Pop. Pop. Pop.
The sporadic sounds echoed around The Linc's basketball courts Wednesday morning. As people walked across the courts toward a blue wall, the popping grew louder. Tucked away behind the wall, 12 people hit a small ball back and forth over a net with oversized table tennis paddles.
Pickleball was invented in 1965 by three fathers, according to the nonprofit corporation USA Pickleball Association. The game combines features from badminton, tennis and table tennis, and it involves paddles shorter than tennis rackets but larger than table tennis paddles. It has a net similar to tennis and a polymer ball which is three inches in diameter with round holes perforating its surface.
Dennis Gragg hit the ball, the pop resonating as it sailed over the net. Gragg has been playing pickleball since the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department started offering it about four years ago. It began with about 12 people at Shikles Recreation Center but moved to The Linc after it opened in February.
"There were about 12 players at the time, and we were all beginners, so we learned together," Gragg said. "We were at 12 for three years before we moved here, and then it just boomed when we moved over here because there were more people here to see the sport."
There are about 2.5 million pickleball players in the United States, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association's 2016 Pickleball Participant Report. The report shows participation grew 1.8 percent from 2014 to 2015.
USAPA lists more than 100 places in Missouri that offer pickleball, but this is an incomplete list, said Drew Wathey, managing director of recreational programs at USAPA. The Linc is the only Jefferson City location listed on the USAPA, but the Jefferson City YMCA and Washington Park offer pickleball, too.
The game can be played as either singles or doubles on the 20-foot-by-44-foot court, a mini tennis court, either inside or outside. Red lines on the court at The Linc mark the "kitchen," a small area on either side of the net where players can volley the wiffle ball. Players can't stay in the kitchen for long, though.
"You can't stay in the kitchen, but the really good part of this game is when you get in the kitchen and you're (volleying) back and forth, like Ping Pong," Pam Mietzner said, watching others hit wiffle balls at The Linc on Wednesday, the popping sound a rhythmic echo in the gym. Mietzner has been playing pickleball for more than four months and plays about once a week. "When you're further back, it's kind of like tennis but when you're in the kitchen area, it's more like Ping Pong."
Janet Bloemke took several steps forward on the court as the opposing team served the ball, her paddle held up, ready to volley. She suddenly backed away and lowered her paddle, the ball hitting her knee.
"I should have let it bounce," she said, laughing and strolling to the back of the court to wait for other players to serve the ball. Bloemke started playing six months ago and said she sometimes forgets the ball has to bounce once after it's served on each side before players can start volleying.
There are various stories behind the game's name, with the most popular story involving one of the founding families' dog, Pickles, who would chase and hide the ball.
After learning the game from a friend almost two months ago, Joan Penno struggled to find pickleball games around the Lake of the Ozarks area, so she travels to Jefferson City about once a week to play. When she first learned about the 52-year-old sport, she said she was surprised she hadn't heard of it. Even though it is new compared to several other sports, she said, pickleball might be gaining more players because of its popularity among Baby Boomers.
"I think it's something middle-aged people — 30s, 40s, 50s — can do that doesn't require a whole lot of money, and it doesn't require that you be in great shape, unless you play one-on-one," Penno said. "I think a lot of Baby Boomers want to get in shape but they want to do something fun, and tennis for a lot of us is out of the question because you don't have the athletic ability. I can't even imagine playing tennis."
Several players said the smaller court size and lighter ball make it is less intense compared to tennis, making it a pleasant sport for older generation, as well as younger individuals.
Missy Morarity and Angie Toebben, both program managers at The Linc, said most of the pickleball players are Baby Boomers, but there are some high schoolers who play occasionally since local schools are starting to incorporate pickleball into physical education classes.
Wathey said the pickleball court is easy to set up; a person would just need a flat surface, net, ball and paddle.
"I'm sure you drive around neighborhoods or what-have-yous and you'll see an old basketball court, cement pad with decaying backboard or the rims have no nets or the rims are bent, and the kids don't want to shoot on those," he said. "That's a viable opportunity for pickleball courts to be constructed there, and it doesn't take much. You can put a net up there and stripe it and play to your heart's content outside or indoors."
The Linc currently only has open-play, so anyone can sign up, but Morarity is considering setting up pickleball leagues and lessons. Morarity and Toebben are also considering placing permanent pickleball lines on the gym floor next summer.
Gragg thinks there is a need for more outdoor courts; Morarity and Toebben agree. They want to add more outdoor courts, possibly at Washington Park. Morarity said once the new tennis courts at the corner of Lafayette and Dunklin streets are completed, more tennis players may play on those instead of the ones at Washington Park, giving the Parks Department a chance to convert some of the tennis courts at the park to permanent pickleball courts.
If more cities continue to transform tennis courts to pickleball courts and build more pickleball courts, Wathey said the sport will continue growing. He credits its growth primarily to word-of-mouth, though.
"When you're really excited about a sport, you have a tendency to really talk about it a lot, and you bring your friends and family out. And more and more people are aware of the sport, and they give it a try and they realize that this is a lot of fun," he said.