Image courtesy of Collier County Parks & Recreation
Over the last two years, pickleball has entered American consciousness and experienced explosive growth in both enthusiasts and places to play. Five years ago, you might not have heard of pickleball, but in 2021 the sport boasted more than 4.8 million players in the U.S. alone. Tennis courts across the nation are being converted to accommodate pickleball players. Iconic athletes LeBron James and Tom Brady are investing in professional pickleball teams, and the sport is sold as a dining experience at Chicken N Pickle locations throughout the midwestern and southwestern United States. Yet, one Florida community has embraced the sport in a way that has captured the attention of locals and has drawn thousands to its venues.
Image courtesy of SFIA
Naples, Florida boosted their claim as “pickleball capital of the world” through events like the Minto US OPEN Pickleball Championships Powered by Margaritaville, the single largest pickleball championship in North America. However, the explosion of local interest in the sport is what’s most striking, and serves as a case study for other communities interested in developing pickleball courts and activities. The Naples Pickleball Center reports that in season (November-March) 300 to 400 people play daily; in the off-season (April-October) 100 to 200-plus people take to the courts.
To meet ever-growing demand, Collier County, where Naples is located, continuously makes investments in the quality and number of its courts. In 2022, Collier County invested more than $4 million into East Naples Community Park (home of Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships), which includes a new welcome center and pro shop, with plans for continuing expansion and investment. “We’re resurfacing about half of the courts right now, and that includes new nets,” says Paul Beirnes, executive director of Naples, Marco Island, and Everglades CVB. “A facility such as this requires constant upkeep. The investment represents from $1 million to $2 million per year on a rotating basis, and the county has already committed to this.”
According to Beirnes, the East Naples Community Park offers 64 pickleball courts, including six championship pickleball courts. Additionally, plenty of pickleball action can be seen at nearby Fleischmann Park and Veterans Community Park. Indoor courts are offered at the Greater Naples YMCA, and there are many pickleball courts in private communities scattered throughout the Naples area. All of this is helping to drive and satisfy the demand for pickleball for both locals and tourists.
Beirnes recalls that years ago, Naples was classified as a “mature” market with a higher concentration of elderly residents. But, over the past few years, pickleball has grown by leaps and bounds, helping to attract a wide range of participants. “Lots of visitors play at the East Naples Community Park – the facility is bustling 365 days a year.”
In terms of out-of-town visitors, Naples’ signature event, the Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships draws visitors from all around the world and is labeled as the biggest and best pickleball party in the world. The 2022 tournament attracted just under 34,000 enthusiasts in total (including approximately 2,500 players from 49 states and 30 countries), with 7,000 to 10,000 daily attendees. With a prize purse at a record-breaking $100,000, the thrills for athletes are matched by the amazing atmosphere for spectators, including the Fan Zone, Player Village, and hospitality tents. The economic impact exceeds $10 million for the local community. The upcoming 2023 event will take place in April and is expected to draw even more attendees. “As a CVB, the Minto US OPEN Pickleball Championships is the key event that we promote throughout the year, and it helps grow our sightlines and exposure,” Beirnes explains.
Overall, a combination of national events and local interest has put Naples on the pickleball map. This combination has both boosted the city’s economy and been another reason why Naples has been ranked number two on the best places to live in Florida 2022-2023 (US News & World Report).
“We want to provide amenities to tourists, but we also want to serve locals. Our residents get the best of both worlds—when tourism season ends, they can take advantage of all the world-class amenities (including pickleball courts). It’s one of the perks of living in a tourist destination.”