OCEAN CITY – While Ocean City continues to move forward with an effort to rebrand the resort as a sports destination, could ever-growing pickleball be the answer?
That was a question the Recreation and Parks Committee had before them this week. Ocean City over the last few years has been seeking ways to rebrand the town’s image as a youth sports destination to varying degrees, including an effort to develop a new sports complex. The assumption all along has been the growing youth sports market should be the target, and that has not changed, but could the vastly popular sport of pickleball be part of the solution?
During a meeting on Tuesday, the committee heard from U.S.A. Pickleball Association Ambassadors Barbara and Keith Johnson, part-time residents in the resort and avid pickleball enthusiasts, about the growth of the sport and the apparent lack of suitable courts in the resort area. While the dozen courts at Northside Park are bustling with activity nearly every day, the Johnsons said there was a lack of accessible outdoor courts in the resort.
At Gorman Park uptown, for example, there is one dedicated pickleball court and two tennis courts that can be converted for pickleball use. However, the pickleball players are often at odds with tennis players over access to the courts. Barbara Johnson related the story of a back-up and long wait times at Gorman Park when it was redeveloped and courts were added.
“We always have our paddles and nets in the car,” she said. “It’s a very open community. We went to the Gorman Park courts to play and we sat for one-and-a-half hours because it has gotten so big. Our Facebook group has over 400 people on it. That’s how big it has gotten here.”
Barbara Johnson provided a brief history of the growth of the sport.
“It was developed in the 1960s and it gradually grew,” she said. “There are now millions of new players every year. It’s become the fastest growing sport in the U.S. Until five years ago, it was mostly older people playing. That is changing. It’s now being taught in schools. Parents are dragging their young people out to play with them.”
Keith Johnson said the sport crosses age and gender lines, with some active players still able to play into their 90s. He also discussed how many tennis players, partly because of the appeal of the sport and partly because of the constant challenge for court time, were switching over to pickleball.
“The other cool thing is men and women play together,” he said. “There really is no advantage. The sport has converted so many tennis players. They don’t want to wait to get on a court.”
Barbara Johnson said Ocean City could be missing the ball if it did not embrace the sport. She said in their uptown neighborhood it was always challenging to find a parking spot on the street. She said that has changed in recent years.
“What does pickleball mean to Ocean City?” she said. “Where we live, nobody wants to park in the parking lot, but there is now plenty of street parking. That tells me Ocean City is not attracting as many people. When you look at the social media pages, people are saying they aren’t going to Ocean City. It’s not as busy as it used to be.”
Barbara Johnson said she wasn’t sure expanding access to pickleball courts would solve the perceived decline in visitor numbers, but said that it certainly couldn’t hurt with the sport growing as fast as it is.
“I don’t know if pickleball will solve that,” she said. “We play in Baltimore County and we are always talking to pickleball players. What we’re hearing is people are saying they won’t buy in Ocean City or won’t visit Ocean City because there is no pickleball.”
Barbara Johnson urged Ocean City to keep up with its resort neighbors in terms of embracing pickleball.
“What’s your competition here?” she said. “Virginia Beach just opened a huge pickleball facility. Pickleball is rebuilding Atlantic City. It had really become a dump. They are now hosting the largest indoor pickleball tournament in the country.”
Barbara Johnson pointed to people who already own property in Ocean City who might go elsewhere if there is not increased access to pickleball.
“People say they pay huge taxes here,” she said. “All I want to do is play pickleball. If you want to make Ocean City a year-round destination, you’re going to need pickleball. I know space is limited, but Ocean City is just not competing. I think the lack of courts will keep people from coming here.”
Committee members listened intently to the Johnsons presentation. Recreation and Parks Department Director Susan Petito explained Ocean City already has a strong pickleball presence, but there are opportunities.
“We are building four pickleball courts when we redevelop the downtown park,” she said. “There are 12 pickleball courts here at Northside Park and one dedicated court at Gorman Park and the tennis courts can be converted. It might be a while, but we have the opportunity to create more courts and we’re looking at all of them.”
Councilman and committee member Mark Paddack said he understood the concerns, but there was limited available open space for more courts on the barrier island.
“There is only so much land in Ocean City,” he said. “It’s just a 9.5-mile island. That’s why the value of land is what it is in Ocean City, but we have talked about pickleball extensively in this committee.”
While the floor surface inside the west gym at Northside Park has recently been replaced, Barbara Johnson raised concern about the surface of some of the outdoor courts.
There was also significant discussion about creating more indoor pickleball courts, potentially at the convention center. There are already various basketball, indoor volleyball and indoor soccer tournaments at different times of the year at the convention center, and Paddack said that might be an opportunity worth exploring.
“During the week, there is potential space at the convention center that could be utilized, especially in the offseason,” he said. “We will look into the possibilities. I like the idea of a tournament.”
Recreation Supervisor Kate Gaddis said there is already a considerable amount of pickleball being played in Ocean City, particularly indoors at Northside Park. She said the department can sign up 80 players for the courts daily and there is almost always a waiting list.
“We have 1,600 people coming through here playing pickleball,” she said. “We will sell out every single day. Pickleball is going on here six days a week.”
Gaddis pointed out pickleball is just one of the daily activities going on at Northside Park, which also includes indoor soccer, basketball and a myriad of other activities.
She said she understood the Johnsons concerns, but said the facility had to be shared with other sports and activities. In addition, the department hosts numerous camps, for which there are often waiting lists.
“We’re a multi-use facility and we’re trying to meet the needs of everybody,” she said. “I think we are doing everything we can with the resources we have. It’s a need that’s really hard to meet.”
Councilman and committee chair John Gehrig said the committee and the town in general would continue to explore ways to improve access for pickleball players.
“Thanks for coming in,” he said. “We appreciate your passion. We will brainstorm ideas and see what we can come up with.”