The sport of pickleball continues to grow by leaps and bounds in Rome. According to USA Pickleball, the fastest-growing sport in America traces its origins to Washington state in the mid-1960s. U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard and a friend were looking for a different activity after a round of golf. They happened on a badminton net, but no racquets or shuttlecocks were available. In the spirit of adventure, the men improvised with a couple of ping pong paddles and a wiffle ball. It is rumored that the name for the sport is from Pritchard’s dog, Pickles, who would chase down errant balls and then have to be chased down to retrieve them.
They were originally hoping to create a sport the whole family could enjoy. Today, pickleball has taken over the Downtown Racquets Center, with the conversion of the former tennis courts to pickleball courts. The complex also includes several “championship” courts in the middle of the complex. The paddles have evolved into objects about twice the size of a ping pong paddle and a net set at a standardized height of 34 inches in the center of the court and 36 inches at either end.
Colt Gaston, manager of the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College, who also oversees the 22-court pickleball facility adjacent to Barron Stadium, said the goal for the downtown facility is to become the kind of tournament-style economic driver similar to the large tennis center. “We’re looking to host pro events of all levels,” Gaston said. As of now, eight major tournaments are also on the books for 2024. Additionally, the indoor facility at the Rome Tennis Center will be lined off for pickleball for at least four additional tournaments in the coming year. “Each tournament is estimated to bring between 250 and 400 people to Rome,” Gaston said.
Lisa Smith, the executive director of Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism, said she hopes to obtain between four and six pickleball rolls, portable courts, that can be laid out inside the Forum River Center. “That way, we can bring people downtown for large events and have an even greater economic impact,” Smith said. Matches could be televised without any weather interference.” Yes, pickleball is becoming so popular there is even a Pickleball Channel on the tube.
On the recreational side, Gaston is working to schedule various programs to introduce more people to the sport. Many one-on-one classes are being scheduled to build the number of folks enjoying the sport.
Billy Thornton, the ‘Grandfather of Tennis’ in Rome, admits that he has gotten hooked on pickleball. He was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of the pickleball movement years ago when a man came into the rec center and asked former director Richard Garland if there were any pickleball courts in Rome. Garland responded that a portable net and some paddles had recently been purchased. The visitor, Bob Hood, now known locally as Pickleball Bob asked Garland if he could borrow them. Thornton came out of a recreation board meeting and was introduced to Hood, and the two started a friendship that has helped spur the sport in Rome and Floyd County. Thornton said he has been amazed at how the sport has taken off. “People of all ages can play,” Thornton said. “I think the best thing about pickleball is that people who have never been an athlete can play.”
Over the past Labor Day weekend, at one point, all 22 courts at the Downtown Racquets Center were in use, and there was a waiting line for people to play. That translates to more than 80 people on those courts at one time since most matches played are doubles. “Seldom do I ever see a singles match,” Thornton said.
Alex Torok has been hired as the Director of Pickleball for the downtown facility. Torok came to Rome from Northern Virginia. Isabel Potter, Leanne Mann, and Trevor Hendrix are all instructors and part of the staff that deals specifically with pickleball.
In 2023, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association certified pickleball as the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. for the third straight year.