In 2023, there is no question that pickleball is exploding at an absurd rate. However, the way in which the sport develops in an area is not always linear or uniform throughout different parts of the country. So much of the growth of pickleball is determined by location, demographics, and proximity to other areas where pickleball is popular. In a community like Hastings, Nebraska, with a population of less than 26,000 and located over 100 miles from the state’s capital, while the pickleball craze has certainly begun, the circumstances require an extra level of attention and thoughtfulness to address and increase the local pickleball demand. Having limited resources intrinsic to a small town compared to large metropolises, the pickleball gatekeepers in Hastings face a daunting but exciting challenge in stoking the local pickleball fire.
Ty LeBar, the Sports Director at the Hastings Family YMCA, is one of these gatekeepers and he is excited to support current pickleball players in Hastings and introduce the sport to community members who have never played before. People in Hastings became serious about pickleball several years ago when the city renovated several tennis courts into pickleball courts. However, the inclement winters in Hastings renders about half of the year unplayable at outdoor courts. This leaves a large void in pickleball play availability in the community.
Although he was initially hesitant to involve the YMCA in pickleball because players wanted a lot of time to play, LeBar soon saw pickleball as a membership opportunity because they could require players to become a member of the YMCA in order to use their pickleball facilities. Players could pay their regular membership fee and know they would be able to play pickleball at certain times. Being that pickleball is an addictive sport, it creates a cyclic demand for more and more play that would keep people coming back, which is a benefit for the YMCA. Additionally, LeBar was able to look at market research from YMCAs with pickleball facilities across the country and determined the timing was right for pickleball at the Hastings Family YMCA.
Further, LeBar emphasized that “pickleball matches the YMCA’s mission really well” as it can be played by anybody. The YMCA desires to be a place where everyone can belong, regardless of background, age, religious status or any other factors and pickleball is a sport that is accessible to everyone. LeBar loves how pickleball can bring together people from all income levels, nationalities, abilities, and ages, noting that pickleball “creates a social aspect that a lot of other sports do not.”
In order to both meet the current demand from the local pickleball community and regularly introduce pickleball to new players, the Hastings Family YMCA decided to go full steam ahead with promoting and organizing their open play times. Although they initially considered hosting some leagues, they realized the same people playing in the leagues would be playing during open play times and wanted to also reach people unfamiliar with the sport.
The YMCA has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community about hosting open play pickleball at their facility. One of LeBar’s main goals with the YMCA’s pickleball program is to support and accommodate pickleball players and ensure pickleball is a priority at the YMCA and the community. He notes that other YMCAs in the state, as well as other local recreation facilities, are not going all in with pickleball like the Hastings Family YMCA. LeBar is adamant that “having conversations… establishing relationships [within the pickleball community], maintaining them, and growing them” is the key to a successful pickleball program in small town like Hastings. The Hastings YMCA has players traveling from towns 30 miles away with more resources to use their pickleball facilities because of the Hastings Family YMCA’s commitment to supporting the growth of pickleball in the area.
When asked if he had any advice for those looking to start open play opportunities in areas where pickleball is just beginning to grow, LeBar wanted to share two helpful pieces of advice. One is that you “need to get out and play yourself” in order to connect with the sport and understand the type of investment required. LeBar has noticed a significant difference in his understanding of the sport and what it takes to facilitate a pickleball program since he began playing. Additionally, he advised those interested in starting open play programs to “start creating relationships with players to understand the demand and learn the landscape of the area you’re in.” Doing both of these things will surely give you key insights that will determine resource allotment when establishing a pickleball program in an area newer to the sport.
During a recent YMCA USA pickleball training attended by LeBar, the common thread throughout the training was “build it and they will come.”. YMCAs throughout the country are seeing their pickleball programs bursting at the seams because the leadership invested the proper time and resources into creating a quality program.
The town of Hastings is excited for the YMCA’s future plans having to do with pickleball. Although it was initially a slow process to get the Hastings Family YMCA adequately equipped for the current level of demand from local pickleball players, they are all in on pickleball now and LeBar is committed to doing anything possible to ensure the growth of the sport in Hastings. He firmly believes if you create organized and structured time for people to play and offer quality facilities, you can expect pickleball to explode in the area. That is where the Hastings Family YMCA is trying to go and is already seeing encouraging signs.