By Paul Maryniak | November 19, 2021
It was only a matter of time and Chandler resident Mike Rodrigues is seizing the moment.
Sometime in the first three months of 2022, he plans to open Pickleball Kingdom, a 16-court indoor facility in Chandler that will eliminate the biggest problem facing devotees of the fast-growing sport: Arizona’s weather.
And not just the 100-plus-degree temps that come with it.
“For the serious and advanced player, the elements have to go,” says Rodrigues, who is retrofitting the anchor — a Gold’s Gym — of the strip mall on the northeast corner of Rural and Ray roads where an October 1 gas explosion injured four men.
“I never thought of Arizona as windy until I started playing pickleball,” he explains. “Since it is a whiffle ball, the slightest amount of breeze can carry what would have been a great cut shot and land it 2 inches out of bounds. Playing indoors will take all the extraneous elements out so that the only thing that affects your game — is your game. And that’s what the best players want, to let their game stand on its own.
“Pickleball is the fastest growing sport in America because it’s fun,” he adds. “What’s not fun is waiting for a court, playing in the heat, and having the wind affect your game. We’ve solved all those problems.”
Along with 16 courts and air conditioning, Rodrigues has a number of amenities planned for Pickleball Kingdom: memberships, an app to make reservations, tournaments and leagues, a pro shop, locker rooms and showers, a lounge, snack bar and even beer and wine.
And he’ll be carving out times and places for birthday parties, corporate events and similar activities that are virtually impossible to arrange at a public park.
He’ll even have ball machines, similar to those used in tennis, that will spit out the whiffle balls so players can work on their swing.
Pickleball Kingdom assuredly will be the largest indoor pickleball venue in the state and one of the largest, if not the biggest, in the country.
Rodrigues sees it as the next iteration in a sport that has taken off like wildfire — first among athletically inclined and health-focused senior citizens and now a sport that has caught on with people of all ages.
The National Pickleball Association saw its membership increase by 650% between 2013 and 2019.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which tracks the popularity of sports through the sale of related merchandise, estimated that from 2018 to the end of last year, the number of active pickleball players has grown from 3.1 million to 4.2 million.
That growth included a 21.3% increase last year over 2019 as the pandemic forced Americans to rethink social distancing and the value of socializing outdoors, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association said.
Municipalities can’t keep up with the demand for more free places to play and have spent millions of dollars over the last five years to try and feed the voracious appetite for courts.
But Rodrigues says all those facilities still have the disadvantage of weather.
“In the summer, people only play at night because it’s too hot,” he says. “But even when the weather is better, the sun is a factor since no one wants to be in for too long for fear of contracting skin cancer.”
Then there are the waits for court times at many public parks.
“For the novice player, it will simply be a much better experience,” Rodrigues says. “For them, reserving courts is everything since they don’t play that often, so spending half their time waiting for a court to open up is a deal breaker.”
Rodrigues’ business model differs from the few indoor facilities nationally that combine restaurants and outdoor play areas — with fewer courts.
“Those are looking to be to pickleball what Top Golf is to golf,” he says. “There’s a market and need for that. It will introduce a lot of new people to the sport and they will be able to play in a very recreational environment.
“But they will still have to deal with the sun, heat, cold, and wind. Within that golf analogy Pickleball Kingdom would be, instead of Top Golf, a championship golf course with a driving range. The environment and expectation will be very different.”
He noted that technology “has radically improved paddles, rules are being tweaked to optimize the sport and national regulatory bodies are jockeying for position. I believe the next iteration in pickleball’s evolution is to bring the sport indoors.”
A player for only about two years, Rodrigues says he was hooked on pickleball “in less than five minutes” his first time on the courts.
“What’s so enticing about pickleball is that the initial learning curve is so short,” he says. “In 10 minutes, the average person will be able to play a somewhat decent game. That’s unheard of for most sports.
“For example, I took up golf seriously about two years ago. As a former college quarterback, I foolishly believed that my hand-eye coordination would allow me to breeze through the steep learning curve of that sport. Well, after tons of practice on the range, countless rounds of golf, lessons and a new set of clubs, golf is still kicking my butt. Whether someone has athletic ability or none whatsoever, they will be able to get into their pickleball groove quickly. Then, once a player is competent, there’s a whole new level of play that they can aspire to. You can get good quickly but never master it. … which keeps you coming back to play.”
And his business will cater to that appetite for improvement with his drop-in times, leagues and tournaments.
“Since you can’t play pickleball by yourself, a universal problem is finding people to play with, ideally at or around your same skill level,” he says.
“What we will have at Pickleball Kingdom are daily drop-in play times, where people can sign up on our mobile app and then just show up. They will be placed into games with others who are rated at the same level as they are.”
Then, he believes, the monthly tourneys and weekly leagues will further help the pickleball community “to grow, thrive, and elevate together.”
“Pickleball’s popularity is enormous and growing,” he adds. “People want to play. And once they play indoors, void of all the elements but with the comforts of a club, we believe that they’ll recognize that playing indoors on dedicated, outdoor surfaced courts is the way to go.”
Enthusiasts can follow Pickleball Kingdom’s development on Facebook and by signing up for announcements at PickleballKingdom.com.