Pickleball at the mall: One of the fastest-growing sports in America has embedded itself in Concord

  • Participants play at the All-Stars Pickleball Club in the former Old Navy building at the Steeplegate Mall. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Marketing director Becka Davis of the All-Stars Pickleball Club plays at the former Old Navy building at the Steeplegate Mall.

  • Marketing director Becka Davis of the All-Stars Pickleball Club plays at the fomer Old Navy building at the Steeplegate Mall. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Joan Major plays pickeball at the All-Stars Pickleball Club. Its doors opened on Dec. 8 in the former Old Navy building at the Steeplegate Mall. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/24/2023 3:42:29 PM

One of the fastest-growing sports in America, pickleball now has a new indoor home in Concord. 

All-Stars Pickleball Club opened its doors on Dec. 8 in the former Old Navy store at the Steeplegate Mall. For pickleball standards, the facility features everything you could want: 25,000 square feet of space with six courts, players from a wide range of experience levels and lots of opportunities to play.

In the first six weeks, about 650 members have joined.

“There’s not a lot of places to play pickleball that accommodates more than two courts,” said owner Peter Nickologianis. “A lot of players are struggling to find places to play.”

People from all over the state – and even northern Massachusetts – find the trip to Concord is worthwhile to get their pickleball fill. Members travel from Laconia, the Lakes Region, Franklin, Henniker, Hopkinton, Grantham, Manchester and Nashua. 

The gameplay is not that dissimilar from tennis, with a shrunken court, smaller and denser paddles and hollow plastic balls. 

The club offers a variety of options to get involved, from learning how to play the sport and receiving instructional training to tournaments, leagues and other events.

“Anyone can play,” Nickologianis said. “It’s not a hard sport to pick up, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to get better at. You can start playing competitively even if you’ve never played a racket sport.”

‘What’s not to like?’

Nickologianis only started playing pickleball four years ago, but the game hooked him immediately.

He signed up to play at the Concord Rec Center, bought his own paddle (because they didn’t have any to loan) and stepped foot on the court with his father-in-law.

“We both started the same day, both fell in love with the sport, both still play,” he said.

It’s not hard to figure out what makes the game attractive: the smaller court means players don’t have to cover as much distance to return balls (hence, older people can play with relative ease), it’s fast-paced and it’s easy to learn. But even more importantly, it fosters a sense of community.

“I absolutely love everything about pickleball. I really enjoy how the community comes together,” Nickologianis said. “When’s the last time you’ve seen a sport played where grandparents competed and their grandkids are watching them beat up on players in their 30s, 40s, 50s because they were significantly better than everybody?”

Added instructors Joan Major and Becka Davis in unison: “What’s not to like?”

Major and Davis work with players on learning and improving different strokes, learning the rules and becoming comfortable with the game. 

Major comes from a tennis background and also picked up pickleball a few years ago; Davis became involved through her parents.

“They go down to Florida in the winter, and they came back, and they’re like, ‘You have to try it,’” she said. “My husband and I both started playing and both were addicted. We would go with my parents to the local tennis courts, and the four of us would play. My parents who are 30 years older than me are just as good as we were. It’s a very leveled sport for the most part.”

Something new

Traditionally, playing pickleball during the winter is a challenge, with most facilities outside, shared with tennis courts. Nickologianis wanted a place to play in the winter.

He never imagined running a space this large, but now it provides an opportunity for more people to enjoy the sport he couldn’t be more enthusiastic about.

One challenge he anticipates, though, involves maintaining the strong interest All-Stars Pickleball Club currently has over the spring and especially the summer, when more people tend to enjoy the outdoors. However, the mall has air conditioning, which can be a draw on hot days, and no biting insects, which can turn a pickleball paddle into a black fly swatter in an instant.

He plans to organize more leagues and other events to keep people engaged, especially on days when it’s hot or rainy.

And beyond pickleball, Nickologianis has added ping pong tables, corn hole and king-sized Jenga to further liven the space. He’s also thinking about adding foosball and indoor shuffleboard to grow the club’s offerings.

Perhaps that will draw more people, and it will also allow players to have something to do on the side if they’re waiting to use a court. It could also encourage parents to bring their kids, so the parents can play pickleball while the kids enjoy the other games. 

But in the meantime, All-Stars Pickleball Club has already had success welcoming both experienced players and novices to play in the largely-vacated confines of Steeplegate Mall. 

Tony Terragni’s played for about two years. 

“You gotta find a physical activity that you can do to stay in shape,” he said. “It’s not a difficult game. Cheap paddle, cheap balls. You’re able to play it with your friends.”

Beth Wilkes just started playing last month, with a group of her friends she plays tennis with as well.

“You’re running around, getting exercise. It’s not too hard on the body,” she said. “And it’s something different. Something new.”

Representatives of the mall’s ownership company, Namdar Realty Group, could not be reached for this story.


ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL is a sports reporter for the Monitor. He graduated from Northwestern University in June 2022 with a degree in journalism and spent his last two years as sports director for the campus radio station, WNUR, leading coverage for nine different sports. A New York native, he's a diehard Yankees and Giants fan much to the displeasure of most of the newsroom.

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