area. She also instructs.
“We have about 5,000 pickleball players in the Sarasota area,” Ryan says. “When I started playing three years ago, we had around 2,000, so the growth has been incredible.”
Pickleball’s popularity is straining the number of available courts. Basketball gyms, tennis courts and community centers across the region are now dedicating hours to pickleball and still not coming close to meeting the demand, forcing players to sit on the sidelines hoping for a game. “And when school’s out, you can forget about it,” Ryan says.
The new academy should ease that crunch because “players on our 12 courts won’t be sharing time with basketball, tennis or volleyball players,” McCarthy says. “And because we’re indoors, games won’t be affected by the weather.”
In addition to drop-in games, the center will have leagues, training, youth activities and tournaments.
“We really feel like the timing for this could not be better,” McCarthy says. “And having it across from a landmark like Ed Smith Stadium in a historic district that the city is really promoting is a big advantage.”
The McCarthys bring an array of experience to the endeavor. Valerie is a former executive director and national trainer and program developer for the YMCA. Brian is a retired rear admiral with 30 years of service in the Navy and a commercial real estate developer with an M.B.A. from Harvard. He is also active in veterans’ causes, including serving as executive director of the Sarasota Military Officers Foundation. He plans to offer free lessons and court time for veterans.
“I’ve only been playing pickleball for a year and a half,” Brian says. “But I like solving puzzles. People couldn’t figure out what to do with this historic roller skating rink with 24,000 square feet of space. We saw it as a great fit for pickleball.”
Naples, which will host the 2020 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in April, is considered the mecca for the game. But McCarthy says the passion for pickleball in Sarasota is not far behind. “We may be second only to Naples in the United States,” he says, “and we’re probably gaining on them.”