The push for Pickleball: How the city of Concord has taken notice of the sport’s surging popularity

  • Rita Blanchette serves as her husband Dan looks on during their matcha at the Community Center in Concord on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dan Blanchette hits a ball back during his match at the Community Center in Concord on May 25. Geoff Forester / Monitor staff

  • Pickleball instructor Dan Lamoureux instructs Rita Blanchette during a session at the Community Center in Concord on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The new standalone pickleball courts at Rolfe Park in Penacook. These four courts are Concord's first standalone courts. MATT PARKER / Monitor staff

  • Dave Stevenson hits the ball in a pickleball match at Beaver Meadow on Friday. Stevenson was instrumental in bringing the game to Concord. MATT PARKER / Monitor staff

 Monitor staff
Published: 5/31/2022 5:02:29 PM

Pickleball and its popularity have swept across the country with the latest evidence of four new courts built at Rolfe Park in Concord.

The sport had a whopping 4.8 million Americans on the court with rackets in hand in 2021, making it the fastest-growing sport in the country, according to a study done by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The sport still lags far behind tennis in popularity, which has an estimated 21 million players nationwide.

Sometimes the two sports can compete for court time, which is one of the reasons why the city recently invested in each. 

It took three years with interruptions from other city needs like funds for the pools and unforeseen events such as the pandemic, but in 2021, the City Council approved funding of $90,000 for standalone pickleball courts at Rolfe Park and $135,000 for tennis court restoration at Rollins Park that included pickleball lines added onto the surface.

The projects, which were on the city’s 2022 fiscal year, are completed and the results are better than expected, according to David Gill, Concord’s Parks and Recreation director.

With the projects finished, Gill is anticipating a busy summer.

“I think the challenge is going to be accessing the courts,” said Gill, with a nod toward the game’s growing popularity and how many people are expected to want to use the new facilities.

From Florida to Concord

July 22, 2013.

It’s a date that Dave Stevenson remembers fondly, even if it was almost a decade ago. Stevenson has been one of the city’s pioneers in bringing pickleball to Concord, and it’s that July date where the first serious conversations about the sport occurred.

Stevenson was still just a young man in 2013 at 73 years old. He was enjoying his retirement from Chubb Life Insurance where he worked in computer operations. Enjoying it, but needed something to do physically. Fred LaFontaine had the answer for Stevenson: Pickleball.

LaFontaine would spend winters in Florida and took advantage of the state’s year-round warm temperatures not for golfing or tennis, but for pickleball. When he returned to Concord in the spring of 2013, he met with the city’s parks and recreation department and simply asked for more options and areas to play.

He helped organize some loosely taught lessons at Keach Park for anyone interested. Stevenson was there and remembers how the game immediately struck with him.

“There were probably eight or 10 people who showed up, but everyone was enthusiastic about the game,” he said while he waited for a court to open up at Beaver Meadow on May 27.

Eight or 10 people turned into over 100 in Concord over the last nine years. It became difficult to find an available court.

But the city had an answer, one that will last for generations.

Building the infrastructure

Gill sat in a conference room at the Concord Parks and Recreation office and scooted back in his chair to properly think of how long ago the pickleball movements started.

“Eight or nine years ago,” he said, aligning his memory with Stevenson’s. Gill had seen pickleball well before 2013, however. He served as a program coordinator for the parks and rec department in Vienna, Va., from 1994-98 where its residents were already playing the game.

“It came to New Hampshire late,” he said.

Better late than never. Gill has worked for the city of Concord for 24 years and over half of it has been as the director of parks and recreation. He’s dealt with a fair share of hot-button community wants, like a turf field, but the resolution and adoption of pickleball started off simply.

When the current parks and recreation headquarters was the Dame School, the city lined the cafeteria floor to the dimensions of a pickleball court – 20 feet by 40 feet – and residents had the opportunity to play.

It was on that initial court where the infrastructure of the game itself was built. The game’s scoring system is the same for singles and doubles where only the server can score on the faults of the non-server in one-point increments. In doubles, the server on the left will always be an odd number while the server on the right is an even number. If the serving team faults, the ball switches sides in both singles and doubles, like in volleyball.

The knowledge of the game carried into its next venue when the gym at Green Street was relined for pickleball courts and bumped the total to four in the city.

Eventually, when the school transitioned into the now-community center in the Heights, four outlined pickleball courts were made in the gym and the city had eight courts in total by 2018.

There was a need for more, however, which led the push for more playing spaces.

The future

On a warm Wednesday evening in late May, Dan and Rita Blanchette made their way into the air-conditioned gymnasium at the Concord Heights Community Center.

Dan recently celebrated his 70 birthday and with a never-ending desire to learn something new – he taught himself how to ride a unicycle after he turned 60 – Rita bought each of them a pickleball racket and signed them up for four weeks worth of instructional classes.

The classes were taught by Dan Lamoureux, an employee within the parks and rec department. A Keene native, Lamoureux learned about pickleball when he was in middle school but soon forgot about it. In his stint with the Keene Parks and Recreation department, he found a brand new set while he cleaned out the attic in its building and he began to make the pickleball efforts in Keene, Lincoln-Woodstock, Moultonborough and now Concord.

As the instructor, he taught how the game is scored, line boundaries and even some strategy to students with three months or less experience with the game.

In only four weeks he’s seen students go from unsure to confident. On top of that, he constantly fields inquiries about more classes.

“We keep getting calls about more lessons and more lessons,” he said. “We’ll take a hiatus during the summer but there will be more in the fall.”

The Blanchettes and others in the class are still new to the game. After all, four weeks worth of classes doesn’t turn anyone into a master of the game. But what it’s done for them already has created a sense of community. It’s allowed them to turn a physical activity into a social connection where they meet new friends and rekindle old relationships with others.

And that’s what the game is all about according to one of the city’s more seasoned players in Cathy Leaver.

“These courts,” Leaver said pointing downward at the Beaver Meadow courts “Are some of the most welcoming courts to newbies and new people who want to learn to play.”

“If there’s an empty court and we need two people, it doesn’t matter the skill level.”

When Leaver, who’s earned pickleball medals in New Hampshire’s senior games, heard about the city’s classes, she was excited for the opportunity to welcome more people into the growing community.

Linda Mead, another regular at Beaver Meadow, has only played for three and a half years but she’s taken to the game quickly. Like a game of telephone, she earned of the game from a friend who had heard from a friend that heard from a friend. Eventually, she had to give it a try herself to see what the hype was about.

“I had never played before, but I came down to the courts and watched a couple of times.” she said. “I said this looks like fun and I’ve been playing here since.”

Nine years ago pickleball was in its infancy in Concord. A new game that sort of seemed like tennis, ping-pong and racketball all mixed into one. Barely 10 people were interested.

And nine years later, the game has blossomed into an established template of social and physical activity, all while having its newness remain.

Matt Parker bio photo

Matt Parker is a sports reporter at the Monitor and started in August 2021. He is an Ohio native and relishes being from the Buckeye state. A proud graduate of Ohio University located in Athens, Ohio, he served as the sports editor for the student-run newspaper, The Post, from 2019-20. When not at a game or chasing around a coach, you can catch him playing his guitars or looking for the next Peanuts memorabilia piece to add in his growing collection.

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